The Free-Trade Agreement (FTA)negotiated by the US and South Korea on April 2 reflects their troubled alliance in which relations could either be revitalized or unravel over the next six months.
The trade agreement, must be approved by the US Congress and South Korea's National Assembly and has already generated substantial opposition in both legislatures. The FTA is intended to lower tariffs and other barriers to a trade that totaled US$78.3 billion last year, with a US$13.3 surplus in Seoul's favor.
South Korean farmers have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the wider opening of their market. Automobile companies fear competition from US makers. The FTA is supposed to ensure that US investors can invest in South Korea on a par with Koreans, which Americans who have dealt with South Korea contend Seoul's bureaucrats will block.
On the US side, the automobile companies and their allies in Congress argue that South Koreans will have an unfair advantage because of easier access to the US market. The pharmaceutical industry says it won little under the agreement. And rice growers got nothing due to the political opposition of South Korean rice farmers.
On a wider scale, political opposition in South Korea seemed greater than that in the US, although South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's approval rating went up a few points after the agreement was signed.
Two members of the National Assembly have gone on a hunger strike. Said Representative Chun Jung-bae: "President Roh apparently doesn't consider the loss of economic sovereignty problematic."
In the same vein, South Korean newspapers have grumbled that US negotiators bullied Seoul's officials and that this was another instance of US domination of South Korea. The Korea Times asserted last week that the FTA left South Korea vulnerable "to attacks from mighty and well-experienced US traders and lawyers."
Add differences between the Bush administration in Washington and Roh's government in Seoul over dealing with the North, the US demanding a hard line while Roh seeks to accommodate the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. Polls show an anti-US streak among younger South Koreans who want reconciliation with Pyongyang.
Further, some South Koreans are seeking stronger relations with China, with whom trade and financial ties have blossomed in recent years. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (
Perhaps no place does US frustration with Seoul show up so much as among the US military services. Many officers with experience in South Korea assert that the US should reduce its troops in the country or perhaps withdraw all but a token force. One who considers that US forces are almost held hostage in South Korea said plaintively: "Let my people go."
US officers point to running quarrels over issues such as command of US and South Korean forces, sharing the cost of US forces, US access to training areas, moving US forces to new locations, and cleaning up US bases that have been vacated. A particular sticking point: Roh insists on vetoing US deployments out of the country to conflicts elsewhere.
Those US forces are needed elsewhere, notably Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moreover, most US officers believe that South Korea's forces are capable of defending their country against the North with minimal help from the US. That is particularly true since the shambles of the North's economy has taken its toll on the readiness of Pyongyang's armed forces.
A small but indicative incident reflecting the US attitude: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates came to the Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii late last month to attend the assumption of command by Admiral Timothy Keating. In his remarks at the ceremony, Gates said the Asia-Pacific region is home to "some of America's oldest and strongest allies."
He said a "great many partnerships -- old and new -- have grown considerably stronger in recent years. The restoration of military relations with Indonesia comes to mind, as does the strengthening of our long-standing ties with Japan and Australia." Gates did not mention South Korea, a rare omission for a US political leader.
This turbulence may come to a turning point as the South Koreans prepare to elect a new president in December, Roh being barred constitutionally from succeeding himself.
Despite the flood of anti-Americanism on the surface, many South Koreans and Americans who know the country assert that there is a large if silent segment of society that wants to retain their alliance with the US.
Those South Koreans are expected to go public over the next few months and into the presidential campaign season in the fall. Future relations with the US will most likely be a critical issue that will be debated -- and then voted on -- when the people elect a new president.
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.
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