Speaking at a New Year press conference Jan. 25, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun said "I do not agree to some opinions in the U.S. which appear to be in favor of toppling, pressuring and raising questions against North Korea." He followed this up, in a more conciliatory tone, with "As there are no signs of the U.S. adopting such measures, there are no differences of opinion between Washington and Seoul."
Roh’s comments play on several different topics, including accusations of North Korean counterfeiting, pressure for Seoul to join Washington’s Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and shifts in the U.S.-ROK strategic alliance. In particular, his comment is directed at North Korea, which has accused Washington of raising the counterfeiting issue now as justification for shifting away from dialogue and back toward the end-goal of regime change in North Korea. By announcing his differences with “toppling, pressuring and raising questions against North Korea,” Roh hopes to reassure Pyongyang that South Korea is not suddenly shifting its strategic imitative toward engagement.
Roh is concerned that the recent agreement with Washington to allow “strategic flexibility” of U.S. forces stationed in South Korea could be interpreted by the North as Seoul giving a green light to U.S. forces to carry out operations against North Korea. The same applies to Seoul’s agreement to at least observe the PSI, which was established to help isolate North Korea and prevent Pyongyang from trading missiles, missile parts and possible nuclear or other weapons technology.
In both its agreement to allow strategic flexibility and to participate – albeit mostly passively – in the PSI, Seoul has made sure that its actions are ambiguous enough not to aggravate the North, particularly at a time where Beijing appears to have nearly convinced Pyongyang to return to the six-party negotiating table in early February.
But Roh is also making it clear that he is not opposed to working with nor maintaining close relations with the United States – a tone he feels necessary if Seoul is to have any leverage in shaping Washington’s North Korea policy. Thus, allowing strategic flexibility – however controlled – joining in the PSI – even if from the periphery – and saying there are “are no differences of opinion between Washington and Seoul” are all meant to send the signal to Washington that Roh knows where his true ally is.
And so he continues to try to walk between the two fronts – and to take on the role of mediator between Pyongyang and Washington (even if this may put Seoul in competition with Beijing for that role). Roh sees South Korea’s future tied with the North, the economic and security future dependent on maintaining relatively peaceful relations and eventually drifting into reunification – so that the combined 77 million Koreans can compete together on a world stage – unified rather than divided. At the same time, he sees the United States as a necessary ally even for a unified Korea, as the peninsula may find itself in the not-to-distant future caught between a China and Japan increasingly hostile toward one another.
In the end, it is geography that will define Korea’s future – just as it has defined its history – and the minnow between two whales needs the strength of unity and the protection of the outside power (Washington) to keep it from being crushed between its two neighbors or simply consumed by one of them.