WASHINGTON -- While politicians worry about a dreaded nuclear-armed North Korean communist dictatorship, old Korea hands are more upset with the longtime American allies in the southern half of the peninsula. The new government in Seoul has taken a long step away from Washington that marks a jarring departure from policies of the past half-century.
"It is not a crisis," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Dec. 29 as he traveled the circuit of Sunday television interview programs. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il is trying to leverage his meager nuclear resources to force economic aid from the West, but nobody really believes he will start a nuclear war. The real problem is South Korea's President-elect Roh Moo-hyun, who successfully campaigned on a clearly anti-American platform (following a string of election defeats through 2000 that led him to be called "Roh the idiot").
Roh, a former left-wing activist, has offered to mediate between the North and the U.S. In effect, he is attempting to place the once inflexible anti-communist bastion in Asia equidistant between the world's last remaining Stalinist state and the leader of the free world. The impulse in Washington is to take Roh at his word and pull out U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula, letting the South and North deal with each other.
What complicates this is the war that George W. Bush declared on terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly a year ago, the president let rhetoric overpower policy when he accepted the formulation of his speechwriters and inveighed against the "axis of evil": Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Some conservatives who cheered those words now regret them.
While Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says publicly that the U.S. can fight at the same time in the Persian Gulf and Northeast Asia, nobody in the military is ready for a disastrous second Korean War even without fighting in Iraq. Certainly, nobody in the Bush administration wants one. Even without nuclear weapons, the North can launch a brutal attack on Seoul using conventional arms. Accordingly, the president's jeremiads against the "axis of evil" now look like posturing.
The immediate problem for U.S. policymakers is the South and its new president. Today's Koreans show little gratitude to Americans for shedding their blood in 1950-53 to prevent the Republic of Korea (ROK) from falling under communist control. Indeed, they hardly remember it. Roh Moo-hyun is a reflection of that mood rather than its creator.
Departing President Kim Dae-jung, who in 1981 was saved by Ronald Reagan from execution by South Korea's military dictatorship, proved the most anti-American president in the Republic's history. Roh was the idolizing protege of Kim, but he has gone well beyond his patron in pulling Uncle Sam's whiskers.
Citizens of the South increasingly have regarded 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea less as protectors against aggression than as irritants in their daily lives. Conservatives protested in outrage at the height of the Cold War when President Jimmy Carter wanted to reduce the troop commitment, but now many want to begin pulling them out.
Pentagon officials admit that the existing joint U.S.-ROK military command is a relic of the Korean War or even World War II that should have been modernized years ago. In combat, the 37,000 U.S. troops and 700,000 South Koreans would be commanded by an American four-star general. In the Pentagon, there is agreement that this is an anachronism.
A gradual withdrawal of American ground troops might even be interpreted in Pyongyang as a gesture from Washington to ease tensions on the peninsula. The 700,000 ROK forces, though weakened by Kim Dae-jung's pacifistic policies, still constitute a deterrent to aggressive action. An even larger deterrent is posed by U.S. air and naval forces, committed by treaty to the defense of South Korea.
Nevertheless, the wind blowing in Washington and Seoul signifies a change in direction. South Korea has tired of the Americans, and the Americans have grown impatient with South Korea. The second phase of the Bush administration's decision not to negotiate with the Communist North is to make the South responsible for itself, at long last.