Current US-China Relations

Henry C.K. Liu

Part 1: The lame duck and the greenhorn
Part 2: The challenge of unilateralism
Part 3: Dynamics of the Korea crisis
Part 4: Proliferation, imperialism - and the 'China threat'
Part 5: Kim Il-sung and China
Part 6: Korea under Park Chung-hee
Part 7: Clinton's belated path to peace
Part 8: Bush's bellicose policy on N Korea
Part 9: The North Korean perspective

Part 10: The Changing South Korea Position

This article appeared in AToL on February 7, 2007


South Korean domestic politics has been evolving along two parallel paths since the Cold War was declared ended by US President Bush Sr. and USSR President Gorbachev in the Malta summit of December 1989 and formally ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. One path moves towards increasing resistance to US domination to the point of rising anti-US sentiments. Another path moves toward closer ties with neighboring China, a country of shared cultural affinity, and with the largest population in the world, as it adopts a rapid economic development policy of “peaceful rise”. Both paths lead to moderation of Cold War ideological hostility in the South towards its estranged Northern fraternal state across the 38th

While superpower Détente between the US and the USSR unraveled with the June 1972 Watergate scandal that eventually brought down President Richard Nixon in August 1974, left in deep freeze by the anti-Soviet bias of Zbigniew Brzezinksi, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, and finally pronounced dead with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Nordpolitik became South Korean policy. It was named in 1983 after West Germany’s Ostpolitik by then South Korean Foreign Minister Lee Bum Suk but not formally announced until the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Nordpolitik was a policy of reaching out to the People’s Republic of China and the USSR, Cold War allies of North Korea, with the hope that normal relations with these two neighboring major powers would provide new economic opportunities for South Korea, particularly in China, and would also moderate North Korean belligerence.  Nordpolitik later became the signature foreign policy of South Korea under President Roh Tae-Woo, whose name is pronounced “No”, South Korea’s first democratically elected president, albeit in a highly orchestrated electoral process, whose term ran from 1988 to 1993. After the Cold War, Nordpolitk became the Sunshine Policy articulated in 1998 by President Kim Dae Jung who received the Nobel Peace Price for it.

A New Kind of Leader

A new kind of leader emerged in South Korea out of the new domestic politics in the new millennium. Roh Moo-Hyun, also pronounced “No”, a liberal democrat, was elected president on December 19, 2002.  Born August 6, 1946 in Gimhae, Gyeongsang-namdo province of poor farming parents who struggled hard to give their children the benefit of at least some basic education, Roh attended Busan Vocational High School on a scholarship. After graduation, he worked with a fishing net company for subsistent wage. Aiming to be a lawyer, but unable to afford college, he studied law after work at home and ten years later, after what Roh calls the ten hardest years of his life, the self-taught lawyer passed the bar on his fourth try in 1975.

Every time I look back on my life, I am suddenly engulfed in a certain feeling. It is a kind of shame,” Roh wrote in his autobiography, Common Sense or Hope. “It is exceptional, in a society which puts so much stress on one’s educational background, that a man with only a vocational high school diploma was elected president.”

Roh defended one of several student members of a book club named Burim that studied leftist theories who were detained and tortured for almost two months by the government in what came to be known in Korean history as the Burim Incident. The experience affected Roh fundamentally, launching him on the career path of a dedicated human rights lawyer, defending other student protesters and striking workers. An activist in the pro-democracy movement, he joined the Democratic Citizens Council in 1985. By 1987, he became director of the Busan office of the Citizens’ Movement for a Democratic Constitution.

During 1987, Roh participated in the June Struggle demonstrations for direct presidential elections. By September, Roh was arrested during a protest at Daewoo Shipbuilding and spent three weeks in prison for aiding and abetting striking workers, resulting in a suspension of his license to practice law.

Forbidden to practice law, Roh turned to politics, using his high profile record in the pro-Democracy front to win election to the National Assembly in 1988. He held the seat for only one term, losing it after quitting his party in protest of a political merger he opposed.  His early efforts in politics were less than successful. From 1988 to 2000, Roh won only two out of six elections. In 1992, Roh ran again for a National Assembly seat as a member of a new party, representing his home base of Pusan, and lost. In 1995, he ran for mayor of Pusan and lost. In 1998, Roh tried once more for the National Assembly, this time from Seoul, and won a two-year term. In 2000, Roh returned to Pusan to run for the National Assembly and lost once again. Despite another election disappointment in 2000, a grassroots groundswell of support kept Roh from quitting his failing political career in despair. Two and a half years later, on December 19, 2002, amid a changing political climate, Roh won the presidency on the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) ticket by a clear majority.

President Roh, the most progressive to date of South Korea’s political leaders, emphasized his independence for US influence by boasting during his presidential campaign that he had “never set foot on American soil,” adding defiantly: “What’s wrong with anti-Americanism?” He hinted that, should relations with the US turn confrontational, South Korea might take sides with China. Reflective of the new politics, a campaign focused on ending labor conflicts, bridging regional rivalries and working with North Korea gave Roh Muh-hyun the presidency of a changing Republic of Korea in January 2003..

As a dark horse candidate, Roh campaigned on a willingness to negotiate with the North even after Pyongyang announced in October 2002 that it was actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program. His victory showed that most South Koreans do not regard the North’s nuclear weapon program as a threat to the South but as deterrence against US attack on the North. Despite decades of ideological estrangement, South Koreans do not want to see a US nuclear attack on their Northern brother. Such attacks would also have unspeakably adverse effects on the South including a severe anti-US backlash. The historical precedent of the US dropping two atomic bombs on Japan shows that another US nuclear attack in another Asian adversary is not unthinkable, unless North Korea develops an effective nuclear deterrence.

Most South Koreans feel privately that a unified Korea with nuclear weapons would not be a bad thing., but few will publicly say so. Still, as president, Roh has since explained, to avoid confrontation with the US, that his desire to keep open lines of communication does not mean he condones the North’s nuclear strategy as it is perceived by the US. “Regardless of what defensive strategy North Korea embraces, the series of nuclear measures taken by it is not desirable for peace and stability in Northeast Asia, including the Korean Peninsula,” Roh said. “It will not promote stability and prosperity for North Korea. North Korea must withdraw its recent nuclear measures and restore the relevant facilities and equipment to their original state.” Left unspoken publicly is a private call for the US to avoid pushing North Korea down a path of no return.

Economics Influences Politics

Yet, despite popular support for his conciliatory North Korea policy, Roh was dealt a sharp political setback in the May 31, 2006 local elections on account of domestic and economics issues. In both the mayoral and local council elections, Roh’s Uri Party received only 30% of the votes cast, winning none of the mayoral seats except one in North Jolla province. The ruling Uri Party lost every race -- six parliamentary, seven mayoral and gubernatorial, and 31 local legislative, including Roh’s hometown -- and failed to regain its majority in the National Assembly. Uri Party chairman Chung Dong-young resigned over the dismal election results, and although he was immediately replaced by Health and Welfare Minister Kim Geun-tae, there was serious danger that the ruling party itself could break up to leave Roh without political support in his final lame-duck year of office.

Uri party members were shaken by the sudden resignation of party chairman Chung, a potential presidential candidate. In his resignation speech, Chung said: “[We] must accept the people’s punishment of our party in a prudent and humble manner … we have failed to win public approval of our policies.” The party received another shock as former Prime Minister Goh Geon, a highly popular public figure, announced he was recruiting pragmatic reformers to create a new bipartisan group, intended to be the driving force behind Goh’s planned bid for the 2007 presidential election. Ironically, just before the May 31 elections, Uri party elders had attempted to bring Goh into the party, but a sizable number of Uri party members rushed to join Goh’s new group.

A history of disunity

The Uri party was largely the creation of a factional row inside the MDP when Roh, after his surprise election victory in 2002 as a liberal, refused to accommodate the conservative wing and resigned from the MDP on September 29, 2003. Roh’s supporters in the MDP formed the Uri Party, later officially recognized by the president as the new ruling party. The remnant MDP factions then joined forces with the opposition conservative GNP in a controversial move to impeach the liberal president in March 2004 on trumped-up charges of campaign illegality, corruption and incompetence in dealing with economic affairs.  The most serious charge was the alleged violation of the constitutional requirement of “political neutrality” on the part of pubic servants, including the head of state, committed by Roh when he openly appealed to the nation to support the Uri Party during a televised news conference with reporters on February 24, 2004. The impeachment was passed by the Assembly on March 12 but overturned by South Korea's Constitutional Court on May 14, 2004.

Despite early successes in the polls, the Uri Party in its short history has been plagued by disunity within its own ranks, going through 14 party chairmen in the last three years. The last party chairman to resign was Chung who was the most charismatic and popular figure in the party, and its prime candidate for the December 2007 election. With the Uri Party dissolved and many of its members flocking to Goh’s new group, the lame duck president is left with very little support in the National Assembly. In Korean politics, presidents traditionally serve out their final year in office without introducing new policy initiatives. Both former presidents Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam made very few policy changes in their final year. Reformers argue that a lame-duck administration in power for a whole year could negatively impact the economy and national interest in a time of rapid changes in the region and around the world.

Two mainstream faction leaders of the governing Uri Party on December 27, 2006 voiced their support for moves to dissolve the party and create a new political group to win back public confidence ahead of the December 2007 presidential election. In a meeting in Seoul, the party’s incumbent chairman, Kim Geun Tae, and his predecessor Chung Dong Young agreed to join forces to create a new party that unites all “pro-democracy reformists and future-oriented forces.’’

The agreement accelerated the breakup of the Uri Party which saw its approval rating hit a record low of less than 15%, making George Bush’s dismal 28% approval rating on January 22, 2007 look like a winner. Followers of President Roh opposed the move to create a new psrty. The latest opinion surveys showed Uri presidential hopefuls Kim and Chung lagging far behind probable candidates of the main opposition Grand National Party, (GNP), former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak and former GNP Chairwoman Park Geun Hye, by up to 30 percentage points..

Hostility towards the North, artificially inflamed by US Cold War manipulation, is a mismatch with deep-rooted Korean nationalism, as highlighted by the May 2002 North Korea visit of Ms Park Geun-hye, daughter of the late President Park Chung Hee.

The Park Geun-hye challenge

Less than two years after her dramatic visit to North Korea, Ms. Park was elected on March 23, 2004 chairwoman of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP), the conservative opposition to the liberal Roh government. Under her leadership, the GNP won local elections against the ruling liberal Uri Party which had increased spending on social services for the low-income and adopted  conciliatory policies towards North Korea while moving away from Cold War military alliances with the US and Japan.

the controversial GNP bid to impeach President Roh, later overturned by South Korea’s Constitutional Court on May 14, 2004, Ms. Park led her conservative GNP in the April 15, 2004 legislative elections to win 121 seats in the National Assembly, against the ruling liberal Uri party which won 152 seats from a total of 299 to maintain a slim majority. But four months later, on August 19, the Uri party suffered an embarrassing setback when party chairman Shin Ginam had to resign following revelations by a national investigation that his father had worked for the Japanese military police during Japanese occupation. The GNP then swept the nationwide local-level elections. During Ms. Kim’s tenure her party’s approval ratings rose to over 50%, despite of backlash from the unpopular impeachment call.

Ms. Park resigned her party post on June 16, 2006 in preparation for a presidential bid for the upcoming election slated for December 2007. Former Foreign Ministers Gong Ro-myung and Hong Soon-young, former deputy commander of the Korea-US Combined Forces Command Kim Jae-chang and former Korean Ambassador to Russia Lee Jae-choon formed an adviser group for Park to advise her to put South Korean policy on North Korea on a focus on reciprocity rather than indulgence while restoring close relations with Washington and Tokyo.

December 1, 2006, Ms. Park criticized President Roh Moo-hyun for opposing the creation of a new bi-partisan political party, saying it was up to the people to decide. In her 2007 New Year message, Park attack President Park’s liberal domestic policies and vowed to end the so-called “Korean disease”, a reference to Margaret Thatcher attack on the “British disease” of frequent labor strikes.

During a recent news conference in Qingdao, China, Ms. Park proposed linking Korea, China and Japan by means of a train-ferry system across the sea equipped with rails on deck to accommodate train cars that would enable Korea to take part in development projects deeper into China and tap energy resources in Central Asia. She said that such a regional project would be possible only with political cooperation between North and South Korea, China and Japan.

On November 2, 2006, Park said that regardless of personal political consequences, she would work to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, hinting at a second visit to North Korea. Her first visit to Pyongyang was in 2002, when she met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. She said then that although her mother was assassinated by a North Korean agent, she decided to meet Kim to help bring peace on the Korean Peninsula. It was a symbolic posture of a new South relationship with the North that blood is thicker than ideology.

From the beginning, Ms Park’s political path was paved by personal tragedy that gave her an aura of serene dignity. She lost her mother, then South Korea's first lady, to a North Korean assassin in 1974. Five years later, her father, Park Chung Hee, the nation's longtime military ruler, was gunned down by his CIA-installed-controlled intelligence chief.

But as her political star begins to rise in South Korea, now an unruly democracy, Park, 53, has transformed herself from an object of national sympathy into a statesperson of great expectation. She took control of the GNP, consolidating the nation’s largest conservative opposition force, which had lost public support through corruption scandals and an unpopular attempt to impeach the liberal President Roh.

As an early contender for the December 2007 presidential race that could make her South Korea's first female leader, Ms. Park traveled to Washington in mid-March 2005 on her first official visit to the US as head of the GNP, the opposition to the liberal Roh administration that rubs the US the wrong way. In three days of meetings with President Bush, administration officials and Congressional leaders, she called for strengthening US-South Korea ties which have been weakened in recent years as political differences over North Korea divided Bush and Roh. Bush sought to isolate North Korea as an evil state while Roh chose engagement and reconciliation with a fraternal regime. South Korea under Roh would not reverse its policy of active economic engagement with North Korea despite the North’s declaration that it has nuclear weapons. In response, Park’s GNP called for a parliamentary inquiry into Roh’s North Korea policy. Yet the difference between Park and Roh is one of tactics rather than strategy.

In an interview designed to solicit US support before her departure for Washington in March 2005, Park said South Korea needed to do more to force the North back to international talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear weapons program. South Korea and China have advocated a softer line with North Korea, while the United States and Japan have pushed for a tougher stance. Yet even with US support, Park’s hurdles toward the presidency lie in South Korea, where her father's legacy is being debated. Park Chung Hee, who came to power in a 1961 coup, is revered by conservatives as one that set South Korea on the path to prosperity with an industrial policy, but despised by liberals as a repressive violator of human rights. His efforts toward unification with the North, vetoed by the US, which cost him his life, were generally admired by all South Koreans.

Scandals and Past Skeletons

Members of the governing Uri Party of liberal political ideology, including several of Roh’s top aides who were arrested during Park Chung Hee’s era, have moved to create a truth commission that is compiling a list of South Koreans who collaborated with the pre-World War II Japanese government during its long occupation of the Korean Peninsula. GNP officials view the commission as an attempt to sully the image of Park Chung Hee, who served as a soldier in the Japanese army during the occupation. A public disgrace of Park could kill the political ambitions of his powerful daughter. Ironically, the investigation led to the embarrassing revelation of the sordid past of the late father of Uri Party chairman Shin Ginam.

Ms. Park’s political foes are also moving to list those who illegally benefited under her late father’s dictatorial reign. Park concedes that “Korean history needs to be reexamined”, acknowledging past human rights excesses. But she insisted such a review should be conducted by politically neutral parties and viewed in the context of the Cold War. In addition, she said, there should be an investigation of people who “committed pro-North acts under the guise of the pro-democracy movement” during her late father’s rule. Park may have difficulty connecting with younger South Koreans who, having no direct experience with the Korean War era, tend to be more anti-US and often view her late father and her party as relics of the repressive past encouraged by US occupation authority.  In defense, Ms. Park said:  “The past is the past. I'm looking toward the future.” As in many other parts of the world, pro-US positions are becoming domestic political liabilities in South Korea.

Oppositon to US Policy on North Korea

Both the ruling Uri Party and the opposition GNP do not support US policy on North Korea, with the difference that the Uri Party is more antagonistic towards the US. Just as it took a life-long anti-communist Nixon to open to communist China, a political leader of Ms. Park’s conservative credentials may be needed to break the artificial but deeply imbedded separation of the two Koreas imposed by the US since the beginning of the Cold War.

Ms. Park has the advantage of unmatched name recognition, personally untainted by corruption and scandals, and despite her conservatism, she has shown herself to be pragmatic and flexible on policy towards North Korea, favoring reconciliation and economic co-operation with the North, in contrast to others in her party who want a less indulgent approach. Park’s solid conservative credentials may give her credibility to open up cooperation with North Korea. In 2002, she traveled to Pyongyang to meet the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. By all accounts they got on well. Both are the offspring of charismatic figures who built the two Koreas in their own separate image: one a hard-driving economic powerhouse built by industrial policy and the other an unapologetic socialist state. Recent conservative successes in local elections will boost her chances of winning the hotly contended nomination as presidential candidate for the GNP. After two successive defeats, the party is desperate for victory in the next election in December 2007. But she still faces formidable rivals inside the party. Her ability to effectuate unification of Korea will be a major asset in her campaign.

Constitution Revision for Two-term Presidency

The five presidential hopefuls for the December 2007 election are former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak, Ms. Park Geun-hye, former Prime Minister Goh Kun, former GNP chairman Lee Hoi-chang , and former Gyeonggi Province governor Sohn Hak-kyu. With an approval rating of over 40%, Lee Myung-bak is currently the undisputed front-runner.

By current law, President Roh cannot seek re-election. His surprise proposal for a constitutional revision to allow future heads of state to seek a second term in office and reduce the term to four years from its current five, is widely seen as a gambit to turn the tide of the presidential race, as early opinion polls suggest candidates from the ruling Uri Party have little chance of winning in the December 2007 election. Indeed, the ruling Uri Party collapsed when up to 30 lawmakers quit the largest parliamentary bloc.

Roh’s proposed constitution change immediately divides South Korean politics along ideological lines, providing the ruling party an issue to rally its support base again. Roh argued that a change in the presidential term would bring stability and consistency in state affairs, saying the current single five-year term makes its leader a lame duck for almost his entire final year, at the expense of national interest. The proposal, however, is unlikely to pass the 296-member parliament, as the main opposition conservative GNP has vowed to kill the measure even before it is formally presented. In South Korea, a bill on a constitutional amendment must be endorsed by at least two-thirds of the members of the parliament and then pass a national referendum. The GNP has a block of 127 seats in the single-chamber legislature to the Uri Party’s 139 seats.

Still, President Roh is expected to host the second inter-Korean summit in the months leading up to the presidential vote. While North Korea has significantly increased tensions in Northeast Asia by conducting seven ballistic missile tests, including an abortive launch of the long-range Taepodong 2, and a dud nuclear test, the Bush administration described these tests only as provocative but not an immediate threat to US security. With universal non-proliferation increasingly becoming a broken dream, the US has openly relied on a nuclear missile defense regime as deterrence, coupled with a nuclear fatalism of selective proliferation for trusted allies, such as India, Japan, Taiwan and Israel, pitting against a losing non-proliferation battle against North Korea, Iran and a host of other minor states such as Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Germany.

Sympathy for North Korea

North Korea
, notwithstanding being labeled as evil, has never adopted suicidal policies. Without credible missile defense, for North Korea to attack the US, which possesses tens of thousands of nukes and accurate and reliable delivery systems for counterstrikes, would be suicidal. In other words, North Korea’s nuclear force logically is designed as only a defensive deterrence against first attacks from the US. This defensive deterrence nevertheless upsets the US because it enables North Korea to be geopolitically defiant of US hegemony without being blackmailed by the threat of a first strike from the US.

Still, for the US, reliance on deterrence against a North Korean fist strike is preferable than embracing reckless preemptive strikes on North Korea, which would unleash uncontrollable geopolitical consequences. Deterrence is also more preferable to escalating the nuclear crisis by adopting Japan’s suggestion of imposing comprehensive international economic sanctions. Tokyo and Washington seem to have forgotten that US embargo of oil in 1940 pushed Japan to attack Pearl Harbor.

The division of the Korean nation into two states of opposing ideology and economic systems was the result of US attempt to lure the USSR into WWII against Japan. After the war, it became part of the US policy of containment of global communism. More than 15 years after the fall of the USSR in 1991 and the end of Cold War paranoia of communism as a threat to liberal democracy, the antagonism between the two Koreas is a dysfunctional anachronism devoid of an operative cause. Korea has remained an unstable and dangerous flashpoint for no geopolitical purpose.  In a similar manner, the gulf between China and a US-protected Taiwan is also an outdated geopolitical anachronism that prevents a normal US-China relation from developing.

Not withstanding US fixation of promoting democracy around the world, democracy on every continent is producing governments that are critical if not outright hostile to US policies. Facing endless quagmire in Iraq, rising Iranian influence and the destabilizing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the US has decided that stability, not democracy, is its priority in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, a shift made clear by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her January 15, 2007 meeting with Egyptian leaders. It is a sobering shift from the delusional missionary policy of “Transformation Diplomacy” to spread democracy around the world promoted by her since the beginning of the Bush administration over six years ago.

US confrontational posture with North Korea leaves Koreans in the South and many other people in Asia and around the world exasperated. US “transformation” policy in Asia has escalated North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and engendered growing anti-US sentiment in South Korea and other parts of Asia. Even within US political circles, a rising number of analysts are questioning whether Washington’s East Asia security strategy serves US national interests, with US forces spread thin by the Iraq war and the war on terrorism and with the looming prospect of US troops stationed in South Korea becoming nuclear hostages.

Relations with US under review

South Korean relationships with the US have come under reviewed in South Korea as Korean domestic politics evolves with changes in global and regional geopolitical conditions. Controversy surrounds US handover of wartime military control of South Korea to Seoul. A group of 77 retired South Korean generals urged the Roh administration not to try to retrieve wartime operational control over its troops from the US during its tenure which ends in January 2008. Seo Joo-seok, senior presidential secretary for national security, said the South Korean government has a flexible attitude over when the wartime control should be transferred. The retired generals demanded in a public statement that the next president be allowed to decide the issue. They urged Roh not to discuss the timetable for the transfer during his summit with US President George W. Bush on September 14, 2006 in Washington, a month ahead of the Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) annual talks between defense ministers of the two countries.

In a letter to South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung, then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once again emphasized Washington’s wish to transfer operational control over South Korean troops to Seoul by 2009, three years earlier than South Korea’s initial deadline set for 2012. Rumdfeld, pressed for funds for the disastrous occupation of Iraq, called for South Korea to assume an “equitable amount” of defense costs. Many South Koreans interpreted it as a call for “a 50-50 split,” stirring controversy over the increasing financial burden on South Korean taxpayers. The looming burden of high defense expenditure provides an urgent incentive for South Korea to reduce tension with North Korea and to accelerate long-delayed unification.

On August 17, 2006, a month before his US visit, South Korea President Roh told a press conference that he was frustrated over the deadlocked relationship between the US and North Korea. Looking ahead to the upcoming summit, Roh told reporters that he felt it almost impossible to convince President Bush to mend fences with North Korea.

Closer Ties to China

Li Dunqiu, director of the Korean Peninsula Research Center of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, argues that South Korea would naturally move strategically closer to China because “Korea’s future lies with China, not with the US.” Many South Korean leaders agree with that argument in principle.  They see China and Korea sharing common interests that transcend current US-South Korea alliance of Cold War origin. Many political leaders in Asia see US insistence on perpetuating its post-WWII hegemony in Asia as a destabilizing factor that threatens prosperity and development in the region for the simple reason that the US is a non-Asian power external to the region that does not share cultural affinity or economic symbiosis with most of the region’s member states. All over Asia, and particularly in Korea and in the Taiwan Straits, the US works to maintain an unnatural status quo of superpower hegemony left by the Cold War in the name of promoting democracy against communism. Yet democratic processes around the world have repeatedly resulted in increasingly anti-US, left-leaning governments that oppose the neo-liberal policies promoted by the US. The US is the main obstacle in the reunification of Korea and the main obstacle in China’s recovery of Taiwan. China, on the other hand, wants the two Koreas to improve relations toward reunification because China believes a unified Korea would greatly reduce regional tension and strengthen stability to allow further economic development.

To reduce military expenses associated with US hegemony, the US is working to rearm Japan and strengthening India’s nuclear capability in order to launch a nuclear and conventional arms race in Asia. Applying Cold War strategy on the former USSR, the US aims to bankrupt Asia, particular China, with an all out arms race among major Asian powers to eliminate rising rivals of the US without a shooting war.

Despite the North Korean nuclear crisis and internecine ideological conflicts among domestic political parties, the state of the South Korean economy and its long-delayed economic recovery are issues foremost on the minds of the electorate. Despite President Roh’s repeated promises on restructuring the economy to re-energize growth, he is perceived as having squandered his political capital on peripheral issues, such as relocating the national capital from Seoul to a new $40 billion capital in the sleepy region of Gongju-Yongi, 160 km south of Seoul by 2020; rescinding the National Security Law and probing into past dirt that are better left alone. Economic growth for first quarter in 2005 fell to 3%, below 2004 growth and far below Roh’s promises of 7%, raising public and investor concern. The government front-loaded public sector spending in the beginning of 2005 in an attempt to jump-start the economy. Although 2005 growth rate reached 5.7%, growth in 2006 slowed back to 5%. Analysts expect 2007 to face a growth rate of below 5%. While it is obvious that economic growth in South Korea is dependent on closer economic relations with China, a recent report revealed that South Korea was forced to ditch a trade deal with China under US pressure. South Korea is currently pursuing a Free Trade Agreement with the US even though the experience with Free Trade Agreements between the US and other countries has not lived up to its promise for the weaker economy.

Roh emerged from his 2004 impeachment with a legislative majority, a severely weakened opposition, and a new popular mandate that provided a honeymoon period in which the electorate was generally supportive of his progressive policies. Yet he was unable to press his advantage to push reform legislation through the conservative-dominated National Assembly. Roh’s inaction dissipated public support and revived criticism of his policies and leadership. Acrimony within the National Assembly resumed, impairing the legislature’s ability to reach consensus on domestic reform bills. The resounding defeat suffered by the ruling Uri Party in the April 2005 by-elections reflected an electorate that remained frustrated over Roh’s failure to achieve progress on domestic economic issues. The main opposition GNP was emboldened to step up criticism of the president’s liberal domestic policies, his mishandling of relations with the US and his soft approach to North Korea.

Characterizing the legislative stalemate as an “emergency situation”, Roh was forced to accept the need for a coalition government, but elements of both likely coalition partners, the Democratic Labor Party and the Millennium Democratic Party, remained in opposition.

Yet the conservative opposition GNP has been unable to capitalize on Roh’s political weakness. Public support for the GNP in the April 2005 by-elections came as a negative reaction to Roh’s failures rather than a shift in support for conservative GNP policies. The GNP itself has been beset with bitter infighting between younger, reform-minded members and older, traditional conservatives. GNP Chairwoman Park Geun-hye was unable to bridge this generational gap, and the party remains divided, with the moderates gaining support from the “New Right” movement, a collection of conservative-minded Koreans who are critical of the old-style politics of the GNP. Since the elections, support for the GNP has fallen steadily with persistent rumors of a break-up of the party following the same fate of the ruling Uri Party. All in all, South Korean domestic politics is experiencing new dynamics driven by evolving global and regional geo-politics.

The collapse of the ruling Uri Party did not translate into support for any of the opposition parties. Current polls show public support to be declining for all political parties and evenly split among the three main parties. Roh’s dwindling political influence and lame duck status will impede further implementation of necessary political and fiscal reforms, undermine confidence in South Korea’s economic future, and hinder progress on resolving the North Korea crisis. The Deputy Premier for Finance and Economy recently warned that the South Korean economy “may fall into a long-term recession like that of Japan.” Full participation in and integration with the vast, rapidly growing economy of China is an opportunity that South cannot afford to miss.

Public discontent with the effect of globalization on South Korea’s protracted economic stagnation gave Roh a popular mandate to pursue increasingly nationalist and China-leaning policies. Anti-US sentiments were augmented by anti-Japan protests that echo Chinese complaints.

Relations with Japan

Strong public support was given to Roh’s vocal rhetoric against Japan in response to the dispute over the Dokdo Islets, two tiny rocky islets surrounded by 33 smaller rocks located 215 kilometers off the eastern border of Korea and 90 kilometers east of South Korea's Ullung Island. South Korea designated Dokdo 'Natural Monument No. 336' in 1982, a territory that was first incorporated into the Korean Silla Dynasty in 512 A.D.   Japan asserts that it had incorporated Dokdo, as a terra nullius, into the Japanese Empire on February 22, 1905 when the Governor of Shimane prefecture proclaimed the islets to be under the jurisdiction of the Oki Islands branch office of the Shimane prefecture government under the name “Takeshima”, cited in Shimane prefecture proclamation number 40 of that year.

The Dkodo islets dispute has its parallel in the Sino-Japanese territorial dispute over the Diaoyutai/Senakaku Islands. The island group - Diaoyutai in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese - is composed of eight small, uninhabited islands, sitting roughly 100 miles northeast of Taiwan and 250 miles west of Okinawa. The jurisdiction over uninhabited islets can mean the expansion of a nation's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and can bring extra resources, marine, mineral or petroleum, to enrich a nation’s national assets. In the case of the Diaoyutai/Senakaku Islands about 40,000 square kilometers of oil/gas rich EEZ is at stake.

The Japanese textbook issue concerning a revision of Japan role and atrocity in WWII is greeted with strong public protests and diplomatic complaints in South Korea, as it does in China. Sharing a common feeling with the Chinese, all Koreans are incensed by such revisions in recent Japanese militaristic and atrocious history.

The annual visits by Japanese leaders to Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to the spirit of those who died fighting on behalf of Japanese imperialism, have caused tension in Japan’s relation with its Asian neighbors nearly every year since 1975, when Prime Minister Miki Takeo first visited the shrine as a private individual on August 15, on the 30th anniversary of the day that Japan commemorates the end of WWII. The following year, his successor Fukufa Takeo visited as a private individual yet signed the visitors’ book as prime minister. Several other Japanese prime ministers visited the shrine since 1979: Massayoshi Ohira in 1979; Zenko Suzuki in 1980, 1981 and 1982; Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1983 and 1985; Kiichi Miyazawa in 1992; Ryutaro Hashimoto in 1996 and Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s 89th prime minister, visited annually six times from 2001 to 2006. These visits solicited official condemnation from neighboring Asian countries since 1985 as an attempt to legitimize and revitalize Japanese militarism. China has identified Koizumi by name as the obstacle to improving Sino-Japanese relations.

On October 17, 1978, 14 convicted Class-A war criminals were quietly enshrined as "Martyrs of Showa” as well as about 1,000 others convicted for war crimes during WWII. Prime Minister Koizuma last visited the shrine on 15 August 2006 which is also the day Korea commemorates its liberation from Japanese imperialist occupation. Japanese annexation of Korea and war crimes during that period is the heat source behind persistent anti-Japan sentiments in Korea.

Koizumi, George Bush’s favorite ally, valued alliance with the US over close ties with its Asian neighbors, arguing that a strong tie to the US strengthens Japan’s hand in dealing with China and South Korea. Koizumi’s foreign policy, divisive at home, led to the suspension of summit meetings with both China and South Korea during his premiership and put Japan’s Asian diplomacy in an untenable position. Opinion polls showed many Japanese opposed to Koizumi’s annual visits to the war shrine, calling on the next prime minister to mend ties with Japan’s Asian neighbors.

Makoto Iokibe, president of the National Defense Academy of Japan, wrote in an article that Koizumi’s shrine visits not only led to the worsening of Japan’s foreign relations, but also damaged Japan’s state “credit,” the precious “foreign policy assets.”

Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone said in an August 14, 2006 interview by The Nihon Keizai Shimbun; “Asian policy is something that Japan should act independently [from the US] to some extent. In Koizumi's case, there's been a belief that as long as ties with the US are good, everything else will take care of itself. But I think we should create a situation where the US gains greater understanding of China through Japan. A big task for the next premier is to improve relations with China and South Korea -- which have been unnecessarily strained by Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine -- so that the three nations can hold regular summit meetings as soon as possible.”

During their visits to Tokyo in May, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Singaporean Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew both criticized Koizumi’s shrine visits, saying the visits had led to the escalating tension in the region.

On his first visit to Japan since leaving office in February 2003, former South Korea President Kim Dae Jung openly criticized visits by Japanese politicians to Yasukuni Shrine, and proposed that the 14 Class-A war criminals be moved to a different location. He said, “If that option is realized, I will not express opposition to visits to Yasukuni Shrine [by Koizumi or other Japanese leaders.]”  Kim noted that Koizumi promised him at a meeting in Shanghai in 2001 to consider building a new secular memorial facility that could replace Yasukuni Shrine and enable anyone to worship there without hesitation.

has also been a vocal critic of the shrine visits. The issue of Yasukuni Shrine is just as heavily tied to China’s internal politics as it is to the historical conduct of Japan's military and its perceived remorse for its actions. Similarly, large segments of Roh’s political base in South Korea support strong anti-Japanese policy which is linked to anti-US rhetoric and policy on account of the US-Japanese alliance.

One step forward, one step back

Pyongyang’s behavior, which is dictated by North Korean domestic politics, will affect South Korean public perceptions of Roh’s engagement policy. North Korea’s agreement to a Joint Statement of principles on September 19, 2006 offered a respite to Roh’s declining popularity. In the Joint Statement, North Korea “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning at an early date to the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT) and to IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards.”

In the same Joint Statement, the US affirmed that “it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons.” South Korea reaffirmed “its commitment not to receive or deploy nuclear weapons in accordance with the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, while affirming that there exist no nuclear weapons within its territory.” All sides agree that “the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula should be observed and implemented.”

It seemed that the nuclear crisis was resolved by the September 19 Joint Statement. But in response to US provocation of freezing North Korean bank assets over alleged counterfeiting of dollars, an issue unrelated to nuclear proliferation, Pyongyang followed up with a provocative statement within 24 hours. There seemed to be a conflict between the US Treasury and the State Department on the nation’s approach to North Korea. Although the provocative North Korean statements reflected Pyongyang’s efforts to further define the terms of the vaguely worded statement rather than a categorical repudiation of negotiations, they dampened initial euphoria in South Korea and underscored that the thorny issues cannot be resolved with US intransigence.

South Korea
’s legislature and the general public also began to have second thoughts about the rising cost of Seoul’s engagement policy. South Korea’s proposal to provide two million kilowatts of electricity to the North would cost $11 billion through 2018 and was predicated on being in lieu of Seoul’s obligation to 70% of the cost of the $4.5 billion Light Water Reactor project. Despite $3.5 billion in South Korean aid during the past decade, Seoul has achieved little improvement in North Korean behavior due to US intransigence, resulting in rising anti-US sentiments in South Korea.

Roh has little remaining time to accomplish his policy objectives as his influence decreases exponentially towards the end of his term. It is increasingly apparent that as a lame duck leader, Roh is unable to provide effective leadership for the nation at a time of critical domestic and international challenges.

A Joint Statement by the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea released on January 14, 2007 at Cebu, the Philippines, expressed concern about North Korea’s missile launches and nuclear test and reaffirmed the need for full implementation of the UNSC Resolution 1695 and 1718 by all UN Member State, as well as their commitment to the peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue of the Korea Peninsula through dialogue and negotiation, the full implementation of the September 19 Joint Statement, the denuclearization of the Peninsula and satisfying humanitarian concerns. Yet the revival of Japanese militarism adds legitimacy to North Korea’s push for nuclear weapons on top of continuing US hostility.

Beside security concerns, there is powerful rationale pushing for closer economic integration among the three neighboring nations via progressive government regulations. The leaders also called for cooperation in informationization in the region. China, Japan and South Korea have started active exchange and cooperation in the areas of Linux, IPV6 technology and its standardization and 4G mobile communications that do not include US markets which are increasingly saddled with characteristics of underdevelopment through its fixation on market fundamentalism.

Next: Japanese Strategy for a “Beautiful Nation”