Changing Winds in the S.Korea-U.S. Alliance

  • By Kang In-sun from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk

    July 21, 2010 13:40

    Kang In-sun

    South Korea's relations with the United States seem to be the warmest they have been in a long time. The "two plus two" meeting of the defense and foreign ministers of the two countries, the first of its kind in the 57-year history of the alliance, is held on Wednesday. In Asia, this kind of meeting used to be between the U.S. and Japan alone, but it was suspended in 2006.

    U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visits the country for an unprecedentedly long four days to send a message of unity to North Korea. The U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington steams into Busan port on Wednesday, and a number of F-22 stealth fighters will take part in the joint South Korea-U.S. military drills, now to be conducted in the East Sea in late July. In addition, the two countries have agreed to postpone the transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean forces to Seoul by three years and seven months, and President Barack Obama has nothing but praise for Korea.

    The personal goodwill between the two presidents plays a big part. But something sticks in the craw, because it recalls a similar situation in the past.

    U.S.-Japan relations from 2001 to 2006 under President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi were equally friendly. The two leaders were so close that their staff became nervous because they would rush into agreeing matters that had not been fully reviewed by working-level officials. Bush invited Koizumi to his ranch in Texas and drove his guest aboard his truck, a rare honor. To celebrate Koizumi's birthday, Bush took him round Elvis Presley's birthplace. Theirs was an extraordinary friendship.

    As a result, Japan looked like a more important country than ever before to Americans. Some pundits said Japan had "finally" been elevated to an ally on the same level as Britain. But as soon as the leaders of the two countries changed, relations suddenly chilled, especially when prime minister Yukio Hatoyama called for a more equal relationship with the U.S. Some Asia experts in Washington were completely surprised by the change, but it just goes to show that there are no eternal enemies or eternal friends in international politics.

    When the chance arises, Washington-Tokyo relations will no doubt be restored. The same goes for South Korea. Seoul-Washington relations can easily get as rough again as they were under the previous administrations.

    The only changing factor is China. Seoul's efforts to hold North Korea to account for sinking the Navy corvette Cheonan were frustrated by China's objections. Beijing's protests against joint South Korea-U.S. drills in the West Sea show that China sees the Seoul-Washington alliance with new eyes. How to deal with Beijing has emerged as the most difficult challenge for the alliance. Its strength depends on how the two allies meet that challenge.

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