South Korea

US, South Korea quietly get relations back on track

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2008, 12:00am


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Could a major shift be under way in US-South Korean relations? The question arose during a visit to Washington by an intriguing emissary of the incoming South Korean government of President-elect Lee Myung-bak. The visitor was Chung Mong-joon, whose 11 per cent stake in Hyundai Heavy Industries, the world's largest producer of commercial ships, has made him probably South Korea's richest man.

Dr Chung, representing the Hyundai industrial enclave of Ulsan for years in the National Assembly, was in Washington laying the groundwork for the first summit in March between Mr Lee and President George W. Bush. Dr Chung spent 20 minutes at the White House chatting to Mr Bush, during which the US president invited Mr Lee to visit after his inauguration on February 25. Dr Chung asked if Mr Bush could visit Mr Lee in Seoul during the G8 summit in Japan, in July.

As the socially most adept of the five surviving sons of the founder of the Hyundai empire, Chung Ju-yung, Chung Mong-joon may, in an initial meeting, have been too polite to get down to details of the US-South Korean relationship. His visit, however, indicates the desire in both nations to overcome differences that have strained relations in recent years.

The real question remains how tough to get with North Korea, which shows no sign of itemising its nuclear inventory, as promised in six-nation talks, and refuses to acknowledge the existence of a programme to develop warheads with enriched uranium.

The holder of a doctorate in international economics, Dr Chung has appeared somewhat uncertain as to his real diplomatic orientation. An independent in South Korea's fractious National Assembly, he ran briefly for nomination for president in 2002, then threw his support behind Roh Moo-hyun - only to withdraw before Mr Roh's election. Though not a hardliner, Dr Chung showed little interest in Mr Roh's bid to extend aid and concessions to the North in exchange for words on paper.

It is unlikely that either Mr Bush or Dr Chung would have criticised Mr Roh's policies in their meeting, but the subtext must have emerged in Dr Chung's conversation with the US national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, in whose office the carefully staged 'drop-by' encounter was held. If nothing else, they agreed on the need to 'strengthen the alliance'.

Dr Chung may have got into more detail when he called on US Defence Secretary Robert Gates. One especially sensitive issue focuses how South Korea would assume command of all forces on its territory in the event of a second Korean war. Mr Roh's closest advisers made this a priority, decrying the long-standing agreement for the US to take charge as an insult to national sovereignty.

The conservative Mr Lee wants to postpone the transfer of wartime command, just as he wants to put off Mr Roh's plan to reduce the number of South Korean troops. Incredibly, the US, downsizing its own troop levels in South Korea, agreed after much debate to transfer wartime command by 2012. In fact, the US, having accepted the need to go along with the Roh administration, wanted the transfer to happen by 2010. But Korean defence officials said they needed more time.

Dr Chung acknowledged during his visit the difficulties of reversing a plan that took much time to develop. Nonetheless, he also warned against sending 'the wrong message' to North Korea by doing away with a command structure in effect ever since the Korean war.

If a second Korean war were to break out, the US would have to take charge of a vast infusion of air and naval power and bring in much new armour and artillery. South Korea would supply most of the ground forces. At the least, Mr Lee, in his initial meetings with Mr Bush, hopes to restore rapport that's been lost - and will be sorely needed if the six-party process finally breaks down.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals