South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun's forthcoming visit to the US could well be viewed as the most serious diplomatic challenge of his presidency so far. After the end of the fighting in Iraq, international attention has shifted to the Korean Peninsula. There, traditionally, the Americans and the South Koreans have formed a rock-solid front against the communist regime in Pyongyang. But as times have changed, so have political preferences and strategic inclinations.
"In some ways, the problem in South Korea has become harder to handle than that of North Korea," said an American Korea specialist with ties to many members of the US President George W. Bush administration's foreign policy team after the election of Roh to the presidency late last year.
On more than one occasion, US journalists have compared Roh with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. They based their judgement on similarities in the electoral campaigns, as both politicians profited considerably from wide-spread anti-American sentiments in their respective countries.
But in governmental practice, the two are far apart.
While Schroeder remained firm in his opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq, Roh went out of his way to present himself as a reliable ally of the sole remaining superpower. In spite of massive opposition in the public, Seoul joined the "coalition of the willing" and dispatched non-combatant personnel to the Gulf.
Arguably, the most apparent shift has occurred in the president 's position on US military forces in his country. Roh's earlier demands for an eventual departure of the US military from the peninsula were replaced by far more hospitable statements regarding the US forces in Korea.
"I have opted to accommodate a significant number of pragmatic elements in foreign affairs," explained Roh when asked about this shift in a recent interview. Instead of describing them as pragmatic, he could also have said pro-US, as this is what the rhetorical change boils down to.
We should expect more friendly words emanating from Seoul toward the US as Roh Moo-hyun prepares for his summit with Bush on May 15th in Washington.
"We hope that the summit will provide an opportunity for the two leaders to confirm their commitment to the peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue", a South Korean government spokesperson told reporters at a recent briefing in Seoul.
So far, the US president has spoken out in favour of a political settlement of the nuclear crisis with North Korea. One can expect Seoul and Washington to reconfirm their strong stand against Pyongyang's nuclear weapons' program. On the other hand, it would be a surprise if the two sides agree on common language as to how and with what means and tactics North Korea's nuclear program should be dismantled. While Washington proposes that all options be considered, implicitly and deliberately not excluding the use of military force, the South Korean side is adamant in its rejection of any military scenario. Contrary to all well-sounding rhetorics, Washington and Seoul remain divided in this very fundamental issue of strategy vis-a-vis Pyongyang. This divergence of opinion has far-reaching political implications.
As his predecessor Kim Dae-jung, Roh favours a policy of cooperation and reconciliation with the North. The basic assumption of this approach, termed the Sunshine policy under Kim and now renamed as "Policy for Peace and Prosperity," is that the government of North Korea is considered a legitimate partner for inter-state interaction in the political, economic and other fields.
"The Republic of Korea will seek to guarantee the security of North Korea", Roh said a few days after his election, confirming once more the validity of what may well be termed the basic law of the inter-Korean engagement process.
To pro-actively prevent the communist regime's collapse -- to use but another wording for this South Korean strategic axiom -- sounds like pure heresy in the ears of the US administration that has set out to "liberate" the world from all sorts of "rogues" and evildoers. While Bush himself has not openly advocated regime-change in North Korea (to be on the safe side, I should add has not done so yet), senior officials in the government he commands are already sketching out plans aimed at toppling the communist dictators in Pyongyang.
Just days before Roh sets out for Washington, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld circulated a Pentagon memorandum arguing that it is time to press for the ouster of North Korea's leadership. The memo, quoted in a leading paper, states that Washington's goal should be the collapse of the Kim Jong-il government. Seemingly intoxicated by their military victory in the Arabian deserts, the hardliners in America are now openly threatening Pyongyang that it could soon meet the same fate as Iraq if it does not submit to Washington's demands.
To argue that this is only the opinion of a small minority in the Pentagon and that in the end the reasonable diplomats and the well-meaning Secretary of State Colin Powell will prevail, sounds naive, after what has happened to Iraq. In Washington today, the hardliners set the tone. To convince them that other methods of dealing effectively with obstinate communist tyrants than the brute use of force exist will be a Herculean task for Roh Moo-hyun. Therefore, his upcoming visit to Washington may well prove a political mission impossible.
Ronald Meinardus is the resident representative of the Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation in the Philippines and a commentator on Asian affairs.