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BMD Focus: Turnaround in Seoul -- Part 1

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst   |   Jan. 22, 2008 at 8:15 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- Lose a key ally on ballistic missile defense, gain a key ally on ballistic missile defense.

Late last year, as we noted in these columns, President Bush lost a crucial ally in his efforts to deploy ballistic missile defenses in Europe to help defend that continent and the United States from the future threat of Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles. Pro-American Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski was replaced after a general election defeat by Donald Tusk, who wants to improve Warsaw's previously strained relations with Russia. As part of this change, Tusk and his top ministers have already sent out strong signals that they may not agree with allowing a base for 10 U.S. Ground-based Mid-course Interceptors, or GBIs, to intercept Iranian missiles, to be built in their country.

However, now the opposite dynamic is taking place at the other end of the Eurasian land mass. Outgoing South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is being replaced by the dynamic Lee Myung-bak. And President-elect Lee and his transition team have already sent their own strong signals that as part of their overall master-plan to revitalize the venerable Washington-Seoul alliance, they are going to step up their country's BMD programs and, like neighboring Japan, join with the United States in developing them.

Rep. Chung Mong-joon, President-elect Lee's handpicked special envoy on U.S.-South Korean relations, said Tuesday the new leader in Seoul was determined to improve ties between the two allies for more than 60 years following a significant erosion in the relationship under the two previous liberal administrations of Presidents Roh and Kim Dae-jung.

"South Korea-U.S. relations have been seriously damaged because there has been a lack of sincere dialog between the two sides," Chung told reporters during a visit to Washington Tuesday, the Korea Times reported.

Chung's comments followed an earlier Korea Times report Sunday that the South Korean Defense Ministry had already given Lee's power transition team an outline update on the status of the U.S.-led global missile defense, or MD, network on Jan. 8.

"In a report to the transition team, the ministry explained defense reforms, transfer war time operational control, U.N. peace-keeping forces," a South Korean Defense Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the newspaper, the source said. "The missile defense (network) was also included."

So far, both Defense Ministry officials in Seoul and members of Lee's inner circle are treating the issue of a boosted BMD program with great caution.

The South Korean defense official stressed that the Jan. 8 briefing did not involve any advocacy in BMD to the incoming government. "Personally, I think the MD should be carefully decided by the next government," he told the Korea Times.

Also, Lee Dong-kwan, the spokesman for the president-elect's transition team, emphasized that the briefing in no way committed the new government to changing the cautious BMD development programs it had inherited, let alone committing itself to participation with the United States in international BMD programs.

"Like the Proliferation Security Initiative, we should deal with the MD very carefully," Lee-Dong-kwan said, according to the Korea Times.

The newspaper noted that under outgoing President Roh, South Korea refused to participate in the international missile defense development initiative with the United States because North Korea, China and Russia were all so opposed to it. The paper also noted the increased financial costs that South Korea would incur from such a commitment.

However, the Korea Times reported that Lee's transition team was already studying the possibility of joining the U.S-led MD development program as part of its overall strategy of boosting and restoring frayed ties with Washington.

The paper said that Hyun In-taek, who it described as "one of the two major foreign policy makers of the incoming government," had already argued specifically for South Korea's active involvement in the MD program.

--

(Next: SM-3s for Sejong the Great)

© 2008 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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