North Korea's nuclear provocation and the rising tide of anti-Americanism in the South pose major problems for U.S. foreign policy. But last month's election of Roh Moo Hyun as president of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea holds vastly more long-term significance for the Korean-American relationship.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's decision to reopen the plutonium processing plant at Yongbyon and expel United Nations inspectors there has shocked world opinion, but it is not surprising. North Korea remains an economic and political disaster. Its people live under the thumb of a vicious type of Stalinism. Its well-heeled ruling class, which is desperate to stay in power, makes the old Soviet nomenklatura look Jeffersonian.
Nearly 10 years of arm's-length contacts with the prosperous, democratic South have given Kim Jong Il and his palace guard some idea of the outside world; many would like to negotiate a deal for survival. But many more remain paranoid about outsiders -- the United States, in particular -- and want to continue the country's policy of blackmailing South Korea, Japan and the United States by playing the nuclear-bomb card. From the beginning, the hard-liners' long-term objective has been to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its South Korean ally. Consider the current stream of bombast from Pyongyang urging "all Koreans -- North and South" to make common cause against the "reckless and vicious war moves of the U.S. imperialists."
Domesticating the North poses it own set of problems. After his election in 1997, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung sought to encourage people exchanges between the North and the South, economic cooperation and a gradual opening of the North to the outside world in the hope of softening Kim Jong Il's dictatorship. Kim, who is a democratic reformer and one of the West's best friends in Asia, and his policies were backed by the Clinton administration. To neutralize Pyongyang's threat to build nuclear bombs in 1994, the U.S., Japan, South Korea and the European Union jointly crafted a plan to provide North Korea with power supplies and, not least, food in return for its abandoning its nuclear-weapons program.
Despite the North's obvious attempts at trickery, President Clinton's plan seemed on its way to getting the North to stop missile production. Meanwhile, Kim's "sunshine policy," despite many fits and starts, produced more cooperation on the divided Korean peninsula than ever before. A working dialogue was in place.
After 2000, the dialogue was broken, a casualty of President Bush's one-size-fits-all diplomacy. This not only undermined Seoul's sunshine policy; it also destroyed Kim's political credibility. Bush's insistence -- accompanied by threats to cut off the promised fuel supplies -- that North Korea disarm before dialogue could be restarted reinforced Pyongyang's paranoia. It was only a matter of time before Kim Jong Il's communist mandarins would renege on their agreements.
South Koreans blame the Americans, rather than the North, for the demise of the sunshine policy. To them, Bush's inclusion of North Korea in his "axis of evil" became a symbol of U.S. aggression and intransigence. It's easy to forget that a new generation has grown up in South Korea, with little historical memory of the 1950-53 war and U.S. help. It sees the U.S. treating South Korea not as an ally but as a client state. China and Japan are alternately courted, but South Korea seems taken for granted.
The continued presence of the 8th U.S. Army on choice land in the heart of Seoul remains a source of tension between the U.S. and South Korea. Last June, when two 13-year-old schoolgirls were accidentally run over by a U.S. Army armored vehicle, most Koreans were shocked by what they regarded as America's casual attitude toward the incident. Like the rapes of Japanese girls on Okinawa, Japan, a few years back, the Korean teenagers' deaths stirred up long-standing anti-Americanism that finds expression in the opinion among some young Koreans that the real warmonger is Bush, not Kim Jong Il. America's public perception among South Koreans has never been worse, yet Washington has done spectacularly little to improve it.
Roh exploited these sentiments during his successful presidential campaign, yet he represents precisely the kind of democratic leadership that Americans have longed to have in Asia. In a country still partly run by a Confucian old-boy network, Roh is a breath of fresh air. He grew up poor in a farm village and never attended a university, but after military service and several years of home study he passed the difficult government bar examination. He made his name in the 1980s as a fearless human rights lawyer, defending students and labor unionists arrested by Gen. Chun Doo Hwan's military government. A leader in the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1987, he was first elected to the National Assembly the following year. As a young politician in a system still badly scarred by corruption, he was known as Mr. Clean because of his strong stand for principles and transparency in political dealings.
Last month's election was widely called a battle of generations, and young voters went all out for Roh during an uphill campaign that raised much of its money from individual contributions over the Internet. A protege of retiring President Kim, he has pledged to continue the sunshine policy, despite the North's nuclear threats. He opposes Bush's refusal to negotiate with the North. As he said in a recent interview: "One can use both a carrot and a stick with North Korea, but if you use a stick and it fails, the results will be devastating. The carrot, I know, will definitely work in the end.... There is no other way."
After freeing themselves from the long years of semimilitary governance, South Koreans are now running the healthiest democracy in Asia. Their recent elections were probably the cleanest the world has seen in recent years. Their annual gross national product is growing at a 6% clip. So, they want their voices to be heard. As the Korea Herald said in a Dec. 24 editorial demanding equal partnership with their American ally: "Underneath [the anti-American] sentiments are the long pent-up complaints about the U.S. tendency to regard [South Korea] as just a pawn [to] the knight of Japan in a global chess game.... Seoul has grown too big to remain a hopeful spectator of diplomatic developments surrounding it."
Last week, an aide to president-elect Roh said the newly elected leader would soon offer a compromise settlement of the nuclear standoff between North Korea and the United States. In considering it, Bush would do well to remember that South Korea is not Afghanistan, China or Kyrgyzstan but a working democracy, built in the image of America.