Powell To Assess New South Korean Leader

July 7, 2008 - 8:13 PM

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Secretary of State Colin Powell heads Monday to South Korea, where he will attend the inauguration of a new leader whose views of the U.S. have provoked much comment since his election two months ago.

Former human rights lawyer Roh Moo-hyun, who will be sworn in Tuesday as South Korea's president for the next five years, has never visited the U.S., and he campaigned on a platform calling for a "more balanced" military alliance between Seoul and Washington.

His election victory came largely thanks for younger voters, many of whom were born after the Korean War and do not necessarily regard North Korea as an enemy.

Anti-U.S. protests in South Korea late last year prompted some calls by conservatives to withdraw the 37,000 American troops stationed there under a 50-year-old security pact.

In his young activist days, Roh himself once called for U.S. troops to leave Korea, but he says he has since changed his view.

Shortly after his election, he told supporters he would not "kowtow" to Washington.

But a few days later, he visited the U.S.-Korean combined forces command in Seoul and emphasized that the U.S. forces' presence was needed for "peace and stability" on the Korean peninsula, and would continue to be in the future.

He gave the same assurance to the visiting Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Affairs James Kelly.

Before heading for Seoul, Powell spoke about the situation.

"In Korea, there are people who do not remember the strong unity between Korea and the U.S. which has continued for the past half century," he told a press conference in Japan.

Powell said there were always "trials and challenges" in relations between countries, but predicted the alliance would remain strong.

No American military figures have hinted at any move to pull out troops from the country, although a negotiated restructuring of the forces does look likely in the months ahead.

U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Leon LaPorte told a seminar in Seoul last week that the early days of the Roh administration would see a "reassessment and reaffirmation" of the military alliance.

The issue of South Korea's ties with the U.S. is intertwined with North Korea's recent moves to revive and expand its nuclear program, in defiance of international agreements.

Like outgoing President Kim Dae-jung, Roh supports a policy of engagement with North Korea that domestic critics say is little better than appeasement.

Both the departing and incoming presidents oppose sanctions as a tool to rein in Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog has reported North Korea's actions to the Security Council, which could consider punitive measures.

Although North Korea continues to demand bilateral talks with Washington, Powell reiterated at the weekend that any U.S. dialogue would be within a multilateral framework.

But Powell also said the U.S. may resume food aid for the impoverished communist country soon. The aid stopped late last year, in part because of U.S. unhappiness with the monitoring of the food distribution.

Powell's visit follows stopovers in Beijing and Tokyo, on a brief regional tour dominated by the standoff with North Korea, and the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction crisis.

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