HONOLULU — Now that the South Korean presidential elections are over, it’s time for outgoing President Kim Dae Jung to take the necessary steps to ensure a proper legacy. No, I am not talking about his “sunshine policy” of engagement with North Korea. His bold, if only partially successful, efforts at redefining South-North relations, which deservedly earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, have solidified his legacy as a peacemaker, regardless of periodic North Korean attempts to undermine the process.
But, as things stand right now, Kim can also say, with considerably less pride, that he has overseen the greatest decline in South Korean-U.S. relations since the two allies stood side by side in their fight to preserve the republic a half-century ago. This is not to say that the alliance is seriously at risk today, or that the decline is primarily Kim’s fault. But clearly the alliance is troubled and the growing downward momentum is troubling. This is not a legacy Kim should want to leave behind.
Allowing anti-American sentiment to fester was a convenient and successful tactic during the presidential elections; it served the interests and ambitions of the ruling party’s candidate, President-elect Roh Moo Hyun. Yet, as Kim himself so eloquently argued in the past, the South Korea-U.S. alliance remains vital to Seoul’s security and to regional stability in general. Its current deterioration must be reversed.
Kim can start by spelling out once again to the South Korean people why the alliance is so important. He can also help defuse the lingering animosity caused by the tragic U.S. military training accident — in which two young girls were killed — by advising the public that the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, is fair and appropriately applied, that similar SOFAs are being negotiated to protect South Korean forces operating overseas (East Timor, Afghanistan) and that, had the driver of the vehicle during the military training exercise been South Korean, he, too, would have been tried in a South Korean military court and not turned over to civilian authorities. American apologies from President George W. Bush on down to the vehicle driver should be acknowledged and accepted.
Roh also needs to make the quick transition from domestic politician to international leader and spell out his support for the alliance. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program threatens South Korea much more so than the United States. This may add to Seoul’s incentive for a peaceful solution, but it should not cause South Koreans to bury their heads in the sand and talk about U.S.-North Korean tensions as if South Korea was an innocent bystander or disinterested third party. Roh should forcefully repeat the demand, initially proclaimed by all the presidential candidates, that North Korea end its nuclear weapons program and come into full compliance with all its international obligations, including the 1992 Joint North-South Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Calling for dialogue is fine, but entering into new negotiations with North Korea while it remains in breach of all its earlier negotiated agreements sends Pyongyang the wrong signal. It is time for Roh to carefully assess what kind of signals he has been sending and wants to send to the North. If the North continues to believe it can get without giving, the new leader will end up as frustrated as the one he is about to replace, especially when negotiating with an opposition Parliament that is considerably less inclined to assist the North without some reciprocation.
This election should also be a wake-up call for Washington. For the second time in recent months, a ruling party candidate riding an anti-American bandwagon has won a democratic election in a nation formally aligned with the U.S. The Korean and German experiences send a clear signal, clearly articulated in recent global opinion polls, that the Bush administration’s premature fixation with Iraq and its overall hardline image when it comes to dealing with friends and potential adversaries alike, are not serving America’s broader national security interests. Those most closely associated with this approach — U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld most readily come to mind, along with selected members of the U.S. Congress — might want to reflect on its consequences.
I happen to believe that the current diplomatic approach followed by Washington vis-a-vis Pyongyang, including its insistence that North Korea immediately announce a halt to its illegal nuclear weapons programs as a prerequisite to serious negotiations, is the right one. It has been endorsed by key leaders world-wide, including Kim and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at their trilateral summit meeting in Mexico. One can only hope that Roh will soon join this chorus, not only for the sake of the alliance but also because it serves his country’s national security interests.
But Washington must also do a better job in explaining its objectives and in reaching out to Roh and those who are not convinced that South Korea’s future is inextricably linked to continued close security cooperation with Washington. An early visit to Seoul by a high-level U.S. emissary seems appropriate, followed by an invitation to the new president for a state visit shortly after his inauguration. In democracies, public opinion matters. If the people in either country fail to see its value or continued relevance, the alliance will not survive in the long run.
In the near term, the alliance will survive, because it is as much in Seoul’s interest as it is in Washington’s that it does so. For it to once again thrive, serious remedial actions are required, both in Washington and in Seoul.
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