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U.S.-South Korea Relationship Has Soured

As America focuses on nuclear-armed North Korea, emerging powerhouse China and other Asian nations, its ties with Seoul languish.

January 17, 2006|Tyler Marshall and Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As the Bush administration strengthens ties in Asia as part of a hedging strategy to contain fast-rising China, it has allowed a key relationship in the region to fray: its half-century-old alliance with South Korea.

Strong ties with Seoul have never been more pressing, regional experts say, and the administration plans to launch a diplomatic initiative to breathe new life into a relationship that, much like an unhappy marriage, has soured over the years as the partners drift apart.

"There's no question, if the alliance isn't managed properly, it could easily fall apart," said Peter Beck, the Seoul-based director of the International Crisis Group, a privately financed conflict-prevention organization, who also serves as an advisor to South Korea's Ministry of Unification.

The region includes emerging powerhouse China; unpredictable, nuclear-armed North Korea; and nations with unresolved historical enmities that add to the area's volatility. But as the White House devotes its energies to expanding its alliance with Japan, building new bridges to India and even nurturing a budding relationship with Vietnam, ties with Seoul have languished.

Against this backdrop, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to meet Thursday in Washington with a South Korean delegation for the inaugural session of a dialogue officially called a "strategic consultation." The meeting has no fixed agenda and has been billed as a chance to explore the broader relationship and priorities of both countries.

"The idea basically is to see where we're heading and what we can do to strengthen the alliance," said Mira Sun, spokeswoman for South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

Few expect the talks to produce a quick turnaround.

In the increasingly strained political atmosphere, the Pentagon has already pulled out nearly a quarter of the roughly 37,000 U.S. troops once stationed in South Korea and, by mutual consent, repositioned some of those remaining well south of the frontier with North Korea. Officials in Seoul have expressed their distaste for a decades-old arrangement that puts South Korean troops under the command of a U.S. general during times of war, and Pentagon officials seem more than willing to make changes in the future.

In fact, Pentagon officials say they look forward to the day when Seoul's military can assume a larger role on the Korean peninsula, and insist that the South is "pushing on an open door" when it demands more control over its own security.

"We've been clear that we are ready to move as rapidly as the Koreans want to, but have insisted that if they desire to take the leading position in the alliance, they must put the capabilities in place required to assume that role," Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Richard Lawless said in an interview.

It is unclear to what extent the U.S. actions are determined by the need to stay ahead of increasingly anti-American public opinion in South Korea or whether the moves are driven more by other factors, including a simple desire to create distance from a difficult ally.

"Part of me thinks [the Americans are] doing this to show the South Koreans they need us," said Kurt Campbell, a top Asia specialist at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration who is now at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Another reason, he said, "is that we need forces elsewhere. A third is that they've just had it with the South Koreans."

Problems in the U.S.-South Korea alliance are magnified by administration steps to upgrade ties with another important East Asia ally: Japan. After successful deployments of Japanese military units to the Arabian Sea to support the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and last year for peacekeeping duty in southern Iraq, Pentagon officials talk enthusiastically about expanding the alliance to include regional and other global responsibilities. For years, Japanese troops were limited solely to the defense of Japan.

Farther west, the administration is rapidly expanding ties with India, forgiving New Delhi's past violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and forging an atomic energy agreement amid lofty rhetoric of deeper cooperation between two large democracies.

U.S. defense officials have also achieved an opening with Vietnam, albeit on a far more modest scale, limited to such tasks as offering English-language training for Vietnamese military officers. And President Bush even made a special stop in Mongolia in November, just a month after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld paid a visit to China's northern neighbor.

A Pentagon report last summer warned that China might have long-term ambitions to extend its power across Asia and that Chinese leaders "may be tempted to resort to force or coercion more quickly to press diplomatic advantage, advance security interests or resolve disputes."

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