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SEOUL — In his inaugural speech to the South Korean people in Seoul last week, President Roh Moo Hyun gave us a window on his world. At the top of his policy agenda is greater independence on the Korean Peninsula and deeper integration in the region. Roh sees the way forward to peace on the peninsula through a more balanced and reciprocal relationship with the United States in the post-Cold War era sustained by a regional security dialogue.

At the same time, he hopes to achieve greater economic security by carving out a new role for Seoul as Northeast Asia’s regional economic hub.

These goals, while laudable, may prove difficult, if not insurmountable, under present circumstances. As matters stand now, the peninsula is in deep crisis over the threat North Korea poses with its weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs; Seoul and Washington need to stand firmly together to address it. That is the message U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell brought with him when he attended Roh’s inauguration.

Yet Roh was elected in no small measure because he stands for a more independent and assertive South Korea vis-a-vis the U.S. Only if the two countries are successful in defusing the North Korean threat can the goal of greater South Korean independence be realized.

Already U.S. officials have conveyed a welcome flexibility in signaling a willingness to carry out redeployments and reductions in the American military presence, lowering its visibility and footprint and bringing the alliance into better balance, one of Roh’s key campaign themes. This is a far cry from the standard military fare “We are at war — there is only a truce,” which exaggerates the threat and hardens positions on all sides while encouraging North Korea’s scare tactics, such as its recent declaration that it has the right to withdraw from the 1953 armistice agreement. Putting the U.S. plans into action depends on a satisfactory resolution of the standoff with Pyongyang.

In addition, under the present South Korean-American alliance configuration, a U.S. general has operational control of South Korean armed forces, a situation unchanged since the Korean War but no longer unchallenged. Responsibility for maintaining the armistice still resides with the U.S. — not South Korea — because the armistice agreement that Roh wants to replace with a peace treaty was signed by a U.S. general, Mark Clark, in his capacity as U.N. commander.

Thus, even if operational control of South Korean forces were returned to Seoul, this would not relieve Washington of its security responsibility as a member of the Military Armistice Commission. Only a peace treaty including both North and South Korea could do that, but such a development is unlikely in the short term.

The best that can be hoped for at present is a dual-key approach in which the U.N. commander, a U.S. general who doubles as commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, would relinquish his direct combat responsibilities. South Korean forces, which constitute the bulk of the Combined Forces Command, would then be placed under Seoul’s control with American auxiliary units south of Seoul held in reserve under U.S. command authority.

Since the overwhelming majority of troops that face each other across the demilitarized zone are Korean, this would have the distinct political advantage of making Seoul the primary negotiating partner with the North on peninsula military affairs other than WMDs.

Now that the direction of U.S. policy has been set, Roh should have an easier time making the case for a peace treaty, both with skeptical South Koreans who want the insurance of a protective American shield, as well as with Pyongyang by undercutting its claim that the U.S is in charge when it comes to negotiating on military-related issues.

Roh will not have an easier row to hoe regionally. South Korea is not capable of remaking the region to suit its policy aims or turn its geography into an advantage. True, the Korean Peninsula lies at the center of one of the world’s most dynamic regions but it is also surrounded by much larger neighbors that have a history of exploiting it to their own advantage.

Further, as the smallest, weakest power in a region lacking a security structure, South Korea has very little political leverage over them. In short, it cannot pretend to set the pace or direction of a regional security dialogue before China and Japan and Russia and Japan are further along on the road to mutual understanding, although meaningful progress in inter-Korean relations could spur such movement.

South Korea’s more immediate goal to become a regional economic hub will turn on its ability to overcome deficiencies ranging from quality of life vis-a-vis other candidates such as Shanghai, mediocre foreign-language skills, a rigid labor market, high tax rates and the absence of deep and liquid capital markets along with a vibrant and fully restructured financial sector. Its ability to act as a bridge between countries whose level of economic development varies greatly, as well as to serve as a value-added manufacturing and logistics hub between China and Japan, has yet to be tested.

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