SEOUL, South Korea - South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun visited the U.S. military's Korean headquarters yesterday in a symbolic gesture to North Korea, the United States and conservative critics at home that the alliance between his nation and Washington remains strong.
Roh, 56, was elected four weeks ago at what seemed a peak of anti-American sentiment, and his victory over a more hawkish, pro-American candidate raised questions about the future of South Korea's relationship with the United States, a country Roh has never visited.
Yesterday, he made a highly public effort to demonstrate that South Korea will continue to depend on the United States, which maintains a force of 37,000 troops here. His move was calculated, advisers said, to send a message of solidarity at a time when North Korea has raised tensions here and in Washington about its nuclear ambitions.
"The Korea-U.S. alliance is the driving force assuring security in South Korea, and this is the backbone of our development and prosperity," Roh told an audience of more than 100 American and South Korean military officers and aides. Though stressing the need for diplomacy with the North, he declared: "We will never accept North Korea's development of a nuclear program."
Roh struck an altogether different tone than at the end of his election campaign, when he said that South Korea should no longer automatically endorse American positions in disputes with North Korea. Those comments came hours before the voting on Dec. 19, the climax of a campaign that tapped into a wave of Korean nationalism among young people far removed from the Korean War of 1950 to 1953.
Since his election, Roh has said that he would be "more responsible" in commenting on foreign affairs.
U.S. officials have given cautious appraisals of Roh, who became a lawyer and political activist after being raised in poverty. He will be inaugurated Feb. 25 as president of a nation of 48 million people.
"He comes in with less international experience than probably any president of any major country I can think of," said a U.S. diplomat in Seoul. "To a large degree, he's a blank slate."
This week, though, Roh has twice gone out of his way to speak favorably about the United States. After meeting Monday with Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, Roh talked of the important friendship between their countries. And with his ceremonial visit yesterday to Yongsan Garrison, the 630-acre U.S. Army base that dominates the heart of Seoul, Roh put a more formal imprimatur on the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
"That's precisely the message that the president-elect wanted to underscore, the solidarity," said Ben Q. Limb, a Roh adviser. "He wanted to make sure that there's no doubt about his position with respect to the presence of the United States' forces in Korea."
His comments also signaled North Korea about the solidarity of the alliance with the United States before the two Koreas hold high-level talks scheduled to begin next week.
"If any party or any country misunderstands as to what the president-elect's position is on the Korea-U.S. alliance, I think that country will make a mistake," Limb said.
Roh's comments will likely reassure conservative critics worried about Seoul's tattered relations with Washington. Young Koreans were angered when a U.S. military court acquitted two soldiers in November in an accident in which their military vehicle struck and killed two teen-age girls.
According to recent polls conducted by the Pew Research Center and Korea Gallup, more South Koreans have an unfavorable view of the United States than have a favorable view. Roh's election as president was viewed as a confirmation of those sentiments.
Chosun Ilbo, the popular conservative daily that commissioned the Gallup poll, chastised Roh in an editorial for U.S.-South Korean relations being "at the worst point in their history," and urged him to "state quite clearly, and at every opportunity, that he wholeheartedly is in support of U.S. forces being in the country and of the U.S.-Korea alliance."
Roh insisted yesterday that the breadth of anti-U.S. sentiment had been exaggerated.
"The majority of the Korean population doesn't forget the fact that the U.S. service members came to Korea to support us during the Korean War to ensure peace and freedom, sacrificing their blood in order to do so."
Roh thanked the American forces at Yongsan for coming halfway across the globe to provide security on the Korean peninsula and acknowledged the hardships imposed on the soldiers by a curfew that has reduced contacts between Americans and South Koreans.
Roh, who spoke in Korean, tempered his remarks by noting that South Koreans are "demanding" improvements in relations. He asked that Americans "take the initiative" for ensuring that the alliance continues to be strong.