Dispatches > The Buzz

Seoul: Will friendship with the U.S. survive?

Issue: "Mel Gibson's passion," Feb. 28, 2004

Just when America needed it, an erstwhile Cold-War ally splashed color onto a graying Iraq war image. In mid-February the South Korean assembly approved dispatching 3,000 troops to Iraq, the largest military contingent behind the United States and Britain. The 3-1 approval margin boosted the Bush administration. But it may be too soon to celebrate.

The national assembly's decision came after months of bickering between two foreign-policy factions. One favors an "independent" foreign policy, where South Korea's alliance with America is no longer paramount; the other wants to preserve the traditional 50-year relationship. Distrust of American policy is bubbling up from the electorate. And without South Korea's unwavering support, the Bush administration can only talk tough to North Korea about dismantling its nuclear-weapons program.

"South Korea is now North Korea's most important trading partner with total trade somewhere around $300 million to $500 million annually," said Balbina Hwang, a Heritage Foundation policy analyst. "This is tremendous leverage that the South Korean government is not willing to use against North Korea."

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That unwillingness stems from the way South Koreans view their neighbor to the north. They no longer see Kim Jong Il's nuclear missiles as the most dangerous menace to their national security. Another country fills that spot: the United States.

A January national survey shows 39 percent of South Koreans polled believe the United States is the greatest threat to their country, while 33 percent named North Korea. In 1993, only 1 percent chose the United States as the greatest threat to peace.

The South Korean foreign ministry has also been plowed for old-school officials. In January the pro-U.S. foreign minister was forced to resign, followed by an apparent purge of like-minded colleagues. President Roh Moo Hyun rose to power last year vowing not to "kowtow to the Americans," a stand appealing to young South Koreans.

This younger generation of twenty-somethings is the main well-spring of much anti-U.S. sentiment in South Korea, according to congressional foreign-policy aide Dennis Halpin. But he finds the seeds of discontent in the "386 generation"-Koreans in their 30s, educated in the 1980s and born in the 1960s. Some are now in government and nurse lingering resentment toward the United States for not condemning a 1980 student massacre. At that time, General Chun Doo Hwan ordered the slaughter of 200 pro-democracy protesters, having seized power in a military coup a year earlier.

The State Department issued a report on the Kwangju Massacre in 1989. But Mr. Halpin, who works on East Asian Affairs for the House International Relations Committee, said American diplomacy flagged in the 1990s when Korean resentment began to show. Now he sees an inconsistency: South Koreans who lived through Kwangju put human rights above U.S. peace and peninsular stability, but tend to overlook North Korean abuses.


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