Why Korea's Divided on Bush

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Protestors hold anti-US signs at the gate of the Seoul airport military base

If President Bush fails to find agreement with his South Korean hosts over how to handle their Norhtern neighbors, that may be because President Kim Dae Jung is something of a lame duck. The South Korean leader, who made his "Sunshine Policy" of reconciliation with North Korea the cneterpiece of his presidency, steps down in December. And the race to succeed Kim is expected to be won by the main opposition party, whose view of North Korea is considerably less sunny than Kim's.

President Bush meets with his South Korean counterpart Wednesday, after his arrival in Seoul on Tuesday was greeted by protests. The protestors may be drawn largely from a small, leftwing minority, but a far broader group of Koreans have mixed feelings about President Bush's visit, particularly in the wake of his "axis of evil" comments about North Korea. The fact that they're first in the firing line in the event of any escalation of tension with North Korea makes them anxious about what the "evil" characterization implies for U.S. intentions towards the regime in Pyongyang.

Attitudes towards America vary across generations in South Korea. The older generation has traditionally been quite pro-American, but the younger generation much less so. In fact, anti-Americanism is slowly growing here. Even coverage of the Winter Olympics, in which the Koreans have not performed as well as they'd expected, has been filled with insinuations about biased U.S. judging. And this view of the Olympics is often mentioned in the same breath as President Bush's North Korea policy.

President Kim Dae Jung is hoping that President Bush will affirm his policy of engagement with the North, particularly after being embarrassed on a visit to Washington last year when the U.S. president publicly expressed skepticism over whether North Korea could be trusted. But while the Bush administration is saying it remains willing to talk to North Korea, the "axis of evil" speech may have killed any chance of dialogue — that kind of pressure tends to drive the North Koreans deeper into their shell.

Still, the Bush administration may be taking a long-term view. South Korea's main opposition party opposes the "Sunshine Policy," saying the South should demand more reciprocity from the North for such gestures as sending food aid. The opposition's position was closer to Washington's, at least before the "axis of evil" speech — they may not go along with Bush demonizing North Korea. But if the predicted opposition victory in December materializes, there would likely be a hardening of Seoul's own position towards North Korea. Some Koreans suspect that Washington is simply waiting out President Kim Dae Jung's term, in the hope that its position will be more in alignment with his successor.

—With reporting by Donald MacIntyre/Seoul