The Sept. 14 meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and South Korean leader Roh Moo-hyun highlighted a growing divergence between the two allies over attitudes and strategies towards the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) and its nuclear program. However, some progress was made on an issue important to the south Korean people — ending U.S. control over their military.
Their meeting has been contrasted to a recent meeting between Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. After a number of meetings, Koizumi was taken to Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland, on a personal tour with Bush. In stark contrast, Roh was allowed only an hour-long meeting in the Oval Office and a lunch.
Japan fully supports U.S. policy towards the DPRK, while South Korea has distanced itself from Bush’s policies, which include monetary sanctions and threats of war.
While both states support a resumption of the six-party talks aimed at solving the Korean nuclear issue, South Korea has increasingly supported economic and political engagement with the DPRK. In past years, South Korea was, along with Japan, the U.S.’s strongest ally against North Korea. However, former Prime Minister Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy” brought better north-south relations, angering the U.S. Roh was elected mainly on his Uri Party’s stance on greater independence from the U.S. and better relations with the DPRK.
The meeting was partially aimed at restarting the six-party talks, which faltered when the DPRK pulled out after the U.S. imposed economic sanctions on the country, alleging illegal economic activities. The sanctions continue, though South Korea’s intelligence services told their legislature there was no evidence of any illegal activity back to the mid-1990s.
According to China’s People’s Daily, the Bush administration has been using a recent UN Security Council resolution criticizing North Korean missile tests as a pretext to push more financial sanctions. South Korean officials, on the other hand, have openly said they were not too concerned with the tests, and have resumed their temporarily suspended investment in the DPRK.
Another issue at the meeting was control of the South Korean military. Currently the U.S. has official authority to take control of the south’s military during times of war. Until 1994 the military was under total U.S. control. While, at this writing, any agreement is uncertain, Bush has expressed some willingness to officially hand control to the southern government.
Why Bush would make this concession is unclear. The Grand National Party of South Korea, which grew out of the remnants of the U.S.-allied military dictatorship in power there until the 1980s, is vehemently opposed to any transfer of control of the armed forces. Some commentators believe the U.S. is so strained by the Iraq war that the administration must give up certain key positions.
However, a handover would not remove the tens of thousands of U.S. troops currently occupying South Korea — a key demand of South Korean progressives.
Koreans, both north and south, have long bristled at U.S. military presence in the region.
The southern headquarters of the National Alliance for the Country’s Reunification, which spans both North and South, said in a statement that withdrawal of all U.S. forces is necessary for peace in the region.