When South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun meets with President Bush at the White House, North Korea's nuclear weapons program is expected to dominate their talks.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the truce marking the end of the Korean War. It is also the 50th anniversary of the mutual security treaty between the United States and South Korea.
Yet the Bush-Roh summit comes at a time of serious strain in U.S.-South Korean relations, according to Columbia University Professor Samuel Kim. He says the tension arises not only from differences over the North Korean issue, but also from the presence of U.S. forces in the South.
There has been a growing climate of anti-Americanism, evident in the media and in periodic angry street protests, with calls for a withdrawal of U.S. troops.
But the new South Korean president wants the troops to stay and Professor Kim says Mr. Roh will try to convince Mr. Bush the U.S. military presence should be maintained in the South to deter North Korean aggression.
"I think he is going to make a very strong case the United States should not pay undue attention to anti-American demonstrations - and some people are also asking for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea - and try to do his best to maintain the present level of troops in South Korea as a deterrent," he said.
International security specialist Bill Taylor says most U.S. officials would not advise withdrawing all 37,000 thousand American troops from South Korea. He notes that some public sentiment against the U.S. troop presence in that country has to do with disagreements over the way the United States has handled crimes committed by U.S. troops.
"The status of forces agreement provides a legal framework for handling crimes, misdemeanors, military accidents, etc., caused by U.S. troops, how they're tried, when they're tried, in whose courts are they tried, the appeals process, etc.," Colonel Taylor said. "There are some disagreements over the current status of the status of forces agreement."
Colonel Taylor, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says while anti-Americanism is growing, some reports about it are exaggerated. Most South Koreans still have positive feelings toward the United States, dating from the alliance during the Korean War and also because of the two countries' strong economic ties.
Colonel Taylor says at their summit, the two presidents will likely set a general direction for the future of the U.S.-South Korean alliance. He adds that may include the restructuring and perhaps reduction of the U.S. military presence in the South.
"I think from the military perspective - the U.S. military perspective, and probably a number of senior South Korean military - there is a growing realization over the last couple or three years, that you don't need 37,000 troops in South Korea," he said. "If there were a war on the Korean peninsula, it's not going to be a ground war like Iraq. South Korea's territory is vastly different - mountains and valleys. ... It's going to be mainly airpower, supported by special operations forces that can be supported from aircraft carriers, using all our high technology assets, precision strike weapons and so on."
A few weeks ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced the United States is reviewing the number and structure of American forces in South Korea. One possible change involves moving some troops further south on the peninsula, away from the demilitarized zone that separates the South and the North.
Professor Samuel Kim says the announcement about a possible force restructuring came just after several conservative American newspaper columnists wrote articles urging the United States to conduct a precision strike against North Korea's nuclear facilities. Professor Kim says the timing was unfortunate.
"It may be purely coincidence of timing," said Mr. Kim. "But the U.S. Pentagon's talk about troop withdrawal came in the wake of these commentators all making the same argument, basically a military argument, for a surgical strike. And in the wake of those comments, the Pentagon came out with the troop withdrawal reduction [statement]. A lot of people in South Korea interpret the troop withdrawal as a way of preparing for war on the Korean peninsula. That may be a wrong interpretation, but nonetheless, it really scared a lot of people in South Korea."
Professor Kim says many South Koreans see the U.S. force restructuring as a way to minimize possible U.S. casualties while not considering the cost to South Koreans.
Colonel Taylor says the outcome of a war on the Korean peninsula is certain: the United States and South Korean combined forces would, in his words, obliterate the North Korean forces in a month or less. But he says such a war would be extremely costly, with hundreds of thousands of casualties among Americans, South Koreans and Japanese. The military option has not been ruled out by Washington, but Colonel Taylor says it is not a good option.
Both leaders are expected to reaffirm their desire to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue peacefully.