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Opinion

New hope for U.S.-South Korea ties

From free trade to North Korea's nuclear threat, both sides must move past years of missteps.

By Michael Armacost / April 17, 2008



Stanford, Calif.

The visit this week of South Korea's new president, Lee Myung Bak, offers a rare opportunity to put the American-Korean relationship back on a more solid footing. President Lee, who won a decisive victory in last December's election, has expressed views on the security alliance, a bilateral free trade agreement, and policy toward North Korea that are thoroughly compatible with US interests. And Mr. Lee's authority was bolstered by his party's substantial victory in legislative elections April 9.

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The question is whether Washington is poised to take advantage of this convergence of views.

For the past eight years, a major perception gap between Seoul and Washington has been painfully evident. Our governments often worked at cross-purposes in the six-party talks to denuclearize North Korea. Progressive governments in South Korea encouraged peaceful coexistence with the North through a pattern of unreciprocated engagement. For much of that time, the Bush administration sought to isolate and pressure Pyongyang into relinquishing its nuclear ambitions, and it made little effort to conceal its hopes for a regime change in Pyongyang.

When Washington decided to move its military headquarters out of Seoul in 2003, many Korean officials suspected that the Americans were just eager to get troops out of North Korean artillery range. President Roh Moo Hyun at times seemed interested in carving out a role as a balance wheel between the major powers in Northeast Asia. Meanwhile, the US was preoccupied by problems in the Middle East, and some American officials wondered if the US-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance could long survive when one party dismissed the North Korean threat while the other viewed it as increasingly menacing.

Now comes Lee, a former mayor of Seoul and Hyundai construction executive with a reputation for tough-minded, pragmatic conservatism, eager to correct what he described as the misguided priorities of past ROK administrations. In a recent meeting with New Beginnings, a group of American policy experts on Korea, Lee appeared determined to accord priority to the alliance with the United States, exact a measure of reciprocity from the North, forestall major economic concessions to the North until it abandons its nuclear activities, and design a more ambitious global role for his country.

Surely Washington welcomes Lee's priorities. The tougher question is whether it can work effectively with him to translate shared aims into concrete results. This will pose three particular challenges.

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