South Korea's New Defiance

For the Bush White House, Roh Moo-hyun could soon become the Jacques Chirac of Asia.

The new president of South Korea, who takes office today, is a populist and former human rights lawyer who has disagreed with the tough Bush line against North Korea - especially the idea of keeping open the option of striking Pyongyang's nuclear facilities and its long-range missiles, which are capable of reaching the US.

Mr. Roh's views could create the same kind of friction over North Korea that the US now has with France over Iraq.

Since winning the election in December, however, Roh has backpedaled somewhat on his contrarian views, possibly because some members of the US Congress are asking why the US needs to keep 37,000 troops in a South Korea led by Roh.

Nonetheless, Roh's general ideas about using dialogue and aid with North Korea, instead of sanctions and threats, represent a strong current among many South Koreans, who see little menance from their weaker cousins and a big burden if the North Korean regime suddenly collapses.

Secretary of State Colin Powell will try to find a common stance with Roh after he attends today's swearing-in ceremony. South Korea is too dependent on the US for its economic well-being to stray much from the US line. And it needs to recognize that North Korea only recently has become a potential threat to the US as it has been to South Korea. After Sept. 11, allies such as South Korea need to recognize the new sense of vulnerability among Americans and how that influences the Bush line on North Korea.

Roh's election reflects a popular demand for more reform within South Korea, and an uneasiness with US bases on its soil. The US cannot ignore that sentiment. Roh's reformist agenda could ensure a stronger democracy, one more capable of ensuring its own defense.

South Korea and the US can't afford a split. That would only work to North Korea's advantage. As with France, Mr. Powell will need to exercise deft diplomacy to keep South Korea as a close ally.

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