WASHINGTON — With South Korea’s critical presidential election decided, the Bush administration’s Korea policy is in need of a midcourse correction.
Our five-decade old alliance relationship with South Korea is at a low ebb, with anti-Americanism rising. At the same time, the confrontation with North Korea over its nuclear-weapons program is mounting. All of this is happening as the United States confronts a recalcitrant Iraq.
This dangerously volatile situation, unless properly handled by the United States, threatens to plunge Northeast Asia into a new era of instability, dangerously undermining American influence in a region critical to our national security.
This downturn of affairs on both sides of the demilitarized zone is not wholly of Washington’s making. North Korea’s drive to secretly develop nuclear weapons, coupled with moves to restart frozen nuclear reactor facilities, have been an important cause for heightening U.S.-North Korea tensions.
Those tensions are now threatening to get out of control, with neither Washington nor Pyongyang showing signs of backing down. The Bush administration’s approach (rightly or wrongly) to freeze all dialogue with Pyongyang until it gives up its nuclear ambitions, however, has fallen on deaf ears in Seoul.
Both the South Korean government and public show little concern about Pyongyang’s recent truculence, and instead are focusing on the American military trial that acquitted two U.S. servicemen in the accidental road death of two teenage girls during a military maneuver last summer.
Symbolizing how much this event has tapped a deep, pent-up resentment of perceived American heavy-handedness, nearly 50,000 demonstrated in Seoul this past weekend in the largest show of anti-Americanism in at least two decades.
Something is wrong with this picture — at a time when tensions with North Korea and the threat of conflict are rising, South Koreans are demonstrating against the alliance, and potentially voting with their emotions rather than on a conception of long-term Korean interests. If this is not a signal to U.S. policymakers that something is wrong, then they don’t know what is.
Yet the Bush administration has been oblivious to the changes, distracted by events in Iraq. Even before the current crisis in the Middle East, it paid scant attention to the alliance with South Korea. Despite initial soundings about shoring up bilateral alliances in Asia, Bush officials undertook no major review of their Asia strategy. Moreover, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has not gone to Seoul in two years for normal, annual security consultations.
Given the difficult turn of events on both sides of the demilitarized zone, the U.S. cannot afford to take a “business as usual” approach. Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. The Bush administration should seize the opportunity presented by the election of a new South Korean president to make a fresh start. Among other tasks, this means inviting Roh Moo Hyun to Washington as a springboard for repairing recently eroded relations.
More important, at a time when senior American officials are preoccupied with Iraq and the war on terrorism, it makes sense to appoint a Korea policy czar — a prominent American who has the political stature, experience and authority to address the delicate situation on the Korean Peninsula today.
This individual would forge a common strategy to deal with the North Korean threat and to firm up our alliance with South Korea. This person would also work closely with the new South Korean leadership on a joint strategy for dealing with Pyongyang that combines Washington’s nuclear-arms nonproliferation objectives with Seoul’s interest in inter-Korean reconciliation.
The consequences of a crisis on the Korean Peninsula could be far more severe than America’s problem with Iraq. The new czar would ensure a steady hand at a time that the administration is preoccupied in the Middle East. The U.S. has resorted to such a device before.
In 1998, in the wake of North Korea’s long-range missile test and the disclosure that Pyongyang might have a secret nuclear facility, the Clinton administration responded to critics by putting former Secretary of Defense William Perry in charge of its North Korea policy.
During his months in office, Perry initiated a successful midcourse correction in U.S. policy. And that crisis was much less urgent than the one we are potentially facing today.
History has shown that crises in Korea derive not just from tensions with North Korea but also from U.S. neglect of the Peninsula and ad hoc policy. Focusing on the problem now may not only avert a crisis with North Korea, but with South Korea as well.
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