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Wasting a Golden Chance

South Korea's new president looks for friends in Washington.

1:38 PM, Apr 11, 2008 • By MICHAEL AUSLIN
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NEXT WEEK, new South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will visit
Washington on his first foreign trip abroad, hoping to cement closer
ties with the U.S. government. His hopes are likely to be dashed, and
the effect on the 50-year-old U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance
could be catastrophic. Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are
conspiring to yank the rug out from under Lee's feet.

Despite some early stumbles, including the resignation of some Cabinet
picks due to corruption charges, Lee has shown himself a bold and
visionary leader who intends to transform his country's relations with
the rest of the world. For Washington, there could be no better
partner in the work of stabilizing the Korean peninsula, improving
trilateral relations among the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, and
showcasing the strength of democracy in a region of the world that
desperately needs such examples.

Just this week, South Korean voters showed their weariness with a decade of appeasing neighboring North Korea and its Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. They gave Lee's Grand National Party (GNP) a resounding
victory in legislative elections and a majority in the National
Assembly. Lee now has a clear mandate to pursue his economic and
foreign policies. The question is whether Korea's closest
ally, the United States, will help or hinder the bold plans of the new
Korean leader.

President Lee is a former businessman, and has promised to double the
per capita income of South Koreans (to US$40,000 per year), as well as
achieve 7 percent annual economic growth. He plans to cut corporate
taxes, spur foreign investment in Korea, trim the federal bureaucracy,
and provide housing aid for those caught by the rise in property
prices. On the foreign front, Lee has made it clear that North Korea
will receive aid from the South only if it sticks to its promises to
denuclearize. In addition, Lee has called for a closer alliance with
the United States, warmer relations with Japan, and for making Korea a
bigger player in the global arena.

In response, the North Korean news agency has called the new President a "traitor" and sycophant to the Americans, all the while
warning the South that it will be turned to "ashes" if it continues to
threaten Kim Jong Il's regime. Pyongyang has also expelled a twelfth
South Korean official from one of its joint industrial-construction
projects in North Korea. The offense? Statements by South Korean
officials that continued cooperation would be difficult if the North
refused to move forward with denuclearization. Meanwhile, Pyongyang
launched a volley of short-range missiles in an attempt to intimidate
South Korea's voters from supporting President Lee's party in this
week's legislative elections.

But whereas South Korea's voters showed fortitude in choosing hope
over fear, American politicians are caving in to foreign and domestic
demons. North Korea, it seems, gets far more solicitude than our
ally. The State Department yesterday announced the latest "agreement"
between Assistant Secretary Chris Hill and North Korea, in which
Pyongyang promises yet again to give a full accounting of its nuclear
programs at another unspecified date, though it still doesn't have to
account for what weapons it has already produced nor how much
plutonium it has. The payoff this time? Delisting from the State
Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, which would give
Pyongyang a huge moral victory, not to mention access to international
financing currently restricted by its terrorist activities. Such a
declaration by Washington is likely to materially damage relations
with Japan, our main ally in Asia next to South Korea, and could
undercut Lee's attempt to hold Pyongyang's feet to the fire. In
addition, the Pentagon has brushed off Lee's requests to reconsider
dissolving the combined forces command that controls U.S. and ROK
troops in wartime, despite near universal opposition from South Korean
military officers.

Over on Capitol Hill, on the other hand, the Democratic-controlled
House of Representatives is doing its best to kill further free trade
agreements, including the one already signed with South Korea and
awaiting ratification. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may think it good
politics at home to destroy America's reputation among its allies, but
South Koreans won't be so forgiving of her motives. Korean officials
have hinted for months that the failure to pass the Korea-U.S. FTA
will have major repercussions on the alliance and will be interpreted
as a lack of American commitment to the relationship.

So what can President Lee expect from his trip to Washington? Lots of
niceties and little that will help him achieve his goals. Unless our
policies change soon, America will find itself increasingly isolated
in Asia, watching from the sidelines as China increases its influence
and North Korea bests Washington once again in international
diplomacy. South Korea and Japan will conclude that America is more
interested in avoiding trouble than in solving problems and
maintaining leadership. It is ironic that President Lee is coming
during the peak of cherry blossom season, since the good will between
Korea and the United States seems as fragile and fleeting
as the blossoms themselves.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian Studies at the American
Enterprise Institute.