S Korea's blood ties with US show signs of souring

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2007, 12:00am

The 'blood-forged alliance' between Seoul and Washington was once the strongest partnership in Asia. But ties have unravelled in recent years - most notably over North Korea.

The liberal Kim Dae-jung administration took power in 1998, followed by the accession of the neo-conservative Bush government in Washington in 2001. In 2000, Mr Kim was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize after his unprecedented summit with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. The same year, the US accused North Korea of having a secret nuclear arms programme, sparking the present crisis.

Under the youthful, left-leaning, Roh Moo-hyun administration, things worsened. Just before Mr Roh's election in 2002, antagonism toward US troops exploded in mass demonstrations, following the acquittal of two US servicemen who killed two schoolgirls in a road accident. Seoul is exasperated at Washington's hawkish stance toward North Korea - exemplified by its inclusion in President George W. Bush's 'axis of evil'. Washington is frustrated by Seoul's refusal to take tough measures in negotiations with North Korea, such as halting economic co-operation.

North Korea is not the only problem. There are disagreements over the timing of transferring allied troops on the peninsula to Korean command, and of US base relocations. Meanwhile, a bilateral free-trade agreement faces significant obstacles. China has replaced the US as South Korea's top trading partner.

A conservative victory in Korea in December - widely predicted - could change much.

'Relations will be better if the Grand National Party wins because its view towards North Korea is almost the same as Washington's,' said Hahm Sung-deok, a political science professor at Korea University. 'If we have harmony on North Korea, other issues can be solved.'

But even though presidential frontrunner Lee Myung-bak of the GNP said Mr Roh's engagement policy had failed, he declines to say if he would use inter-Korean co-operation projects as bargaining chips.