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Tensions Between U.S. and South Korea

By Richard Halloran

The public tiff between President George Bush and President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea in Australia the other day wasn't much more than a momentary spat but it did underscore the continuing decline in relations between the US and South Korea, which are supposedly allies.

It has become increasingly clear that Presidents Bush and Roh don't much like each other and that their respective administrations don't trust each other. In policy, the two capitals have fundamentally different ideas on how to treat North Korea, Washington taking a hard line while Seoul comes close to appeasing Pyongyang's dictator, Kim Jong Il.

Moreover, a Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement, nicknamed KORUS, is in trouble in the US Congress and the Korean National Assembly, both of which must ratify it. It was signed last June after months of contentious negotiations in which each side sought to best the other with "take it or leave" provisions before a compromise was reached.

Beyond the government in Seoul, the younger generation of Koreans has turned ever more anti-American and wants US troops, which will be down to 25,000 by the end of this year, to be further reduced if not completely withdrawn.
American military leaders, needing every soldier they can get for Iraq or other contingencies, are only too willing to leave Korea.

To add to the storm, the North Koreans, which once had decades of experience during the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960's and 1970's playing the Soviet Union and China off against each other to their own benefit, are now manipulating the Americans and South Koreans against each other.

Amid this dismal standoff is one stabilizing element: US and South Korean military officers both assert that they are getting along well as they stand guard against a threat from North Korea. Privately, however, they each confess that they are hoping a political leader not in the mold of President Roh is elected next December and takes off in February 2008.

This latest political squabble broke out unexpectedly during a press conference in Sydney during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum when President Roh tried to push President Bush into saying something the American didn't want to say.

After routine remarks by both presidents, Mr. Roh said: "I think I might be wrong -- I think I did not hear President Bush mention the -- a declaration to end the Korean War just now. Did you say so, President Bush?"

Mr. Bush, testily: "I said it's up to Kim Jong Il as to whether or not we're able to sign a peace treaty to end the Korean War. He's got to get rid of his weapons in a verifiable fashion. And we're making progress toward that goal. It's up to him."

Mr. Roh persisted: "I believe that they are the same thing, Mr. President.
If you could be a little bit clearer in your message, I think -"

Mr. Bush, annoyed: "I can't make it any more clear, Mr. President. We look forward to the day when we can end the Korean War. That will end -- will happen when Kim Jong Il verifiably gets rid of his weapons programs and his weapons."

The version published by the presidential office in Seoul was slightly different, suggesting a difference in translation. The effect, however, was the same.

On the free trade agreement, the president of the Korea Economic Institute, Charles (Jack) Pritchard, was quoted recently on the hurdles it faces in Congress. He said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., California), House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D., New York), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Maryland), and House Trade Subcommittee Chairman Sander Levin (D., Michigan) had said they would oppose the KORUS.

They pointed to what they regarded as deficiencies pertaining to the automobile trade. In Korea, provisions for agriculture drew fire in the National Assembly.

The disparity between Mr. Roh, Mr. Bush, and Mr. Kim over an agenda for the summit meeting of the North and South Korean leaders scheduled for Pyongyang in early October is striking. Mr. Roh has stated that his top priority is a peace treaty ending the Korean War of 1950-53. Mr. Kim has been reported to be seeking recognition of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.

Mr. Bush, who will watch from the sidelines in Washington, has said that his first priority is to persuade the North Koreans to give up nuclear weapons.

Not much room for a meeting of the minds there.

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at

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