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Thursday, September 14, 2006


S. Korea-U.S. summit comes at critical moment

By Mike Chinoy
SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun sits down for a summit meeting with President George W. Bush on Thursday at a time when the security alliance between the two countries that has helped maintain stability in Northeast Asia for more than half a century faces unprecedented challenges.

"Aside from the Korean War," says one official in Washington, "this is the single most critical historical moment between the U.S. and South Korea."

The central reason -- the two allies have developed profoundly differing views on how to deal with North Korea.

Mr. [President] Bush has made no secret of his visceral, personal loathing for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and his desire to see Kim's regime disappear. In the wake of North Korea's recent missile tests, with six-nation talks aimed at curbing Pyongyang's nuclear program near collapse, and growing concern the North may test a nuclear device, the Bush administration is moving to ratchet up the pressure.

A U.S. effort to target illicit North Korean activities such as counterfeiting and money-laundering has been expanded into a global drive to sever virtually all the country's international financial connections. Washington is now pushing its Asian partners to support even tougher sanctions against the North.

In stark contrast, President Roh remains deeply committed to a policy of engagement with North Korea, which, like many South Koreans, he regards not as an enemy but as a wayward cousin in need of help. While Washington talks of sanctions, Roh's administration, in the hope of avoiding a North Korean collapse and encouraging a gradual opening, has continued to supply the North with aid and to encourage South Korean investment there.

In recent comments, Roh has dismissed the July missile tests as posing no real military threat. Earlier, officials in Seoul expressed more dismay at Japan's angry response to the tests than to the launches themselves.

These radically different views raise a fundamental question: if Washington and Seoul can't agree on who the enemy is, what's the point of the alliance?

And, in the absence of a shared threat perception, how will the two sides manage a security relationship confronting a host of contentious issues?

One of them is South Korea's unwillingness to provide sufficient space for U.S. military training ranges, with the result that Korea-based American units ranging from air force bomber crews to special forces commandos have been forced to conduct training operations elsewhere in Asia.

Another is a dispute over the cost of cleaning up the land at bases being vacated by the U.S., with the South Koreans blaming the American military presence for extensive environmental damage. The depth of public sentiment on this issue was highlighted by the success of a recent South Korean horror film, "The Host," in which a monster created by U.S. forces dumping contaminants into Seoul's Han River emerges and threatens the capital. (Full story)

Above all, there's controversy over Roh's insistence on changing the long-standing structure of the alliance's Central Forces Command, under which a U.S. general would command both American and South Korean troops in the event of war.

Seeking to stir nationalist sentiment in South Korea, Roh has depicted the regaining of wartime command as a matter of national pride and sovereignty. Some American officials, however, believe the way Roh has pushed the issue fits into a broader pattern of hostility that has made U.S. forces feel unwelcome.

Nonetheless, the Pentagon, preoccupied by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the midst of a global force restructuring orchestrated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, appears willing to go along with Roh's demand. Indeed, in response to Seoul's initial proposal to resume wartime command in 2012, the Pentagon has now proposed making the switch as early as 2009.

That's set off alarm bells among many pro-American South Koreans, who see both the change and the way it is being handled as damaging the alliance at a time of rising tension with North Korea.

"Under this president, in this atmosphere, if it's done, the consequences might be disastrous," warns Hyun Hong-Choo, a former South Korean ambassador to Washington.

In a dramatic gesture, more than a dozen former South Korean defense ministers and senior military officials publicly warned of the dangers of Roh's policy. This past week they were joined by 700 prominent intellectuals. Their concern is shared by some within the U.S. military, who worry a change in command could accelerate the drawdown of American forces on the peninsula -- the number has dropped from 37,000 to 27,500 in the past three years - and undermine the ability of the U.S. to deter North Korea.

With his popularity at a record lows -- one recent poll put it at 14 percent -- observers in Seoul say Roh hopes to use this week's summit to shore up his position by showing he is capable of dealing effectively with the United States, despite the differences. That appears to explain why Seoul initiated the meeting at a time when President Bush is preoccupied with numerous other crises.

According to well-placed sources, however, the last time the two leaders met, on the fringes of the APEC summit in Busan, South Korea, 10 months ago, the encounter went badly. It was characterized by raised voices, red faces and sharply diverging views on North Korea.

There's no sign the bad personal chemistry has improved since then, and recent events have only heightened the gulf between the two sides. Whatever the official spin, the odds are that this summit will do little to fix an alliance in urgent need of repairs.

Mike Chinoy is former Senior Asia Correspondent for CNN and is now the Edgerton Fellow in Korean Security at the Pacific Council on International Policy.

Category: USA, South Korea and North Korea.

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