Anti-American sentiment is rife in South Korea today, and as Roh, 56, prepares to move into the Blue House next February for a five-year presidential term, a sea change in U.S.-South Korean relations appears to be under way. In his first postvictory public utterances, the President-elect said he wants South Korea to be treated as an equal by the U.S., not as a ward. And despite his lack of foreign-policy experience, he made it clear that his incoming administration will not defer to the U.S. on North Korean diplomacy. "The traditional friendship and alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States must mature and advance in the 21st century," Roh said in his first postelection news conference.
South Korea's new assertiveness—and the wave of sometimes violent anti-American street protests that go along with it—represents "a wake up call for the Bush Administration," says Victor Cha, an expert on the military alliance between Seoul and Washington at Georgetown University. "Something is really wrong." What's wrong is the allies' increasingly divergent diplomatic strategies over the question of North Korea. The U.S. has 37,000 troops stationed in the South to deter the North Korean army from swarming over the 38th parallel and into Seoul, which is only about 64 kilometers from the border. U.S. citizens can't rest easy, either. The North is thought to be developing missiles that can strike Alaska and possibly the West Coast. Washington has cut off all dialogue with North Korea as well as oil shipments.
But more than half of South Koreans, particularly younger voters, don't see the Stalinist North as a menace, according to a recent poll by Gallup and the South's Chosun Ilbo newspaper. They view the impoverished country as they might an aggressive panhandler who, through assistance and negotiation, can be coaxed into becoming a good citizen; and they see America's hard-line policy as a needless provocation of unpredictable dictator Kim Jong Il. "There is a totally different threat perception between South Koreans and Americans," says Balbina Hwang, a Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Roh does not have an overwhelming mandate from voters. The election turnout was low, and his 48.9% of the vote was just a 2.3 percentage point margin of victory over conservative opponent Lee Hoi Chang. Lee, 67, nearly squeaked into office by talking tough on North Korea. He argued that the North's recent confession of pursuing nuclear weapons in violation of international accords clearly showed that outgoing President Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine" engagement policy had failed. But South Korea's younger voters, who grew up during the years when the country was run by military dictators propped up by the U.S., swung the election for Roh.
And Roh, who was tapped by the leading Millennium Democratic Party as the candidate to succeed Kim, is committed to engagement. A self-taught lawyer who never attended university, Roh acquired his liberal credentials by defending students and workers on strike who ran foul of the country's draconian national securities law. A card-carrying idealist, he once suggested that U.S. troops be ejected from Korean soil.
During the presidential race, Roh adopted a more moderate stance. But he rides into office on a surge of nationalistic self-confidence that will make him a tough sell when George W. Bush comes calling to persuade him to cut economic aid to North Korea. One day after the election, Bush called Roh to proffer his congratulations and to invite him to Washington.
Meanwhile, Roh was offering assurances that "nothing will change drastically" in the Seoul-Washington relationship. "I'm not anti-American," he said during the election campaign. "I just don't think we need to kowtow to the U.S." South Korea's new President will soon have a chance to show if that means his nation can lead instead of follow.