Commentary: Washington and Seoul: Drifting Further Apart?

It was a mind-wrenching scene on the last frontier of the Cold War. As six nations squared off for a diplomatic sparring match over North Korean nuclear arms in Beijing at the end of August, a competition of a different sort was under way in Daegu, South Korea. There, 11,000 students gathered for the World University Games, including competitors from South and North Korea. But there was no rancor. When a North Korean cheering squad started up a chant of "We are one," students from both ends of the divided peninsula joined in lustily. And during a North Korea-U.S. volleyball match, fans booed the Americans and cheered North Korea.

Maybe U.S. negotiators should attend games like these. They show how differently North Korea is viewed in South Korea these days. American policymakers, of course, already know that many young South Koreans feel resentful of the U.S. and protective of their North Korean cousins. Such sentiments helped elect activist Roh Moo Hyun President last December. Still, the U.S. thought it had won a victory when it finally forced Kim Jong Il to accept the six-party talks, which included the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, China, and the U.S.

Instead, the talks, which ended on Aug. 29, just reinforced anti-American sentiment, with critics in Seoul denouncing the U.S. for its stubbornness. The North said it would give up its nuclear ambitions if the U.S. would at the same time guarantee it against attack. The U.S., however, refuses to even talk about concessions until Pyongyang abandons its bomb program. South Korean officials think Washington should be more flexible.

However naive it may seem, many South Koreans have lost their fear of the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang and embraced Dear Leader Kim as a partner in reunification. To these doves, it's the hard-liners in the Bush Administration who are blocking a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis. Roh, while trying to work with Washington, also insists on maintaining economic cooperation with the North despite the nuclear issue, whatever the U.S. thinks.

There's another twist: Seoul's new appreciation of China, its big trading partner. The South Korean media played up a Sept. 1 comment made by China's chief delegate to the talks, Vice-Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when he declared that U.S. intransigence is "the main problem we are facing." For South Korean youths with no memory of the Korean War, China is seen as a cultural partner and promoter of regional peace, while the U.S. is the bully.

Seoul's growing ties with Beijing and Pyongyang present Washington with a dilemma. Caving in to the North's demands seems unthinkable. Ignoring the wishes of its ally in the South also seems impossible. Either way, the U.S.-Korean alliance is changing profoundly.

By Moon Ihlwan

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