Sunday, June 12, 2005

Uneasy alliance

An AP picture from the Washington Post:

Korean protestors as Bush and Roh

South Korean protesters perform as they wear masks of U.S. President George W. Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun during an anti-US rally in front of U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Friday, June 10, 2005. (Lee Jin-man - AP)

You can see how difficult it is to be president of South Korea in this Taipei Times story:

President George W. Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun pressed North Korea to rejoin deadlocked talks on its nuclear weapons program and tried to minimize their own differences over how hard to push the reclusive communist regime.

"South Korea and the United States share the same goal, and that is a Korean peninsula without a nuclear weapon," Bush said with Roh at his side in the Oval Office.

Roh, whose government has resisted the tougher approach advocated by the Bush administration toward ending the impasse, said he agreed that six-nation talks remain the best way to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

While Bush emphasized that the two allies "are of one voice" on the issue, Roh, who is presiding over a South Korea newly assertive about its role in the region, raised the issue of remaining differences.

"There are, admittedly, many people who worry about potential discord or cacophony between the two powers of the alliance," he said through a translator.

Roh opposes military action if diplomacy with North Korea fails. South Korea also is cool to the idea of taking the North Korean standoff to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions. South Korea instead is pursuing a policy of engagement with the communist North and supports a security guarantee or economic incentives to entice North Korea to return to six-nation talks it has boycotted for nearly a year.

Bush, however, wants South Korea -- as well as China -- to take a more aggressive stance. The president said Friday he had no new inducements for North Korea beyond those offered last June, when the North was told it could get economic and diplomatic benefits once it had verifiably disarmed. Anything else, in the US view, would amount to a reward for nuclear blackmail.

While insisting the US has no intention of launching a military strike, Bush also has steadfastly refused to take that option off the table. And the administration is increasingly hinting it is closer to pursuing UN sanctions.


With a unified stand the goal of the Bush-Roh meeting, diplomatic language ruled the day.

Bush said five times that Seoul and Washington either "share the same goal" or are speaking with "one voice." Roh said that the "one or two minor issues" between the longtime allies could be worked out "very smoothly."

The South Korean indicated he and Bush were on the same page on "the basic principles."

Bush administration officials have recently aimed harsh rhetoric at Pyongyang, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saying North Korea is "a living hell" for all but its elite and Vice President Dick Cheney calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Il "one of the world's most irresponsible leaders."

Washington believes the North should be feared, not trusted, as a potential supplier of dangerous weapons worldwide.

There are skirmishes over the 50-year-old US military presence in South Korea, due to fall by a quarter to about 24,500 troops.

The two countries also just signed an agreement for Seoul to shoulder less of the cost of US military personnel on its soil.

In April, South Korea vetoed plans to grant American command of forces on the Korean Peninsula if the North's government falls.

None of those issues came up publicly.

"How do you feel, Mr. President? Wouldn't you agree that the alliance is strong?" Roh said at the end of his opening statement, apparently startling his host.

"I would say the alliance is very strong, Mr. President," Bush quickly replied.

South Korea's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon noted that Bush had reiterated that the US has no intention of invading Pyongyang. He urged North Korea to respond by giving up its nuclear weapons, which he said would be "a wise decision."

Right wing critics of Roh's policy towards North Korea accuse him of appeasement, but the real appeasement here is aimed at the US. South Korea can defend itself against the North since it has much better technology to counter North Korea's huge army (although there is no defence against nuclear weapons, of course), and would probably reunite with the North through gradual detente if tensions were lower, but like all other countries it can't afford to upset the US too much. So Roh would probably like to get US troops out of Korea -- and that would be very popular, according to opinion polls -- but he is making the strategic decision that what you call a 500 kg gorilla is 'Sir'.

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