When South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun meets US President George W. Bush in Washington today, relations between their two nations will be worse than at any time since Americans and South Koreans fought, bled and died together in the Korean War that ended in 1953.
The North Korean nuclear threat will be high on the summit's agenda, but the fundamental, underlying issue will be: "Can and should the deeply troubled alliance between the US and South Korea be salvaged and, if so, how?"
The responsibility for reviving US-South Korean bonds will rest on both presidents, but Roh must decide first whether that would serve South Korea's interests. If the Koreans say no, there would be little that the US could do about it; alliances can't be built on sand.
If the Koreans say yes, it would be up to Bush to respond positively. Given his attention on Iraq, the "war on terror," the Arab-Israeli conflict and domestic issues, it is an open question as to whether he values the alliance with Seoul enough to make the effort. A small and discouraging clue is in the arrangements for the meeting: Roh will meet Bush in the White House, take part in a working lunch and fly home. No state dinner, no chats with Congressional leaders, none of the pageantry that often surrounds a visit by an allied leader.
Roh's spokesman, Kim Man-soo, sought to put the best face on it, saying Roh would "focus his attention on substantive consultations" and would "attend no other events than the summit talks."
Evidence of the endangered alliance, based in the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1953, dots the landscape. Both sit atop divided nations but from opposite sides of the political spectrum, Bush a conservative, Roh a progressive, which influences their respective decisions.
On North Korea, Bush sees the North's leader Kim Jong-il as an implacable enemy. Roh, reflecting views of younger Koreans, prefers to accommodate -- some say appease -- Kim, whom he sees as an errant brother. Bush has taken a hard line in negotiations to persuade Pyongyang to give up its plans to acquire nuclear arms that would threaten US forces in Asia, Alaska and Hawaii. Roh and many South Koreans doubt that the North would use those weapons against them.
The Bush administration wants "strategic flexibility" for the 32,500 US troops in the South to be able to deploy to missions elsewhere. Roh has made clear that his government will not permit the US to use South Korea as a base for missions it does not approve of.
Roh has asserted that Seoul should seek to be a "balancer" between the US and China as Beijing acquires more military, economic and political power in Asia. American critics ask how a supposed ally can strike a balance with a potential adversary.
US military planners in Seoul drew up a contingency plan designated 5029 under which US and South Korean forces would move into economically stricken North Korea to establish order if the North's regime imploded. Roh's government killed the plan.
Japanese officials let it be known that Tokyo could not pass US intelligence reports to Seoul because the Americans don't trust Roh's government. South Korean spokesmen blasted the Japanese for the revelation -- but didn't deny it.
Roh has suggested that South Korea no longer needs US forces for defense.
"We have sufficient power to defend ourselves," he said. "We have nurtured mighty national armed forces that absolutely no one can challenge."