Untying the Korean knot

When South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun visits President Bush at the White House Friday, no one will accuse the two leaders of treating the North Korean nuclear issue as the elephant in the corner.

With US officials this week getting a commitment from their North Korean counterparts to an eventual return to six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program, and with South Korea set to hold rare cabinet-level talks with the North next week, the two leaders are sure to take up the issue.

But that doesn't mean there won't be other elephants in the room. North Korea's nuclear ambitions may be the marquee source of agitation in the US-South Korea alliance. But other factors are also behind the relationship's rough waters. Among them: China's emergence as an Asian power, Japan's more prominent role in security issues, signs of a US rethink of its defense role in South Korea, and Seoul's desire for a more equal-partner relationship.

"The core of the US-South Korea alliance is North Korea, and the fact that [the two countries] see the issue very differently is what stands out," says Derek Mitchell, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But beyond North Korea are other sources of tension.... The US is questioning what it is getting out of the alliance, and that makes South Korea nervous."

Indeed, some Pentagon officials and regional experts consider the alliance "ripe" for review. But largely because long-term trends are pulling the two countries apart, the two presidents are likely to focus on the immediate picture, experts say. Mr. Bush will thank Mr. Roh for the participation of South Korean troops in Iraq, and they will discuss prospects for the six-party talks. But the big issues are likely to be left alone.

"This meeting is a short-term-issue kind of thing because there isn't a lot of consideration of President Roh within the Bush administration as a serious alliance partner," says Doug Bandow, a Korean expert at the Cato Institute in Washington. "The problem there is that long term, things in South Korea are trending against America," he adds, referring to growing public suspicions of US foreign-policy goals.

At the top of short-term issues, of course, is North Korea's nuclear program. American and Chinese officials announced Tuesday that the North had agreed to return to talks - with the US, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea - although no date was set. But Chinese officials at the UN said talks could resume within a few weeks in Beijing.

In a rare dispatch, ABC News reported from Pyongyang Wednesday that North Korean officials said their country was willing to return to talks as long as the US stifled its heated rhetoric. That statement dovetails with numerous reports that Bush's recent public reference to the North Korean leader as "Mr. Kim Jong Il," and not as the "dictator" or other qualifiers, was well received in both Korean capitals.

Still, the good news on a return to talks leaves key questions. "Is the US now willing to engage in the bilateral talks [that Pyongyang really wants], and is South Korea willing to turn off its economic engagement at some point [if the talks fail]?" asks Mr. Bandow. "There are still lots of doubts."

Part of the problem is that the Bush administration remains divided over how to handle North Korea - as indicated by recent statements and retractions over the likelihood of the US pressing for UN sanctions against the North. And that leads to international confusion. It also plays into South Korean suspicions of a militaristic and unilateralist US foreign policy - fears that color both the South's approach to the North, and its perception of regional issues.

At a luncheon this week with the commander of US forces in Korea, Roh said, "The successful democracy, market economy, and peace and prosperity in South Korea are all based on the alliance between South Korea and the United States." But he also thanked the US military for understanding what he said had been "unavoidable changes" in the US-Korean alliance.

Gi-Wook Shin, an expert in Northeast Asian issues at the Stanford Institute for International Studies, says South Koreans' concerns about US "arrogance" color how the South views two factors: China's emergence as an economic and security power, and Japan's higher profile in security issues. "Many South Koreans are favorable" to a rising China, "but they are concerned about Japan expanding its security role by working more closely with the US," he says.

Experts also say South Koreans increasingly feel a sense of "entrapment" from a close association with US foreign policy. "The US used to fear it could be trapped into a war [on the Korean peninsula]," says Richard Bush, an Asian expert at the Brookings Institution. "Now it's the South Koreans who fear they could get entrapped in a conflict they don't want" - either with the North, or someday with China over Taiwan.

Don Kirk contributed from Seoul.

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