SEOUL, South Korea—When South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun told his nation last week that he would send as many as 700 non-combat soldiers to support the U.S.-led war against Iraq, he said the move was "inevitable" to cement the strength of his nation's long alliance with the United States.
On Tuesday, however, the National Assembly delayed a vote on deploying the troops to Iraq amid growing political opposition and a clash in which 20 student protesters broke into the parliamentary complex.
The delay was yet another sign of the strains in U.S.-South Korea relations as the U.S. government prepares to demand that Seoul take tough action to help halt North Korea's attempt to produce nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration wants no daylight between its North Korea policy and that of the South Korean government. Many South Koreans, however, are wary of U.S. foreign policy toward the North and resent the presence of some 37,000 U.S. soldiers in their country. A survey released earlier this week shows that nearly seven in 10 South Koreans favor a withdrawal of U.S. troops, according to Fn Research and Consulting, which surveyed 2,154 adults.
Roh, who was narrowly elected in December, has been unwilling to support U.S. attempts to press North Korea to drop its nuclear program.
The Bush administration last year confronted North Korea's communist government with evidence of its secret efforts to enrich uranium to make nuclear weapons. North Korea responded by forcing nuclear inspectors to leave the country, quitting an international treaty prohibiting nuclear development and threatening to restart its nuclear production activities. Analysts predict it may test-fire a missile or set off an underground nuclear test to step up pressure on the United States while Washington is focused on the war in Iraq.
North Korea demands direct talks with Washington. The Bush administration has said talks must include China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.
The United States has tried to put pressure on North Korea, suggesting that economic sanctions or the threat of military force might be needed to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Many South Koreans believe the United States might pre-emptively attack North Korea because of fears that Pyongyang may produce nuclear materials that could be used against the United States.
Roh argues that economic aid and other inducements can lead to a peaceful resolution of the conflict and rejects the threat of force to get North Korea to negotiate.
"The Roh government is quite seriously worried that the Americans will insist on a military attack" against a North Korean nuclear facility in Yongbyon, according to a security official close to the government, interviewed on condition he not be named. Some 3,000 canisters of spent plutonium rods at the site could be reprocessed into fissile material for nuclear weapons.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan plans to leave Wednesday for talks in Washington, and next month Vice President Dick Cheney will hold talks with the South Korean president in Seoul. Cheney is a key architect of the Bush administration's Iraq and North Korea policies.
"The South Koreans and Americans are not on the same page yet," said Kim Jong-wan, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute and an expert on Korean policy.
The Bush administration could put pressure on Roh's government with tariffs on South Korean exports or threats to reduce U.S. military commitments, analysts say. "Cheney will bring an ultimatum regarding the military relationship," the security official said. "The nuclear issue in North Korea will be coming to a climax and Cheney will say to President Roh that if you aren't cooperative on the military front, we can make your life very complicated."
Kim Jae-chang, former deputy commander in chief of the South Korean Army, said North Korea has seized on the nationalist aspirations of the South Korean people to cast the Americans as bad guys. South Koreans tend to think Bush is more dangerous that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and that the North Koreans are more like poor cousins than dangerous adversaries. South Koreans who protest against Washington seem to have little fear of North Korea's Stalinist government, whose giant military has built a network of fortified bunkers and artillery positions just 30 miles from downtown Seoul.
As a result, the 50-year military alliance between South Korea and the United States "faces a serious threat," said former South Korean deputy commander Kim.
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Pentagon civilians and troops that South Korea "has all the capability in the world of providing the kind of upfront deterrent that's needed" to combat North Korea. We still have a lot of forces in Korea today arranged very far forward where it is intrusive in their lives, and where they are not very flexible and usable for other things," Rumsfeld said.
That suggestion has worried those South Koreans who believe that North Korea poses a threat and want U.S. troops around to help defend their country. Without a strong U.S. presence, South Korea would lack the satellite intelligence, high-tech weaponry and aircraft needed to blunt any North Korean attack. Rarely have South Korean attitudes been so polarized.
Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor, warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington earlier this month of a "train wreck in slow motion" if Washington and Seoul cannot agree on the nature of their alliance and the threat from North Korea. He noted that many in the South seem ready to accept the possibility that Pyongyang might succeed in building a nuclear warhead.
Unless the two nations can agree on policy, he warned, the military alliance might become little more than a "brittle Cold War relic."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.