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SEOUL — Riding atop a tsunami wave of popular protest against perceived inequities in the Status of Forces Agreement governing U.S forces in South Korea and a general restiveness over the American military presence, South Korea’s president-elect, Roh Moo Hyun, promises to bring a new focus to South Korean-American relations, even as he strives to preserve intact his predecessor’s “sunshine policy” of engagement with North Korea — priorities that for Washington are contingent on the North’s abandoning its nuclear weapons program.

No longer, however, are the two policy tracks separate and distinct. They are interrelated and mutually dependent in the eyes of a majority of South Koreans. Thus the United States can no longer make policy choices vis-a-vis North Korea oblivious to their impact on South Korea. Nor can it automatically count on South Korean support if its policies conflict with Seoul’s own preferences — in this case engagement.

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung succeeded brilliantly with his diplomacy vis-a-vis North Korea but failed miserably in gaining Washington’s support for engagement because it had other priorities. Roh does not want to let this happen on his watch. And Washington would be wise to give the new South Korean leader time to find his political bearings.

Still, Roh has a steep learning curve ahead of him, especially if he wants to follow through on his pledge to achieve a better balance in the U.S.-South Korean alliance. It would probably come as a surprise to him — as with most South Koreans of his generation — to learn that the treaty on which the alliance is based — and the object of so much public protest in recent weeks — had its origins in Seoul’s insistence on a direct security guarantee in the face of Washington’s reluctance to abandon a U.N. collective-security framework symbolized by the U.N. Command.

However, this treaty, under which South Korea grants and the U.S. accepts the right to station forces in and around the Peninsula, has been the linchpin and legal basis for the South Korean-U.S. alliance ever since. Under it, the two countries have pooled their resources in a Combined Forces Command with a South Korean general officer serving as commander in peacetime. In effect, the balance that Roh seeks already exists militarily and a second Korean War would be fought by a combined, integrated U.S.-South Korean military command, not a U.N. Command-type arrangement.

But what about the political level, where engagement with the North and the elimination of its weapons of mass destruction have preoccupied diplomats from the two countries as well as Japan since the Agreed Framework was signed in 1994? The current policy “disconnect ” reflects a clash of perspectives between Washington and Seoul on whether and how to engage the North.

Although incidents between the North and South continue to occur, such as last summer’s West Sea naval skirmish, they do not foreshadow an imminent armed attack by the North. That gives South Koreans greater confidence in their security and makes them more tolerant of North Korean truculence. And unlike the tightly integrated, battle-ready military structure, there is only a loosely organized Trilateral Coordination and Consultative Group comprising the U.S., South Korea and Japan to bridge differences and cobble together a lowest common denominator policy.

In truth, this is the weakest link not just because it is the newest but because melding together divergent national interests and prioritizing policy objectives is far more difficult than forging a military alliance to meet an external threat.

Even this, however, does not fully explain why the gap between Seoul and Washington has become so wide. What is really at play is a North Korean-driven role reversal that began in the 1990s with two parallel negotiating tracks — a North-South track based on the 1991 Basic Agreement of Nonaggression, Reconciliation, Exchange and Cooperation, and a U.S.-North Korean normalization track based on the 1994 Agreed Framework.

In brief, it is fair to say that both have been implemented minimally rather than optimally. Indeed, the latter is now in tatters over the North’s new uranium-enrichment program, recent unsealing of the Yongbyon reactor safeguards and the U.S. suspension of fuel-oil deliveries. The former, exemplified by family exchanges and economic cooperation, has been carried out only in fitful starts at a lower priority with political and security reconciliation on hold.

Prior to the 2000 Pyongyang summit, the two Koreas had done little more than let the ink dry on their painstakingly negotiated “road map” for reconciliation. Indeed, one of the main political purposes of the Agreed Framework was to breathe life into the Basic Agreement by making North-South dialogue a pre-condition for improved U.S.-North Korean relations.

With North-South ministerial meetings now routinized, it is easy to overlook the lengthy hiatus in North-South contacts, which lasted for seven years — until the two Koreas were brought together by the U.S. and China at Four Party talks in Geneva in 1998. At first they didn’t even look at each other, but eventually they got the message and eventually held the historic June 2000 Pyongyang summit.

During the Clinton administration, both North-South dialogue and U.S.-North Korean normalization proceeded in tandem, albeit on separate tracks culminating with the Jo-Albright joint communique in October 2000 (hailing the end of enmity) and a Clinton-Jo White House tete-a-tete to seal the deal. But the failure to clinch a deal on North Korean missiles and the Bush administration’s hardline approach slammed the door shut on normalization. Hostility re-emerged, undercutting the South’s policy of engagement and plunging the Peninsula into renewed crisis over weapons of mass destruction.

However, by then, the two tracks had become a single interactive triangle with each leg impacting directly on the others. Thus, South Koreans increasingly saw their own efforts at engagement held hostage to Washington’s hard line. Ironically, this was Washington’s complaint during the rule of South Korean President Kim Young Sam. And it welcomed Kim Dae Jung’s election as an antidote just as a new conservative U.S. administration was prepared to welcome Lee Hoi Chang into the fold.

Now the deck has been reshuffled, and it is Seoul’s turn to deal following a popular outpouring against a botched political response to a tragic road accident involving the U.S. military, which has put Washington on the defensive. But whereas Seoul had nothing to protect in 1994, it now has two years of a carefully nurtured reconciliation with tangible achievements to show for its efforts, such as the imminent relinking of the severed North-South railroad plus agreements on economic cooperation, including a free trade zone near the border at Kaesong and a permanent tourist and family center at Mount Kumgang.

Under such circumstances, a policy of greater South Korean assertiveness vis-a-vis Washington is both politically necessary and appropriate.

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