Go to contents


60 years of Seoul-Washington alliance saw ups and downs in leadership ties

60 years of Seoul-Washington alliance saw ups and downs in leadership ties

Posted April. 19, 2014 04:55,   


The South Korea-U.S. alliance has been solidified over the last six decades, going beyond a security alliance to seek a 21st century value alliance. However, the relationships between leaders of the two allies have not always been smooth – mostly due to differences over North Korea. While there were times when leaders of the two countries were of the same mind over their North Korea policies, the leader of one side retired often by the time they struck harmony.

South Korean President Kim Young-sam and U.S. President Bill Clinton began their terms in office at the same time in 1993. At first, they seemed to hit it off. They also liked jogging. The scene of Clinton jogging side by side with Kim in Seoul in July 1993 was seen as a symbol of the Seoul-Washington ties. However, the two drifted far apart as South Korea was left out during the process of a North Korean nuclear crisis, Washington`s drawing up of a scenario for a surgical strike on the North and the subsequent Geneval‍ Agreement. When a North Korean submarine infiltrated the South`s east coast in 1995, an infuriated Kim attempted to take a military action, refusing to consult with the United States. Clinton protested the move, asking Kim if the nature of the Seoul-Washington alliance had changed.

Clinton and Kim Young-sam`s successor had a very close relationship to the extent that the U.S. president treated President Kim Dae-jung with high respect. Kim Dae-jung also consulted with Clinton over the South Korean president`s planned visit to Pyongyang. However, Clinton`s successor, George W. Bush, clashed with Seoul on every opportunity. Kim Dae-jung`s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin and support of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty were seen as an opposition to the U.S.-led missile defense, creating a major stir in the Seoul-Washington ties. Bush`s reference to Kim as "this man" during a summit caused another controversy. The Kim administration`s initiatives for improved inter-Korean relations took a setback after the Bush administration raised suspicions over Pyongyang`s highly enriched uranium program, causing the second North Korea nuclear crisis.

The relationship between Bush and Kim`s successor, Roh Moo-hyun, " was close to the worst ever," former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow put it. As Bush referred to the then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il a "pigmy" and called the North "an outpost of tyranny" and a "rogue state," the Roh administration, which succeeded to Kim Dae-jung`s "sunshine policy," could not hide its bewilderment. Roh, who once asked, "What`s wrong with being anti-American?" was depreciated by key U.S. officials such as former U.S. State Secretary Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who described the South Korean president as an "unpredictable" and "crazy" person in their autobiographies. However, Roh sent South Korean troops to Iraq to support the U.S. war on terrorism and signed a free trade agreement with Washington.

Roh`s successor, Lee Myung-bak, showed his personal friendship with Bush and was invited to Camp David. But Lee had only one year of his term overlapping with Bush`s. Lee received U.S. support following the North`s provocations such as a torpedo attack on a naval vessel and shelling of a frontline island. But the support was largely due to the bilateral security cooperation, rather than the leaders` ties.