Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates cast late former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun as a “little crazy” in his recently published memoir, underscoring then-frayed ties between the allies under the liberal-minded leader.
In the 618-page book, entitled “Duty,” he mentioned his meeting with Roh in Seoul in November 2007. Gates called Roh “anti-American” and quoted him as saying that the “biggest security threats in Asia were the U.S. and Japan.”
But Gates, who led the Pentagon from 2006-2011, touted Roh’s successor Lee Myung-bak as “tough-minded, realistic and very pro-American,” alluding to the conservative leader’s efforts to restore the allies’ trust.
During Roh’s presidency, Seoul and Washington’s relationship dipped to one of its lowest ebbs.
Roh came to power in 2003, vowing “not to kowtow to America.” His electoral triumph rode upon widespread anti-American sentiment stemming from the deaths of two girls run over by a U.S. military vehicle during an exercise in 2002.
As Roh sought a “fairer” relationship with the U.S. based on his vision of South Korea becoming a “balancer” in Northeast Asia, Washington appeared uncertain about Seoul’s intentions and underlying motivations for its foreign policy.
The proclaimed “balancing” concept spawned speculation that Seoul would remain neutral toward the U.S. and China, which apparently added to the diplomatic friction between the allies. Roh’s policy of engaging with North Korea had also been at odds with Washington’s hard-line stance on the communist state.
But Lee, a conservative, adopted a pro-U.S. approach, which has shored up the eroding bilateral trust. In close tandem with the U.S., Lee adopted a stricter reciprocal policy toward the provocative North based on his belief that the Korea-U.S. alliance was the cornerstone of peninsular security.
During Lee’s presidency, the allies also developed their military-focused alliance into a global, multifaceted and value-based partnership, a move that helped America deal with a variety of peninsular, regional and global challenges.
In his memoir, Gates also mentioned Pyongyang’s shelling of Yeonpyeongdo Island near the tense maritime border in November 2010. The unprovoked attack killed two marines and two civilians.
“South Korea’s original plans for retaliation were, we thought, disproportionately aggressive, involving both aircraft and artillery. We were worried the exchanges could escalate dangerously,” he said.
Gates also said that after days of top-level phone talks with Washington, Seoul simply returned artillery fire on the North’s units that initiated the attacks. Chinese leaders were also pressuring the North’s leaders to “wind down the situation,” he added.
Pyongyang’s attack on the frontline island, which caused civilian fatalities, sent shockwaves across the nation as it followed the North’s torpedo attack on the corvette Cheonan just eight months earlier.
Following the armed clash, Seoul has turned its passive defense strategy into a proactive one and further strengthened security cooperation with Washington.