As Tensions Subside Between Two Koreas, U.S. Strives to Adjust
Thaw Strains South's Alliance With Washington
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page A16
PANMUNJOM, South Korea -- North and South Korea have long engaged in a bitter war of words around this tiny truce village and lobbed propaganda at each other -- the South professing the glories of capitalism, the North once threatening to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire."
But with an unmistakable thaw on the Cold War's last frontier, depressions in the earth are all that remain of freshly dismantled political billboards around Panmunjom, the site of the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. Three weeks ago, the loudspeakers that once blasted competing slogans fell silent, symbolizing the new spirit of amity between North and South.
"We, from one blood and using one language, can no longer live separated," bellowed the last message from the North . "We must put the earliest possible end to the tragedy of national division."
Other changes are on the way. By October, the United States will pull most of its 216 troops from in and around the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom as part of the largest realignment of American forces on the peninsula since the Korean War. In August, about 3,600 of the 37,000 U.S. troops now based in South Korea will leave for Iraq. Plans are in place for an overall reduction in forces by almost a third by as early as December 2005.
Over the next few years, remaining U.S. troops will relocate about 75 miles south of the front lines -- putting them out of North Korean artillery range. The 41 occupied U.S. military installations in South Korea will be condensed to 23.
The U.S. military realignment combined with the rapprochement is raising new questions about the U.S. role in this part of Asia.
"The South's new relationship with the North has changed the nature of the South Korean-U.S. alliance, and we are still trying to figure out what the new one will look like," said Bong Geun Jun, a former senior policy adviser in South Korea's Unification Ministry. "The truth is, we have a better relationship now with the North and feel less threatened by them. That also means we feel less of a need to rely on the U.S."
The Bush administration has sought to isolate the North, mostly to force it to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. But many South Koreans say they believe the North should not be considered part of President Bush's "axis of evil," which also included Iran and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Few in the South would express support for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, whose repressive government is notorious for its brutal prison camps and the bizarre personality cult centered on Kim. But many, particularly young people with no memories of the war, perceive the North as a brother in need.
South Korea and the United States are especially at odds over whether North Korea, whose forces swept over the peninsula in 1950 before being repelled with the aid of U.S. and other troops, is as threatening as it once was.
South Korea's latest best-selling novel embraces a popular conspiracy theory: that the United States wants to suppress Korean reunification and provoke a war between the two Koreas after moving its troops out of harm's way. That book, "The Third Scenario," has sold over 200,000 copies in the seven weeks since its release.
"The essential point that has held the alliance together for so many years has been North Korea," said Don Oberdorfer, Washington-based author of "The Two Koreas" and a former Washington Post diplomatic correspondent. "And the problem is that, increasingly, there is a fundamentally different point of view between South Korea and the United States on the North. So, of course, you see a strain on the alliance."
At the same time, President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea, elected with the support of young voters, including many who oppose Seoul's close alliance with Washington, has pursued what some of his own aides have described as a more independent foreign policy. It has led the Roh administration to forge closer ties with China, North Korea's traditional ally, which has surpassed the United States as South Korea's largest trading partner.
In the 18 months since the government in Pyongyang, the capital, abandoned the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, estimates by U.S. intelligence indicate that North Korea has developed as many as eight nuclear devices. The Seoul metropolitan area, home to almost half the country's population, had long been viewed as Pyongyang's primary target, with an estimated 1 million people projected to be killed in the first 24 hours of an assault.
But even as alarm bells ring in neighboring Japan, many South Koreans no longer appear to perceive a significant risk.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company