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News Releases on Asia

January 23, 2003

January 23, 2003 | News Releases on Asia

Asia Expert Suggests Ways to Improve U.S. - South Korea Alliance

The alliance between South Korea and the United States remains stronger than media images would suggest, but leaders on both sides should take steps to strengthen their relationship and tone down the nationalist sentiments now straining it, a new Heritage Foundation paper says.

"Anti-American protests in South Korea are not new," says Balbina Hwang, policy analyst for Northeast Asia in Heritage's Asian Studies Center. "In fact, during the 50 years we've had a formal relationship with South Korea, anti-American sentiments have flared up quite often. So we shouldn't assume the current rift can't be mended."

The problem today, Hwang says, lies in the different ways that Americans and South Koreans view North Korea. The United States sees the brutal regime in Pyongyang producing and proliferating ballistic missiles-and vowing to reactivate its nuclear weapons program-and sees a regional and global threat. Not so South Korea, she says.

"South Koreans see a regime so desperate that it allowed millions of its own citizens to starve to death," Hwang says. "They find it hard to accept such a regime as a menacing threat to a country at least 50 times stronger economically."

The Bush administration can help defuse the tension, Hwang says, by making a greater effort to explain the rationale behind the U.S. presence, which would underscore the fact that both nations benefit from their long-standing security arrangement.

A well-mounted education campaign could dispel misperceptions on both sides, such as the notion that the United States foots the entire bill for stationing its 37,000 troops in South Korea-the actual figure is closer to 50 percent. Or the idea that the Americans who accidentally struck two South Korea girls last June somehow escaped justice by being tried in a military court instead of a civilian one. (South Korean troops have the same privilege, Hwang notes.)

U.S. officials also should work to reduce the "American footprint" on the peninsula, Hwang says, while improving military training opportunities. Refraining whenever possible from conducting military training exercises near populated civilian areas would also help, she adds.

South Korea can do its part, Hwang says, by ensuring that its people understand the seriousness of the threat posed by North Korea.

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