VICE PRESIDENT Dan Quayle, his wife Marilyn by his side, inspected a North Korean infiltration tunnel dug under the heavily armed border between North and South Korea and then emerged with a message. ``This tunnel ... shows the fanaticism of [North Korea] and how far they are willing to go to export destablization,'' the vice president said Sept. 21 to reporters covering his visit.
At a meeting the day before, Mr. Quayle assured South Korean political leaders that the Bush administration is ``firmly opposed'' to any reduction in the United States military presence in South Korea, or to ``any one-sided action that could surprise the South Korean people.''
This is a message that the South Korean government of President Roh Tae Woo has been eager to hear. When President Roh visits Washington next week, where he will address a joint session of Congress, he will be looking for assurances that the US plans no precipitous change in its security commitment. At the same time, he will try to counteract the widespread impression that South Korea is awash in growing anti-Americanism.
The Korean administration is nervous about the efforts of some congressional leaders to push for a unilateral reduction in the number of US troops who help to defend the South. Sponsors in the Senate of a bill to cut back US troops cited increasing anti-Americanism in South Korea as one reason for the move.
In a radio address before his departure, Mr. Roh blamed a ``small number of extreme radicals'' in South Korea for carrying out anti-American acts, such as burning American flags at demonstrations, which have inflamed anti-Korean sentiments in the US.
The Korean government has the universal backing of the three major opposition parties in sounding this warning against any change in the US posture.
``To talk about withdrawal is premature and hasty,'' opposition leader Kim Dae Jung told the Monitor. Mr. Kim, considered the most radical of the opposition leaders, echoed the government view that troop withdrawal should come only after a stable peace is reached with the communist North. Mr. Kim expressed the view, shared by many Koreans, that the withdrawal of US occupation troops in 1949 led to the North Korean invasion in 1950.
But the South Korean stance on its security ties with the US has been less than consistent. In recent years, along with the democratic reforms which have transformed Korean political life, there has been a move to reduce dependence on the US, based on South Korea's greater confidence in dealing with its implacable northern foes. But Seoul has more recently swung back somewhat to a more hard-line posture toward the North, and consequently a more cautious approach to any change in US-Korea security ties.
North and South Korea remain technically in a state of war, since an armistice agreement ended the Korean civil war in 1953. The buildup of forces poised along the truce line makes it one of the most heavily armed frontiers in the world. About 880,000 North Korean forces, by US Army estimate, are arrayed against some 600,000 South Korean troops, backed by the US 2nd Infantry Division and Air Force units.
The US forces, which are deployed right along the border blocking the path to the capital of Seoul some 30 miles away, are often described as a ``tripwire.'' According to that view, their presence assures American involvement, thus deterring a North Korean invasion.
In the past, even talk about US withdrawal has been enough to provoke panic in the South. When President Jimmy Carter announced his plan to withdraw US troops from South Korea shortly after taking office in 1976, the South Korean government mounted a massive campaign against it. When US military and political figures added their voices, the Carter administration was forced to back off from its plans.
But since the advent of the Roh administration, brought to power in 1987 by South Korea's first democratic elections in 17 years, the question of US troop withdrawal has become a subject for open discussion.
While public opinion polls show the vast majority of Koreans still oppose withdrawal, a significant minority feels that the US troops are a barrier to the cherished goal of reunification of the divided Korean peninsula.
The resumption last year of direct talks between North and South Korean parliamentary and government representatives, for the first time since 1985, encouraged many Koreans. The government was under fire for being too passive in its unification policy, prompting Roh to declare a new more open approach to the North in a speech on July 7, 1987.
South Korea also embarked on its ``Nordpolitik'' policy of improving relations with North Korea's communist allies, particularly with China and the Soviet Union. That policy bore visible fruit in the refusal of those countries to back North Korea's boycott of the Summer Olympics last year and the establishment of trade and diplomatic ties with many communist nations.
At the same time, the official South Korean stance on the security links with the US also shifted slightly. At that time, then Defense Minister Lee Ki Bek said that South Korea would achieve rough military parity with the North, based on the growth of its military capacity and its economic strength, by the mid-1990s. Korean officials linked this confident prediction to the timing of the beginning of withdrawal of US forces in Korea.
Those views were quietly dumped this spring, when the government took a sharply hostile stance toward the North. The rise of pro-North Korean radical activity in the South, coupled with the highly publicized visits of dissident and radical student figures to the North, prompted a domestic crackdown and a freeze in the talks. The South Koreans have accused the North of using the dialogue to promote ``subversion'' in the South.
The policy of improving relations with the communist bloc has not changed. But South Korean officials are more careful now to point to the continued supply of advanced weapons from the Soviet Union to North Korea, including aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles. Quayle eagerly picked up that theme, questioning whether there was any evidence of ``new thinking'' in Soviet foreign policy toward the Korean peninsula.
Earlier this year, Defense Minister Lee Sang-hoon told the National Assembly that South Koreans could not face the North on their own until at least the early part of the next century. Last month, he told the Assembly that in the case of withdrawal of all US forces, South Korea would have to spend $5.2 billion a year for five years to maintain military capacity at its present level. The estimate was intended as an argument to persuade Koreans of the necessity of keeping the US forces, says Cha Young Cha, a defense analyst at the government-linked Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.