Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Korea: South and North



June 2, 2003

On May 14, South Korea's new president, Roh Moo-hyun met with President Bush at the White House. The primary news from that meeting was the mutually expressed confidence that "a peaceful resolution" of the North Korean crisis can be reached, though President Bush would not rule out the possibility of an American military attack on the North.

The two presidents also agreed to maintain close relations between their countries, including the maintenance of U.S. military forces in the South. But President Bush said the American troops would be consolidated around key hubs and did not say how many of those roughly 36,000 troops would remain.

It is quite apparent that American concerns today focus on U.S. security and on whether President Roh will agree to cooperate with American efforts to diffuse threats from the North. The South Korean president's interest in moving "beyond the traditional alliance" (read: South Korean dependency on the U.S.) and creating a "comprehensive relationship" with the United States (Washington Post, 5/14/03) did not dominate the discussion. This means that growing differences between the countries were submerged, at least for now. But they cannot be ignored.

South Koreans cannot understand American insensitivity towards them. Massive anti-American protests at the American Embassy in Seoul last year are what helped usher Roh into the presidency. Voters elected him in part as a reaction to what they perceive to be an increasingly hegemonic America. They worry that the United States does not appreciate the common ethnic identity of North and South Koreans, a single people for three millennia, divided as two states for only 50 years. While South Korean leaders have been promoting "sunshine" policies and conducting "peace and prosperity" campaigns in the hope of bringing the two Koreas together again, they see the U.S. preoccupied with the North's nuclear hype, and they fear American aggression could spark massive destruction on both sides. Moreover, the more the American standoff with North Korea intensifies, the more South Koreans fear for their economic future. Investors may turn away due to growing risks.

American leaders, by contrast, find it difficult to understand South Korea's casualness about the North Korean threat to the United States and to other Asian and Pacific countries. North Korea supplies missiles, artillery, and other weapons to hostile Middle Eastern and African states. The Bush administration worries that North Korea's nuclear ambitions could trigger a nuclear arms race involving South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and China. If the North were to be successful in blackmailing the U.S. into concessions because of its nuclear program, that could encourage Iran and other rogue states to try the same tactics. All of this would further threaten the United States and could increase worldwide terrorist threats. If more sunshine could be let in to illuminate these concerns for South Koreans, perhaps they would have greater appreciation for American aims.

Regardless of what happens in the short term, it is crucial for Americans and South Koreans to build a long-term, comprehensive relationship. American involvement in Korea goes back more than 100 years, not just 50. Christian missionaries brought the gospel, modern medicine, and the principles of human rights and political freedom to Korea. Americans suffered tens of thousands of casualties in the Korean Conflict, helping to make possible the prosperity and freedom that South Koreans now enjoy. For the long-term strength of Asian-Pacific security and the future of democracy, prosperity, and religious freedom in Asia, the U.S. and South Korea should strengthen, not weaken, their bonds and work together both for their mutual benefit and for international peace and stability.

—Michael Choi, Graduate Student, St. Johns College
    and Former Aide to Korean National  Assemblyman Hwang Woo Yea


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”