- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

SEOUL — President Roh Moo-hyun regards his first visit to the United States this week primarily as an effort to clear up misconceptions about himself.

Whether the issue is the future of U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula, President Bush’s handling of the crisis with North Korea or confidence in Mr. Roh’s efforts to reform his country economically, the South Korean leader repeatedly insisted in an interview with The Washington Times here that he is misunderstood by Americans.

“I think that many Americans do not know me well, and some of them may have doubts about me, and I will try my best to resolve all these doubts about me during this visit,” the 56-year-old Mr. Roh, who speaks little English, said through an interpreter.

In the one-hour interview at the Blue House, South Korea’s stately presidential mansion marked by a distinctive blue-tie roof, that he hopes his visit to Washington will reassure his own people, who fear that Mr. Bush’s assurances that the nuclear standoff with North Korea can be resolved through diplomacy “may change at any minute.”

Although strong anti-American sentiment in South Korea was widely regarded as a factor in his narrow election victory, Mr. Roh made clear during the interview that “there are no major obstacles for the U.S. forces to stay in Korea,” and that he will champion a permanent U.S. military presence in his country.

There are 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea to deter an attack by communist North Korea, which keeps a standing army of more than 1 million along the world’s most heavily militarized border.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in early March raised the possibility of moving some of those troops away from the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the North and the South, or even out of South Korea altogether. Mr. Rumsfeld said at the time that Mr. Roh had asked Washington to “look at how we might rebalance our relationship and our force structure.”

Mr. Roh, however, has not discussed the issue further with Washington, and, with North Korea’s increasing belligerency, insists he has always been a full supporter of keeping the U.S. military on the Korean Peninsula.

Asked what message he wants to leave in the United States, Mr. Roh — for decades a voice for reform in South Korean business and politics and who was elected president in December — said: “I want to be portrayed as a statesman who is reasonable, who is honest, who is transparent and pulls through with his convictions. I have so far believed that the American system is a very reasonable and rational one.

“And, therefore, by saying that I want to be portrayed as a reasonable statesman, it means that I want to get along well with the politicians and the people of the United States.”

Misperceptions of him in the U.S. media, he explained, include impressions that he is soft in dealing with North Korea, that he is biased against America, that he wants to reduce the long-standing U.S. military presence in South Korea and that he is antibusiness because of his longtime affiliation with South Korean labor unions.

“It’s not just me who feels that way,” Mr. Roh said. “Many people told me they have the same concerns, and they asked me to remove these misunderstandings on my visit to the United States.

“There have been some people who actually came to talk with me and found that I was much different from how I was described in the United States, and they said they were confused because the difference was too big.”

He has raised his standing with the Bush White House by being a consistent and outspoken supporter of the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, to which South Korea provided troops for noncombat assistance.

In addition, Mr. Roh has spoken out against anti-American demonstrations, which have all but stopped in recent months.

“One difficulty for us is that the people’s perception changes slower than the facts or the system itself. And I think the fact I was elected president will help to move faster the changes in people’s perceptions,” he said.

“At least before I became the president, those people in Korea who were opposed to the United States … were all my most staunch supporters, and they all had a very high confidence in me. So I hope that their confidence in me will spill over to their confidence in the United States.”

Mr. Roh is encouraged by his experiences dealing with the United States. “Ever since I was sworn into office I had many occasions to have dialogue with the high officials from the United States government, and I could see that the United States was trying its hardest to make the partnership between our two countries very equal.”

U.S. forces in South Korea are “a deterrent force against North Korea, but at the same time they are a balancing force for the security order of Northeast Asia,” he said. “Up to now, their role as to a deterrence against North Korea has been highlighted, but I think in the future their role as the balancing force for the Northeast Asian region will be more valued and more emphasized.”

Mr. Roh said he expects to persuade South Koreans who oppose the U.S. military presence in their country. “It is true that a small part of our public has a sentimental discomfort about U.S. forces in Korea. But if they think more reasonably or more rationally I think this will be advantageous. Even those people who are sentimentally against U.S. forces in Korea, they all accept my argument when we return to debates and discussions.”

Mr. Roh said he also worries that misperceptions about his economic policies may affect South Korea’s growth, which is one reason he is being accompanied on his trip by a large delegation of businessmen from his country.

“I believe that many investors are interested in whether the Korean market will actively embrace the global standard to make it more transparent,” Mr. Roh said. “I am very enthusiastic about our reform toward this market order, and I want to deliver this message clearly to the people on Wall Street.

“I am aware that many investors are worried that I am too friendly toward [organized] labor, and they have fears that I might side with labor to make business more difficult in Korea,” he said. “In traveling with many businessmen on my trip, I think I can prove that I am not unfriendly with business.

“And ever since the election many people have criticized my policies as being too pro-labor, but in reality we have managed thus far without major conflicts between labor and management,” the president said.

“Right now, we are tackling these issues one by one through dialogue and cooperation between labor and management. But I envision establishing a system between labor and management that will carry out these principles.”

Despite labor concerns in a nation that is notorious for prolonged and sometimes violent strikes, Mr. Roh is taking over an economy growing at a 5 percent annual rate.

He pledged to continue economic reforms and to tackle a perennial problem of business corruption as he inherits a new set of scandals — one involving the threatened collapse of nine consumer credit card companies and another in which one of the nation’s biggest conglomerates was caught hiding $1.2 billion in debt.

Mr. Roh said he hopes that one stop during his stay in Washington will help make Americans understand him better. “I think there is a need to explain what my ideals or philosophy or perception to the United States is. However, since this is a very complex subject, I was looking for a symbolic act to deliver my message.

“I have high admiration for the history and values of the United States. Above all, I have a particular envy of President Lincoln’s life, his political achievements and his philosophy, and I think we have some common grounds. So by visiting the Lincoln Memorial, I hope to deliver all these contents to the people of the United States.”

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