Sat, Jan 01, 2005 - Page 9 News List

S Korea to face serious decisions this year

By Richard Halloran

In the year 2005, perhaps the most momentous decision in East Asia will occur in South Korea, where the choice will affect not only the future of the Korean peninsula but the balance of power throughout this region.

South Koreans will have before them three options, given the rise of anti-Americanism, the forthcoming US troop reductions and realignment, improved relations with China, a resurgence in anti-Japanese sentiments, and the demands of domestic politics:

? "Go it alone" as has been advocated by President Roh Moo-hyun, to rely on Korea's own resources while forsaking alliances with other nations.

? Forge an alliance with the People's Republic of China, clearly the rising power in Asia.

? Revive South Korea's faltering alliance with the US even though there is no guarantee that the US would reciprocate. Self-reliant defense would be tempting as it would free South Korea from entangling alliances, permit South Koreans to pursue reunification with North Korea without outside interference, and satisfy nationalistic demands.

This course, however, would seem to be unrealistic. South Korea lives in a rough neighborhood and needs outside help to maintain security. A Korean diplomat asserted many years ago: "You must remember that we live next door to the world's most populous nation [China], the world's biggest nation [then the Soviet Union], and the world's second largest economy [Japan]."

Forging an alliance with China would also appear to be tempting. Korea and China are cultural cousins and Beijing is a mere two-hour flight from Seoul. Korea's trade with China has soared as has Korean investment in the blossoming Chinese economy.

The Middle Kingdom mentality in China, however, would put Seoul in danger of falling under Chinese dominance. The Chinese would not be expected to march across the Yalu River as they did in 1950 but Beijing seeks the political, economic, and diplomatic clout to insist that major decisions in every Asian capital, including Seoul, meet with its approval.

Reviving the alliance with the US would require a change in Korean attitudes and an effort to persuade Americans to return to the alliance of yesteryear. The accumulation of anti-American demonstrations and rhetoric in recent years has made Americans seriously question their support for South Korea.

Korean and American scholars have begun to define this issue. Lee Chung-min of Yonsei University in Seoul, wrote last April: "The question for South Korea in the beginning of the 21st century is whether it should strive to prolong, strengthen, and modernize its maritime alliance with the United States or strive to seek "strategic accommodation" with its traditional, pre-20th century patron, China."

A scholar at Georgetown University and longtime student of Korea, David I. Steinberg, wrote in June that American nationalism after 9/11 has made the United States "much more suspicious of any anti-American sentiments for demonstrations among our friends," including Korea. President George W. Bush has found resonance in his expression: "You are either with us or with the terrorists." That has been transformed in many cases to "you are either with us or against us." In this vein, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said: "We want to have our forces where people want them. We have no desire to be where we're not wanted."

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