Seoul’s new leader moves to repair U.S. ties
President Bush and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak fixed the strained relationship between the two nations when they met at the Camp David summit in April. This relationship had grown quite strained under the previous Korean government because of its unconditional willingness to appease North Korea’s dictatorial regime.
Over the past 10 years, the Republic of Korea’s leftist governments were fueled by a combination of xenophobic nationalism and anti-Americanism unique to South Korea. Then, in December, voters elected a pro-American conservative businessmanturned politician to the presidency. They expressed a desire to restore the relationship between the two nations — and then they expressed the same desire again in the April 2008 National Assembly election.
In the wake of the summit and its favorable implications for U.S.-Korean cooperation, it seems to this retired professor that as long as the United States, South Korea and Japan condemn in unison North Korea’s nuclear arms proliferation and its shameful human-rights record, North Korea’s diplomacy of brinkmanship cannot last long. China and Russia, the former and present allies of North Korea, should be ashamed of their support of Pyongyang. They should compel North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to adopt regime changes. It may be impossible to achieve regime change in North Korea. But a serious attempt must be made nonetheless. There is no other way.
Among the dividends of the Camp David meeting: The North Korean threat was assessed adequately, and the date of transfer of the Combined Forces Command from the United States to South Korea — which the previous regime had originally scheduled to take place on April 17, 2012 — was rescheduled. President Bush promised to maintain the current U.S. forces in Korea. That decision pleased many Koreans.
Ultimately, the South Korean army alone must be able to deter threats from North Korea, and win the war, if it were to break out. In the meantime, however, the presence of U.S. forces in Korea — they currently number approximately 28,500 — should continue as a deterrent. More importantly, the United States should be able to demonstrate the strength of the U.S.-South Korea security alliance as a keeper of the peace in East Asia.
The two presidents, as agreed at Camp David, can facilitate the ratification of free trade agreements between the two nations. Their respective congresses can now be expected to make them law. To be sure, in the United States, such agreements are negatively viewed and received by the Democratic Congress and labor unions. But the United States, the most powerful nation on earth, should set an example of the benefits of free trade for the world economy. It should show that free trade is the natural economic order. Political rhetoric based on nationalist sentiment should be minimized in the ratification debate. In any event, South Korea has a weak agricultural and service sector, which should help convince these groups that free trade will strengthen both nations and make them competitive in the long run. Already President Lee has opened U.S. beef to the Korean market as a good gesture to the United States.
It seems Mr. Lee can and will maintain his popularity as long as the United States maintains its status on the world’s political stage. Mr. Bush’s war against terror and the subprime mortgage crisis have resulted in an economic recession and tarnished the U.S. image abroad. The peaceful and gradual end of the war, and corrections to American business practices, should restore the image long cherished by other nations. Mr. Bush should not force Mr. Lee to send more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. South Korea does not want to be involved in the war zone, and the United States should respect those Korean wishes.
South Korea is a showcase of U.S. assistance and good will: War-torn in the 1950s, this once very poor nation became an advanced industrial power, ranked 11th among the world‘s trading nations today, thanks in part to U.S. military and economic aid. A free, democratic political system emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.
President Lee remembers the poverty of his war-torn country back in the 1950s. As a young boy, he survived by working hard. He went to college and started a successful career at the Hyundai Construction Co. He witnessed the miraculous economic growth of the nation as a young executive. He then became mayor of Seoul and a strong defender of the environment. He will never forget American generosity. He is among the last to experience the 1950-1953 Korean War, and is a firm believer in Korea’s continued prosperity. I hope his pro-American presidential leadership brings more success to both Korea and the United States. I am optimistic.
Yearn Hong Choi, Ph.D. in political science from Indiana University, and a Virginia resident, is a retired professor who had a long teaching career in the U.S. and Korea.