in the U.S.-South Korea Alliance
There are several signs of friction in
the half-century long U.S.-South Korea alliance. The American plan to reduce its forces
in Korea and
yet at the same time broaden the role of these forces is only the most recent
Korea has also been delaying its promised
deployment of troops to support the American intervention in Iraq. Trade and investment issues are never
far from the surface. But perhaps
most fundamentally, the U.S.
and South Korea
seem to be working from different playbooks when it comes to North
Disagreements between allies are
certainly nothing new, they are as natural as squabbles
in a marriage or a family. Truly
mature alliances can survive principled disagreement. The U.S.
and the French have been bickering about their respective roles in Europe
and the world at least as far back as the presidency of Charles de Gaulle in
the 1960s, and they continue to snipe at each other today about the war in Iraq. Yet seeing George Bush in France
on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, few doubt the fundamental solidity
of the alliance.
But it is important to analyze the
causes of friction in the U.S.-Korea alliance so that current disagreements do
not lead to broader misunderstanding.
Conservatives in both the U.S.
and Korea point
to a rising tide of anti-Americanism among Korean youth, but that is really more
an effect than the original cause.
The í░anti-Americaní▒ Koreans were basically right about the war in Iraq. It has been an unmitigated
disaster. Even if the United
States can somehow temporarily stabilize the
situation before the U.S.
election in November, the original reasons given for the war have proven to be
false. The toll of human suffering
that has ensued cannot be justified, not even by the ouster of the brutal
regime of Saddam Hussein. And most
important, in the long run many times more angry
Islamic terrorists have been created by the U.S.
occupation of an Arab nation than have been rooted out by the intervention.
Conservatives in the U.S.
and Korea believe
that Korea has
an obligation to support the American fiasco in Iraq. They argue that because Americans died
defending South Korea, South Korea now must be willing to put Korean blood on
the line to support its friend in time of need. But a real friend does not blindly
support a friend who is taking foolish risks. A true friend has the responsibility to
point out to an imprudent friend the error of his ways. If anything, a real friend has an
obligation take a principled stance and not to contribute to a friendí»s
destructive behavior, hoping to help the foolish friend wise up.
Similarly, the í░anti-Americaní▒ Koreans
have been right about the Bush administrationí»s í░axis of evilí▒ policy of
isolation and punishment of North Korea. North
Korea today is much closer to being an
effective nuclear weapons power than it was when Bill Clinton left office. South
Korea has stood up to U.S.
pressure and continued to doggedly pursue the difficult path of engaging the
admittedly obstinate regime in North Korea. By patiently lobbying the Bush
administration to negotiate, South Korea
eventually smoothed the way for reopened dialogue with the North through the 6
party talks. Perhaps South Koreans
have grown too comfortable with the Northí»s dangerous and destabilizing pursuit
of nuclear weapons as former Defense Secretary William Perry recently
warned. But the strategy of the
South in continuing to demonstrate the benefits that could accrue if the North
gave up its nuclear weapons will have more positive impact on the Northí»s
decision making than the Bush administrationí»s insistence that the North must
first disarm and then depend on the goodwill of the U.S.
It is not so much that young Koreans
are anti-American, but rather, like many thoughtful Americans and Europeans,
many of them are anti Bush foreign policy.
not the only ally experiencing rising discontent with the Bush administrationí»s
adventurism. The unilateralism of
Bushí»s foreign policy has jeopardized Americaí»s
relations with all its allies and friends around the world.
Conservatives in the U.S.
and Korea have
also fumbled the ball on changes in the structure of U.S.
forces in Korea. The Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld has been so single-mindedly pursuing the transformation
of the U.S.
military into a leaner, meaner, more mobile force that they have proceeded
without adequate consultation and input from allies. Similarly, General Campbellí»s impolitic
remarks revealing intentions to expand the role of U.S.
forces in Korea
beyond the Korean Peninsula
were totally insensitive to the fact that any redefinition of roles requires
the consent of the Koreans.
But the reaction of conservatives in Korea,
who claim to want a strong alliance, has made a bad situation worse. Their í░the sky is fallingí▒
rhetoric in response to U.S.
plans reveals a seeming lack of faith in the U.S.
as a partner. Either Korean
conservatives do not really believe in the depth of the U.S.
commitment to South Korea,
or they are cynically trying to score political points domestically.
The U.S.-Korea alliance will survive
the strains it is currently undergoing.
Both countries need each other too much. South
Korea needs insurance against potential conflict
with the North. The U.S.
knows the alliance helps the U.S.
retain its preeminent position in the Northeast Asian region. No U.S.
president would dare abandon the alliance with South
Korea before a stable peace regime on the Korean
Peninsula is established. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson
and President Truman are still excoriated half a century later because it is
believed Achesoní»s omission of Korea on a list of U.S. vital interests in the
Pacific encouraged the North to attack the South. No American president could bear the
risk of withdrawing U.S.
forces from South Korea
if there is the remotest chance a second Korean War would then to break
out. So despite the growing
frictions, the U.S.
and South Korea
will remain bound together for some time to come.
However, the adjustments the alliance
is now facing are small compared to the changes it will have to undergo if a
peace regime finally emerges on the Korean peninsula. A durable peace regime will require
guarantees from all the major powers in the region—China,
Russia, and Japan
as well as the U.S.—to
be truly stable. If South
Korea clings too tightly to the U.S.
apron strings, other powers may be disinclined to enter such a multilateral
security framework. A stable peace
regime will also require the U.S.
to lessen and eventually terminate the threat it poses to North
will have to accept a greater role for China
and other regional powers on the Korean
Peninsula. Ultimately, as Selig
Harrison suggests in his book Korean Endgame, the best outcome for both
a reconciled Korea
and the U.S.
might be a neutralized Korea. A reunifying Korea
might take Switzerland
as its model, a nation friendly with all the larger powers around it but
aligned with none, and thus a threat to none.
But whatever the final outcome, the U.S.-Korea
alliance will certainly face ever greater challenges in dismantling the Cold
War structure on the Korean Peninsula. The alliance should be able to withstand
these pressures. But it will
require greater maturity, reason, and vision than has too often been lacking in