Roh criticised for distancing Seoul from US alliance

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 May, 2005, 12:00am

Washington's top negotiator with North Korea, Christopher Hill, has become the latest high-profile figure to take a swing at South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's vision of his country as the 'balancing' power in northeast Asia.

'There is logic to saying that we're in a neighbourhood that in the past - in the past, maybe not now - has certainly qualified as a high-crime neighbourhood. You know, a lot of invasions, a lot of battles, even, at times through the centuries, wars of annihilation,' Mr Hill, a former ambassador to Seoul, was quoted as telling The New York Times.

'If I were a South Korean looking into the future, I would be saying to myself, 'I want a special relationship with a distant power'.'

Domestic critics of Mr Roh's foreign-policy vision are worried it will erode South Korea's long-standing alliance with the United States.

'Breaking away from the Korean-US alliance and diplomatically isolating ourselves will be no help to our national interests,' opposition leader Park Geun-hye has said.

Over the past half century, South Korea has allied itself with the United States as part of a regional bloc set against mainland China, Russia and North Korea. Mr Roh's new policy envisages South Korea straddling this traditional security fault-line.

However, analysts say South Korea still needs US military co-operation, particularly as it still must confront a possibly nuclear-armed North Korea.

'President Roh's idea of South Korea as a balancer may be a viable option for a unified Korea, but at the moment South Korea still relies heavily on US military high-technology,' said Kim Seung-Young, of Scotland's Aberdeen University.

Mr Roh's supporters point out that South Korea's traditional alliance could drag the country into conflict beyond its immediate interests - for example, in the event of a standoff between mainland China and the US over Taiwan.

Some analysts believe Mr Roh is trying to move closer to China and minimise South Korea's dependence on the US. Others have suggested he is seeking to give the country an independent voice in regional affairs, especially as South Koreans become increasingly wary about the possibility of Chinese or Japanese regional hegemony.

Mr Roh's comments partly reflect the fact that China will be key to South Korea's future, economically and strategically. Two years ago China replaced the US as South Korea's largest trading partner.

Other critics have dismissed the viability of Mr Roh's vision, given the relative weakness of South Korea compared to its two giant neighbours, Japan and China.