Magazine

Commentary: There's a Crisis in the South, Too


The North Korean nuclear crisis is hot news in both the U.S. and South Korea. Americans see footage on their newscasts of goose-stepping North Korean troops and satellite photos of the Yongbyon nuclear complex. And they hear pundits wonder aloud how serious the threat is and what Bush & Co. should do about it.

Scary stuff. But it would give Americans a jolt if they could see what's being broadcast in South Korea. Sure, there's tape of protesters burning North Korean flags. Yet there's also footage of anti-U.S. rallies and reports of how South Korea's new President resents Washington's high-handed attitude. Says Park Young Hoon, 33, a computer engineer: "I think our leader must be able to say no when he disagrees with the U.S."

The Administration of President George W. Bush doesn't have just a North Korean crisis on its hands. From the Seoul perspective, it has a South Korean crisis, too. It's not as dire as the one concocted by Dear Leader. But it's an alarming indication of how quickly Washington can lose touch with an essential ally.

Washington's mistake? It forgot that nations grow up. In the past 10 years, South Korea has moved from the brutal politics of dictatorship to a raucous democracy and a new economic model based on the consumer demands of a sophisticated middle class. Along the way, South Korea has blunted the worst abuses of its corporate chaebol, weathered the Asian crisis, and, under President Kim Dae Jung, reached out to North Korea for the first time in a meaningful way. "The difference from the past is that we now have dialogue channels with Pyongyang," says Yoo Jay Kun, a senior legislator in President-elect Roh Moo Hyun's Millennium Democratic Party, who will travel to Washington this month to discuss the nuclear issue.

To South Koreans, these achievements should earn them a full hearing in Washington. Instead, the South feels it can never escape its status as junior partner. In 1994, when the U.S. and North Korea signed a landmark nuclear agreement, South Korea was excluded from negotiations. But Seoul ended up agreeing to shoulder most of the price to build the civilian reactors North Korea got as part of the deal. (That's cost Seoul $700 million so far, and only the foundations have been built.) As the decade advanced, Seoul policymakers warned that Washington's refusal to lift sanctions might prompt Kim Jong Il to try nuclear blackmail. Washington paid little heed.

Irritation has hardened into anger since Bush took office and cut off talks with Pyongyang without much consultation with Seoul. Though relations are now a bit improved, outgoing President Kim still feels his Sunshine Policy toward the North was undermined by Washington conservatives who prefer sticks to carrots. President-elect Roh managed a last-minute win by tapping into anti-U.S. sentiment and pushing for an autonomous foreign policy. The acquittal of U.S. servicemen accused of accidentally killing two Korean girls during military exercises added fuel to the flames.

Now we have the first crisis on the Korean peninsula in which Seoul and Washington don't see eye to eye. Roh's position is clear, says Lim Chae Jung, his chief policy adviser: "The North must give up nuclear development. But I think it will do so once the U.S. promises to lift sanctions and guarantees its regime." That, however, would be a hard pill to swallow for an Administration determined to take a hard line against terror, nuclear or otherwise.

Chances are Seoul and Washington will bury their differences and figure out a way to contain the threat from Kim Jong Il. Roh is already talking tough about Kim, and the U.S. is signaling it will not attack unilaterally. But even if this crisis is defused, a new reality will remain. South Korea has changed. It's time Washington's attitude toward its ally changed, too. By Moon Ihlwan


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