While Japan has focused on the modernization of its alliance with the United States, the Republic of Korea (ROK) has been seeking a new equilibrium in its relationship with Washington, too. The maturing of South Korea’s economy and political system, and the coming to power of a new generation have shifted the center of gravity in that bilateral relationship. Both sides are working to find a new balance; it has been a sometimes messy process but dire predictions of the end of the alliance are not destined to come true.
Both Washington and Seoul realize that the mutual interests that provided a foundation for their alliance a half century ago remain. They both desire security and stability on the Korean Peninsula; they worry about the North Korean threat and South Korea’s room for maneuver as “a shrimp among whales.” And, perhaps most significant, they recognize that the U.S. is an honest broker — and the government best suited to that role among all the contenders. But changes in both countries and in the region require a modernization of their alliance. At their summit last week, U.S. President George W. Bush met South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun and proved that predictions of the death of the alliance were exaggerated. Yet it is also important that the two governments acknowledge the problems that they confront and deal with them honestly: Papering over the cracks in the U.S.-ROK alliance will provide only the briefest of respites.
Mr. Roh was elected president in 2002, seizing upon anti-American sentiment to storm to victory. Fears of a rupture in the alliance with the U.S. have since not abated, even though Mr. Roh has reiterated his commitment to the alliance and backed the U.S. on key foreign-policy issues, even dispatching troops to Iraq.
Yet Mr. Roh has also made plain his readiness to disagree with Washington on key issues, the most important of which is relations with North Korea. To Mr. Roh, and many of his party, the greatest threat from Pyongyang emanates not from strength but from weakness. Their concern is not invasion, but collapse.
This puts the Roh administration at odds with Mr. Bush, who has characterized the regime in North Korea as “evil.” The U.S. has confronted North Korea about its nuclear-weapons program, its human-rights practices and its other alleged illegal activities. The U.S. prefers a diplomatic solution to the problems that the world has with Pyongyang, but it has taken a hard line to compel the North to hew to international standards. Seoul prefers engagement, fearing isolation could prompt the North to lash out or to collapse. Either scenario is grim for South Korea.
There have been fears that this divergence would drive a permanent wedge into the U.S.-ROK alliance. But North Korea’s recent brinkmanship — missile tests in July and the prospect of a nuclear test — have helped bring Seoul and Washington closer together. At their summit last weekend, Mr. Bush and Mr. Roh restated their commitment to the stalled six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program. They spend more time emphasizing their agreements now rather than their differences.
The problem is that the potential differences are profound. In addition to the North Korea question, the two governments have also begun negotiations on a free-trade agreement and the two militaries are working out the transition to South Korean control of military forces in the event of war. The first item is designed to broaden the foundation of the bilateral relationship by strengthening its economic pillar. The second is designed to reflect new capabilities in South Korea and its military’s readiness to assume the primary burden in the event of a conflict. Both are in the long-term interest of the two countries.
Detractors argue that failure to reach a trade deal will create even more bad blood between the two countries. They also worry that the military handoff will lead to the dissolution of the military alliance and the end of the U.S. commitment to defend the South in the event of war.
Japan has a powerful stake in these issues. Free-trade negotiations between Seoul and Washington raise two questions: why aren’t the U.S. and Japan pursuing negotiations and why are Japan-ROK talks stalled? Will Japan be disadvantaged if the U.S.-ROK deal is concluded? Japan must also be concerned about the prospect of a weakening of the U.S.-ROK alliance. If such a step creates instability in the region, then Japan will have to contemplate the implications for its own defense and security policies.
Presidents Bush and Roh are right to focus on the issues that unite their countries. They must convince their publics that the interests that bind them together provide ample reason for a continuing alliance. They must also recognize that the two countries have changed, however, and their relationship must be updated. Both realism and optimism can sustain the U.S.-ROK alliance as it faces a difficult future.
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