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Seoul's Push to Regain Wartime Control From U.S. Divides South Koreans
That policy has been directly at odds with South Korea's approach of broad economic engagement. Hoping to bring the North out of its communist shell, the South has poured billions of dollars into tourism and industrial projects just across the border.
Roh administration officials have repeatedly suggested that the threat posed by North Korea has been exaggerated. U.S. officials say the difference in threat perception may be one reason Seoul and Washington are now mired in a series of squabbles over the realignment of U.S. forces in South Korea, including delays in the creation of a new bombing range as well as toughened environmental oversight by South Korean regulators.
These days, the Roh administration has begun to view a more assertive Japan -- Washington's closest ally in Asia -- as posing more of a long-term threat to Seoul's national security than North Korea.
"If you can't agree on who the enemy is, it raises some pretty fundamental questions about the reasons for your alliance," said a U.S. official familiar with South Korean policy who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Roh administration officials also concede that there are problems in the relationship, but say the foundation of the alliance remains intact.
"I cannot say the relationship is perfectly good," said a ranking South Korean official who also spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue. "The question is how to handle North Korea."
In Washington, a senior State Department official portrayed the U.S.-South Korea relationship as generally healthy.
While saying that Roh has a "tendency to frame issues, including important alliance matters, in a narrow nationalist perspective," the official noted that the United States and South Korea are both seeking a handover in wartime command and that changes are being implemented through bilateral agreements.
South Korea's military "is extremely capable now, so it makes sense for us to start playing a supporting role," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Most analysts agree that South Korea and the United States still have more to gain together than apart, but that improvements in their relationship are unlikely to happen soon.
"We won't see a major improvement in the alliance until the current leadership changes," said Lee Jung Hoon, professor of international relations at Seoul's Yonsei University. "After that, the challenge will be about mending fences."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.