LOS ANGELES — I’m sorry, but President George W. Bush just doesn’t get South Korea and he doesn’t understand its president, Roh Moo Hyun, either. And I doubt he ever will.

That was evident from the desultory summit at the White House when Roh visited Washington last week. The aim was to paper over differences in the U.S.-South Korean approach toward North Korea, the obstreperous Communist hermit state that is almost the last place on Earth where Stalin’s ghost still hangs his cruel hat.

The diplomatic paper-job was at best tissue-thin. The personality differences between Bush and Roh both reflect and transcend the gulf between the two countries’ negotiating instincts regarding the North, which are large.

On the personality side, Bush came from a lot of money and an amazing family, went to Harvard to get his business degree after a Yale college degree and never studied very hard. Why should he with a daddy like George Sr., who could pull more strings than a carnival puppeteer? By contrast, Roh came from a humble family and no money. He studied on his own to pass the bar exam and became a top-gun human-rights lawyer.

Bush used his business degree to drift within the corporate corridors of the oil business before plunging into electoral politics. The oil business is mainly about connections and getting exemptions from environmental regulations and hiding excess profits — as legally as possible — from taxation so there can be even more profit to hide.

Roh used his law degree to help get young idealistic prodemocracy activists out of jail, where they were often detained illegally and sometimes even tortured by an authoritarian regime backed by the United States. He read through virtually every law book in the Korean language to help his generation escape the debilitating confines of that authoritarianism and plant the seeds of the rough but burgeoning democracy that is now, proudly, South Korea’s.

The ability to confound the establishment at a relatively early age made Roh into the most instinctively anti-establishment South Korean president the country has yet seen. Those instincts not only get him at trouble at home in Seoul, where establishment politics are vicious and especially dirty, but also abroad, especially in Washington, where the establishment politics are vicious, dirty and, especially, parochial.

The U.S. has some 32,000 or so military personnel camped out on the ground in South Korea. These troops are both remnants, in symbolic effect, of the bloody Korean war a half-century ago, and a security tripwire-guarantee against invasion by the Stalinist North.

But increasingly among South Korea’s younger generation, which harbors but a school-book comprehension of the long-ago cataclysmic Korean War, these U.S. troops are viewed in the same light that many Iraqis view U.S. troops: as unwanted neocolonial visitors that have stayed too long.

Like Iraq, South Korea has been occupied by outside nations many times over. That’s one of the experiences North and South Korea have in common. Another commonality is that the people in both the North and the South are — let us not forget — Korean in their soul. Somehow, some way, this divided country must be brought into some kind of national togetherness.

To this end, Koreans must come to understand that all the other countries around them do not get up in the morning worrying about what is best for Korea. They get up worrying about what is best for their own country and for their own political or military careers.

Roh understands this. He also understands Communists. He is anything but a Communist himself; as a former lawyer working his way up to prominence, he sported a client list that took in pretty much whatever it could get. So he knows how to work with the hard-up and anxious. The wealthy Bush does not, for sure, and, deep down in his Texas heart, does not believe you can negotiate with these North Korean Communists.

And so the personal differences between Bush and Roh are at least as wide as the diplomatic gulf between the two countries regarding the North. For all the diplomatic smoke that was pumped out by the White House press machine in Washington and its Blue House counterpart in Seoul this past weekend, this is the crux of the issue. The truth is: Roh is closer — and not just geographically — to Kim Jong Il as a fellow Korean than to Bush as a putative ally.

And so, in the end, Koreans must not forget that it is outside powers that have so badly hurt Koreans over the centuries; in the final analysis, then, only Koreans, North and South, are in any real position to bring the two Koreas closer together again. The path to peace ironically lies between Roh and Kim.

Roh, who opposes a hardline toward the North, knows this; Kim, who thinks he can work Washington to his advantage, may not. That is the cause of the current stalemate as much as anything else.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a veteran journalist, is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy and founder and director of UCLA’s Media Center.

Copyright 2005 Tom Plate

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