From the April 2004 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 51, No. 4)


South Korea: No More “Kowtowing” to Uncle Sam

David Scofield, World Press Review correspondent, Seoul, South Korea

Feb. 25, 2004, marked the second time the United States, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia have met with North Korean representatives in Beijing in the hopes of negotiating an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. As with the August 2003 round of talks, South Korea tried on its self-appointed new role as “mediator” between Washington and Pyongyang.

For the past 50 years, South Korea’s foreign policy had been in virtual lock step with the United States, through South Korea’s military dictatorships and first steps toward democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But President Roh Moo-hyun seems determined to keep the promises he made to his fervently nationalistic supporters during the 2002 election. The days of South Korea “kowtowing” to the United States are over, he has said.

But the growing chasm between the two nations didn’t begin with Roh’s inauguration. Strains began to show as the two took divergent paths in their approach to North Korea. The historic summit between then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in June 2000 was an example of South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy,” which stressed reconciliation between the two Koreas and independence from the United States.

Two years later, Roh won the presidency by exploiting a wave of nationalism triggered by the acquittal of two American soldiers charged in the deaths of two girls killed during a training exercise. “Wrongs will be righted,” Roh declared, referring to the grievances associated with the Status of Forces Agreement, the bilateral treaty that governs the 37,000 American troops stationed in South Korea.

The North too has criticized the treaty. According to a Yonhap News Agency report, the North Korean newspaper Rodong Shinmun suggested that the agreement be “scrapped” because “it offers the privilege of extraterritoriality to U.S. troops, while limiting South Korean jurisdiction” (Feb. 9).

But few changes to the agreement have actually occurred because, some say, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) responsible for maintaining the treaty is too pro-United States. “A certain few individuals at the Foreign Ministry have been unable to grow beyond the dependent foreign policy of the past,” a senior official from Cheong Wa Dae [the presidential Blue House] told Hankyoreh Shinmun. “They have been unable to adequately carry out the spirit and directions of the independent foreign policies of the participatory government” (Jan. 16).

Soon after, the head of MOFAT was fired and the president’s national security adviser replaced. The national press asserted that these steps would  further strengthen the National Security Commission (NSC). According to The Korea Times, the NSC’s deputy chief has been at the “forefront” of a drive to “downplay the traditional alliance with the United States” (Jan. 30).

As South Korea moves from being an ally to an arbiter, the United States has begun taking steps to radically alter its profile on the peninsula. It plans to close a large base in Seoul and pull back its troops from the Demilitarized Zone with North Korea for the first time since the end of the Korean War. U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Thomas Hubbard has said the relocation plans will “help alleviate anti-Americanism” by eliminating the  most salient elements of the American presence.

Yet neither conservatives nor progressives welcome the relocation. Conservatives fear that the removal of the “tripwire” (namely, the U.S. troops) will leave the capital vulnerable to a North Korean attack.

Progressives complain that the relocation could lead to the development of bases south of Seoul, something they have vowed to fight. Progressives are also irate about South Korea having to pick up the US$3 billion tab for the move even though the land being vacated is worth $3-4 billion.

Unfortunately, it’s the huge cost of the move and of its effects on the economy that is holding the South Korea-U.S. alliance together. As the United States tries to demonstrate regional unity and resolve in the latest round of six-nation talks in Beijing, there is some question as to which side of the table South Korea will occupy.

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