Standing By Mr. Roh

SOUTH Korean President Roh Tae Woo had hoped for iron-clad assurance of US intentions to maintain its military presence on his partitioned peninsula. He got something approaching that during his visit to Washington last week, but the iron had a few cracks. Inevitably, the US-South Korean relationship is being transformed by South Korea's success as a producing and trading nation. Some American lawmakers ask, understandably, why they should continue to spend millions defending a country that competes with the US for world markets.

Though senators and representatives gave President Roh thunderous applause after his address to a joint session of Congress, many harbor doubts about the size of the American troop commitment to South Korea - as well as some concerns, recently revived, about human-rights violations there.

And budget-conscious lawmakers aren't the only ones reassessing the costs of keeping 43,000 GIs in South Korea. Budget-conscious US military planners, including the secretary of defense, have been giving such commitments a hard look.

Roh tried to convey what he sees as the ``tragic'' consequences of any weakening of the US battle line against North Korea. He implied that the Kim Il Sung regime in the north would immediately take advantage of a reduction in American forces - something that in fact happened back in 1949.

Many South Koreans may be just as worried about the strain on the national budget should they need to bolster their own forces to make up for any US withdrawal.

At this juncture, however, withdrawal is hardly imminent - nor would it be prudent, given the difficulty of assessing North Korean intentions. President Bush was right to assure Roh that the US would never surprise South Korea by launching troop cutbacks without thorough consultation first.

Seoul's growing confidence and strength, plus Washington's need to slice its military bill, could lead to a situation where some withdrawal makes sense. But that equation will have to include more meaningful contacts with North Korea. So far, the process of diplomatic contact between the Koreas, and between Washington and Pyongyang, hasn't yielded much. But despite recent setbacks, the efforts to establish better relations aren't likely to stop. The Korean public, north and south, is behind them.

Meanwhile, a South Korea edgy about venturing into a new era of increasing self-reliance should concentrate on working out its trade frictions with the US (over barriers to US imports). It should also demonstrate that the commendable push toward greater democracy under Roh includes a broad toleration of dissenting opinion - even when the dissenters' inclinations may lead them to break rules about not contacting the north.

Such actions will go even further than President Roh's speechmaking toward building support in the US Congress.

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