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Seoul chooses sides

November 19, 2005|Don Oberdorfer | DON OBERDORFER is a journalist-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and the author of "The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History" (Basic Books, 2001).

TRAVELING THIS WEEK in Asia, President Bush lavished praise on South Korea for its successful democracy and for being a key U.S. ally for the last half-century. Ironically, the democratic trend that Bush rightly celebrated has endangered the U.S.-South Korean alliance as never before.

The inescapable fact is that the United States and South Korea have been drifting apart since 1998, as the South Korean government and body politic began moving to the left and the United States and its body politic have moved to the right.

The implications of this attitudinal change are enormous. There is no longer full agreement on the North Korean military threat, which is the binding force of the alliance and the fundamental reason for the continued stationing of U.S. forces in South Korea.

In 1998, after struggling for decades under a series of fiercely anti-communist military leaders and then a civilian president, Kim Young Sam, whose mother had been killed by a North Korean agent, South Korea's democratically empowered public brought to office a different kind of figure. President Kim Dae Jung, an opposition politician, had spent much of his life in prison, under house arrest or in exile for advocating a political opening to North Korea.

Two years later, he traveled to Pyongyang to shake hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, an act that won him the Nobel Peace Prize and brought about a dramatic reversal of popular and official views at home. Suddenly, North Korea was no longer seen as a threat by many people, especially the young, but as a failed state whose weakness rather than whose strength was a source of concern.

In Washington, however, Seoul's pro-engagement policies and those of the Clinton administration were repudiated by President Bush, who famously named North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and Iran. Bush developed a visceral personal reaction to the North Korean leader, declaring, "I loathe Kim Jong Il." Even so, alarmed by Pyongyang's intensified drive in 2003 to produce nuclear weapons, Bush authorized U.S. participation in regional talks aimed at peacefully persuading the North to reverse course.

Despite Bush's efforts to put the best face possible on the relationship, the difficulties have deepened under the leadership of President Roh Moo-hyun, a former human rights lawyer who came to office two years ago. Elected by a progressive majority of voters in their 30s, and empowered by computers and the Internet in the hands of even younger voters, Roh has presided over a generational and social revolution.

Many in Washington have little understanding and even less sympathy for the demographic and policy changes in Seoul. Some are deeply concerned that South Korea is cutting loose from the moorings that have connected our two countries since the Korean War.

This came home forcefully to me last summer in a meeting of U.S.-based Korea watchers, including several with military backgrounds. It had been called to discuss U.S. policy toward North Korea, not South Korea, but the discussion highlighted concerns about the position of Seoul. Some of those who spoke suggested that the alliance was already a thing of the past.

On Thursday in Seoul, Bush and Roh agreed to launch a "strategic dialogue" at the ministerial level early next year to consult on issues between them. In my view, it will take more than formal diplomatic meetings to narrow the widening gaps over ways to deal with North Korea that are coming to the surface in the six-party nuclear talks.

Just a day earlier, Roh and Chinese President Hu Jintao released a statement calling on all parties to "show sincere flexibility" -- a statement that was seen as aimed at the White House.

Washington must be more willing to take South Korea's new circumstances into account and to engage in serious consultations before making decisions regarding North Korea. The government in Seoul must take Washington's views into consideration before moving ahead with little notice to extend new olive branches and new deals to North Korea.

Americans can be justly proud of their past relationship to a South Korea that has risen in half a century from a war-ravaged land to one that leads the world in stem cell research and high-speed Internet access. It also is "one of Asia's most successful democracies," as Bush declared this week.

The challenge now is to learn to live with it.

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