Strained relations

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 February, 2003, 12:00am

While we watch the unfolding crisis in Iraq, it is important to continue to keep one eye on the Korean peninsula, for developments there are likely to have a more immediate impact on the mainland and Hong Kong.

Today, Roh Moo-hyun assumes office as South Korea's fourth directly elected president since 1987. The inauguration, following a hard-fought campaign, marks a milestone in the country's march towards a mature democracy. Mr Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, took over the presidency five years ago, just as South Korea fell victim to the Asian financial crisis. To his credit, Mr Kim adroitly led the country through difficult economic reforms and now, South Korea's economy is once again sound.

Mr Roh assumes office at a time when South Korea is facing a crisis of a different, but no less serious, nature. The country is caught in its desire to improve its relationship with a North Korea with nuclear ambitions, a situation that could well jeopardise South Korea's alliance with the United States.

During the election campaign, Mr Roh benefited from rising anti-American sentiments, stemming to a large extent from an accident in which two South Korean teenage girls were killed by an American military vehicle. Mr Roh's rival for the presidency, Lee Hoi-chang, of the Grand National Party, was seen as conservatively pro-American and anti-communist.

Now that Mr Roh is president, his most urgent priority must be to repair the relationship with the US. You would expect him to know that South Korea's survival for the last half century had been due to the American military alliance, and that the alliance remains crucial to his country's continued survival.

And yet Mr Roh, even after the election, offered to 'mediate' in the dispute between the US and North Korea, as though South Korea was a disinterested party. It is vital for Mr Roh to begin to act like an ally of the US, not North Korea.

Just days before his inauguration, Mr Roh made clear his desire for South Korea to play a bigger role in the alliance, bemoaning the fact that, in the event of war, 'the president of the Republic of Korea has no right to an operational command of the Korean military'.

Fortunately, Mr Roh has now made it clear that the 37,000 American troops based in South Korea continue to be welcome. Last week, he unambiguously thanked the US for having shed blood to protect his country during the Korean War and said that all Koreans appreciate and want the American military presence in their country.

But he also acknowledged that he and the US did not see eye to eye. 'We never had a difference of opinion with the United States on an international level, but we have one now on how to counter North Korea.'

While calling the North's attempt to develop nuclear weapons intolerable, Mr Roh insisted that a resolution 'should come from peaceful measures such as dialogue and diplomacy', and added: 'We don't want war or a collapse of the North.'

This, in effect, ties the hands of the US. While it is, no doubt, desirable for the nuclear issue to be resolved peacefully, it may not be wise to eliminate all sticks from one's arsenal and replace them with carrots.

Again, you would expect Mr Roh to know that North Korea had, for decades, attempted to weaken the US-South Korea alliance by driving a wedge between them. Now, it looks like North Korea has largely succeeded. And South Korea does not seem to be the least bit concerned.

It would not be wise for South Korea to put all its eggs in the North Korean basket before the North demonstrates that it has fundamentally changed. And, judging from its recent behaviour, North Korea is still far from being a respectable and responsible member of the international community.

Mr Roh has said that he wants a peace treaty with North Korea. That is certainly a worthwhile goal, but North Korea, up to now, has insisted it wants to sign an agreement only with the US.

It is understandable that Mr Roh wants a 'rebalancing' of the bilateral relationship with America. So far, the US has shown a willingness to accommodate him. In the words of the commander of US forces in South Korea, General Leon LaPorte, the US is willing to develop 'options for modernising, strengthening and transforming the alliance'. Mr Roh must get his priorities right if he is to lead his country in the next five years.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator