The Coming Change in the U.S.-Korea Alliance

 Even if the differences in perspectives on North Korea between Washington and Seoul could be closed, the inevitable fate of the Roh Moo-hyun presidency may be that the most critical foreign policy issue it will have to contemplate before its departu

 Even if the differences in perspectives on North Korea between Washington and Seoul could be closed, the inevitable fate of the Roh Moo-hyun presidency may be that the most critical foreign policy issue it will have to contemplate before its departure in 2008 will not be North Korea but the alliance with the United States.   

This is because a historically unique constellation of forces indicates that change to the U.S. military presence in Korea is inevitable, if not imminent.  The presence of American ground troops has been successful in deterring and defending against North Korean aggression, yet its finely tailored  forces (designed to repel a massive land assault) have grown less useful to overall American strategy in East Asia.   At the same time, the ROK military has grown more robust and capable, a far cry from the feeble force trained by the United States fifty years ago.   

Civil-military tensions over the U.S. military footprint in Korea have grown immeasurably in past months, showcasing a younger generation of Koreans who see the United States less favorably than did their elders.  The sunshine policy also had the unintended consequence of worsening perceptions of U.S. troops in the body politic.  On the one hand, the exaggerated success of the policy caused the public to be less welcoming of the U.S. presence.  On the other, the failure of the policy led to the search for scapegoats, for which the U.S. presence was a ready target.   

Larger trends in U.S. security thinking also presage change.  The Pentagon's 100,000 personnel benchmark in Asia is viewed as obsolete among experts.  The revolution in military affairs, moreover, with its emphasis on long-range, precision-strike capabilities foreshadow alterations in the face of the American forward presence around the world.  

I do not view changes in the structure and number of U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK) as a tool for tension-reduction on the peninsula.  Doves argue that the main rationale for restructuring USFK (or withdrawing it) should be for the purpose of achieving peace on the peninsula. Although there is an intuitive appeal to this view on the South Korean side (especially if one posits a ROK military capable of standing on its own), it is less appealing from the American perspective.  Such a view assumes that North Korea has implicit veto power over the disposition of U.S. forces in Korea.  It underestimates the deterrent value provided by the U.S. presence (i.e., willingness to negotiate away USFK may give the mistaken impression that U.S. security commitments are not sound).  Moreover, it undercuts the notion that the future of USFK derives from the future of the alliance.  Changes in USFK should not be the sacrificial lamb for peace on the peninsula, but should be integrated with a larger U.S.-ROK joint vision.     

At the same time, though, I disagree with the hawkish argument that contemplation of any change in USFK must await a stable peace on the peninsula (defined as elimination of the northern threat).   This view is too inflexible; moreover, it focuses on the easily answerable questions at the expense of the most challenging ones.  USFK is composed of three components: the UNC (United Nations Command), Combined Forces Command (CFC) structure, and the 37,000 men troop and base presence.  If a peace treaty emerged on the peninsula, then this would obviate the need for the UNC (primarily tasked after 1978 with armistice related issues).  Hawks accept that changes in the forward presence and the command structure would likely follow such a peace.  The more interesting and challenging question is whether one can contemplate incremental change in the CFC and USFK presence given continued threats from the North.  Such a plan of action would maintain traditional deterrence against the North, sustain America's allied defense commitment to Seoul, but also resonate with the gradual cultivation of a new vision for the alliance that looks beyond the DPRK.  In the end, this plan for USFK would be least specious in that it would hold across a spectrum of potential outcomes on the peninsula (i.e., from continued stalemate to peace treaty to unification).  

Those Koreans who believe that the U.S. is too comfortably self-interested with its position on the peninsula to contemplate serious change are dead wrong.  The images beamed back to the United States of "Yankee go home" demonstrations, burned American flags, accosted GIs, and young Korean assertions that George Bush is more threatening than Kim Jong-il have had a real effect in Washington.  There is anger, expressed in Congress and in the op-ed pages of major newspapers about South Korean ungratefulness for the alliance.  With no imperial aspirations, the United States indeed would withdraw its forces in the face of an unwelcoming host nation.   

Secretary Rumsfeld's recent remarks about possible modification of U.S. forces in Korea offers a glimpse, in my view, of a deeper, serious, and longer-term study underway in Washington on revising the alliance.  The anti-American tenor of the election campaign in Korea and the subsequent "peace" demonstrations have created a momentum in Washington that proponents of alliance revision can ride.  The ostensible goal of such plans is to have the same alliance but with a smaller and different (i.e. less ground, more air/navy) footprint, but if the vicious circle of anti- Americanism in Seoul and consequent anti-Korean backlashes in the US continues unabated, then the outcome could also entail a downgrading of the alliance in U.S. eyes.