U.S. and South Korea Assess Relations

The relationship between the United States and South Korea was forged during the Korean War in the early 1950s, and for decades after that centered on a common strategy of containing communist North Korea. But many experts say the unity between Washington and Seoul has been under pressure because of divergent positions on several key issues.

In 1945, at the end of World War Two, Korea was split into the Russian-backed Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north with Pyongyang as its capital, and the U.S. - supported Republic of Korea, or R.O.K., in the south with Seoul as its capital.

In 1950, North Korean forces invaded the South and three years of war ensued. As part of a United Nations force, the U.S. fought on the side of South Korea. And today, American troops remain to help ensure that country's security.

North Korean Threat

For decades after the Korean War, Washington and Seoul were united in the face of Pyongyang's threats. But in recent years, as analyst Derek Mitchell with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington explains, the issue of North Korea has become a wedge between the two nations.

"South Korea views it [i.e., North Korea] as a failed state, but not a dangerous place. And they want to reach out and reconcile with the north. So it's really to them a peninsular issue," says Mitchell. "To the United States, it's a global issue of the danger of their missiles and of nuclear [weapons] development. We [South Korea and the United States] are both committed to dialogue [with North Korea], but if dialogue fails, the question is: 'What comes next?' And we have fundamentally different ways of addressing it."

U.S. President George Bush has called North Korea a member of an "axis of evil" along with Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and favors strong international sanctions against Pyongyang. Mr. Bush says such actions may deter North Korea's ambitions to build an atomic arsenal.

But as Bruce Bennett at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California points out, the 1997 election of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung put Seoul on a different course that current president, Roh Moo-hyun, maintains.

"President Kim Dae Jung started the notion of the 'Sunshine Policy' rapprochement with the North because he believed that if you approach the North confrontationally, you would only wind up with the chance of a conflict. And so, his attitude was, 'Let's try to rebuild the North's economy, meanwhile avoiding conflict and eventually resolving this sort of thing [i.e., North-South issues] in the long-term,'" says Bennett.

Kent Calder with The Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington says South Korea's desire for constructive engagement with the North goes far beyond wanting to avoid conflict. He says rapprochement is rooted in the Korean psyche.

"Blood is thicker than politics. They have families on the northern side of the [38th] parallel [the border between North and South Korea] that have not had any contact with one another. They speak the same language. So they're one people. And that sense of nationalism and national identity has been fueling the 'Sunshine Policy,'" says Calder.

The economic disparity between the two Koreas is huge. While South Korea's per-capita Gross Domestic Product was estimated by the U.S. government last year at more than $20,000. The same measurement for North Korea was less than two thousand dollars. Adding to the woes of people in the North are food shortages and a scarcity of fuel that holds back industrial production.

U.S. Troop Reduction

As South Korea has changed its relationship with the North, the United States has changed a key part of its relationship with South Korea. The Bush administration has announced that several thousand of the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea will be withdrawn, and that some of the remaining forces will be moved away from the border with the North.

Scott Morrissey, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, says social forces in South Korea are also a factor in the force reduction.

"Ever since the sharp divergence [between Washington and Seoul] of policies toward the North, there have been anti-American rallies in many, many parts of South Korea. So as the South Koreans are saying that the United States is not wanted, many in the United States feel more than willing to accommodate that, if that's the sentiment. And that drives some of the base relocations," says Morrissey.

Another recent change in U.S. - South Korean relations involved something called "wartime operational control." Since the Korean War, the two countries have had an American overall commander with a South Korean second-in-command who would lead a combined force into battle should a North-South war break out.

But as the RAND Corporation's Bruce Bennett explains, Seoul wanted a different arrangement. "For largely political reasons, the South Korean government has chosen to be very nationalistic and say, 'We want R.O.K. [Republic of Korea] forces under R.O.K. control.' And the U.S. had opposed that because we didn't perceive a way to make that work very well in a combined [forces] manner," says Bennett.

While a number of South Koreans have supported the "sunshine" policy, there is also some opposition. Concern has increased over North Korea's declaration that it has nuclear weapons, and its recent test of a missile believed to be capable of hitting targets thousands of kilometers away. Pyongyang's ambitions have even caused South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun to reconsider the pace of rapproachment with the North.

Despite some differences in policy between Washington and Seoul, they stand on common ground in the desire for the Korean Peninsula to be stable and peaceful. President Roh is expected to visit Washington later this month for his sixth meeting with President Bush. The two leaders will likely discuss how they can find greater agreement on dealing with North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, as well as economic and other issues important to regional stability.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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