SEOUL, South Korea – Give South Korea's new president points for candor.
On the campaign trail, Roh Moo-hyun signaled a prickly approach to the United States. But no sooner was he elected than he was saying his future remarks would be "more responsible" than his campaign rhetoric.
That, and his plans for an early visit to President Bush, suggest the U.S.-Korean alliance that underpins American interests in East Asia is in no immediate jeopardy.
Things didn't seem as amicable in the days before the election, when anti-U.S. demonstrators thronged the streets of Seoul singing "United States a vulgar country!" and calling for a Korea "that can take on the United States in a one-on-one fight." Many shouted "Roh Moo-hyun!"
Roh seemed to be their man. He had been criticizing Bush's tough approach to the North Korean nuclear threat, preaching reconciliation and dialogue. He promised a policy more independent of American influence, and changes in the treaty governing the legal status of U.S. troops stationed here. While insisting he wasn't anti-American, he said he wouldn't "kowtow" to America.
Such bluntness endeared the former human rights lawyer to young voters, but led his critics to brand him a radical who would endanger relations with South Korea's ally and no. 1 trading partner.
On Friday, a different Roh (pronounced 'NO') was heard.
"I made various remarks on the campaign trail, but I was just roughly touching upon issues without giving full consideration to the diplomatic and security situations," he said. "I will consult with people in the government and will make more responsible remarks in the future."
Hours later, Bush called Roh, and the two "agreed to work closely together for peace on the Korean Peninsula and to strengthen the South Korea-U.S. alliance," Roh's office said.
Roh, who has never been to the United States, accepted Bush's invitation to visit soon after his inauguration in late February.
"Political rhetoric he used on the campaign trail are one thing, and the reality around the Korean Peninsula is quite another," said Yang Woon-chul, an analyst at Seoul's independent Sejong Institute.
The Korean leader's "options are limited" and he has little leverage of U.S. policy toward the communist North, Yang said.
The strong undercurrent of anti-American feeling may seem puzzling, given America's pivotal role in defending a South Korea that has grown into a wealthy democracy while its neighbor has withered under communism. Some 33,700 U.S. troops died during in the 1950-53 Korean War that divided the peninsula, and 37,000 are stationed here today.
But this is a country that has suffered centuries of foreign invasion and colonization, and many are apt to see its division as the product of alien ideologies imported into their Confucian society from Moscow and Washington.
From a nation whose main export in the early 1960s was wigs from human hair, South Korea has blossomed into a trading giant of 48 million people that keeps the world in cars, oil tankers and computer chips. Seoul, flattened in the Korean War, is now Asia's second largest modern city, full of high-rise office buildings, trendy cafes and roads clogged with Hyundai and Daewoo cars.
For most Koreans today, the war has faded into history. They are more likely to remember the U.S.-backed dictatorships that ruled them until the 1980s, and to go for a candidate like Roh, who defended victims of the dictatorships and himself led street protests for democracy when they were illegal.
In the fraught U.S.-Korean relationship, any incident can ignite anti-U.S. protest. During this election campaign it was the acquittal by a U.S. military court of two American soldiers whose vehicle hit and killed two 13-year-old Korean girls. It was that ruling that is driving demands to revise the treaty governing the troops in Korea.
On Friday, Roh said he will build on the groundwork laid by outgoing President Kim Dae-jung at his historic summit with North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Il in 2000. But he said he would cooperate closely with the United States over North Korea's recent decision to reactivate a nuclear program believed to have been used to build atomic bombs.
North Korea's state-run media indicated that the communist country welcomes Roh's victory as a defeat for Washington's harder line. Northern radio stations said late Saturday that the election showed that "forces instilling anti-North confrontation ...cannot escape a crushing defeat."
During the campaign, Roh seemed less accommodating toward Washington, speaking of the need for the Korean president to play a "leading role" in the nuclear crisis rather than "unilaterally obeying U.S. policy without criticism."
"Exerting pressure on North Korea could be very dangerous," he said then. "Now it's time for South Korea to take the lead. We should no longer be a passive player manipulated by others. We and the United States have different interests on this issue. The United States' goal is to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but for us, it can be a matter of life or death."
Such talk struck a chord with voters that helped secure his narrow victory over candidate Lee Hoi-chang.
Lim Ki-baek, who runs a small real estate business in Seoul, said he and his wife stayed awake until 5 a.m. watching the results on television. "We came to the point of tears when Roh was declared winner. It's a victory for small people and a small country."