Our Other Korea Problem

September 1, 2002 Topic: Security Regions: Asia Tags: AcademiaBusiness

Our Other Korea Problem

Mini Teaser: The real threat to America's position in Korea doesn't emanate only from Pyongyang: How the "sunshine policy" could foreshadow the sunset of the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

by Author(s): Nicholas Eberstadt

Over the past half-century, East Asia has been a virtual kaleidoscope of political and economic change, but one unchanging feature of the Asian tableau has been the security face-off in Korea. Despite the epochal evolutions in Northeast Asia over the intervening years, the security architecture in Korea today is remarkably similar to that put in place almost fifty years ago. Enormous and heavily equipped Korean armies still confront each other across an ironically named "demilitarized zone" (DMZ), and the United States still provides the essential element of deterrence in the Korean equation through its Mutual Defense Treaty with the Republic of Korea (ROK), that is, democratic South Korea.

By historic standards, the current security situation in the Korean peninsula may seem relatively calm and favorable. Not far below the surface, however, lie new currents that could expose the delicate underpinnings of the peninsula's present security arrangements. Surprisingly, the source from which these new currents emanate is not totalitarian North Korea, but instead democratic South Korea.

Given North Korea's distinctively quarrelsome and menacing international posture, its hypertrophied military disposition, its suffocating political system, and its catastrophic economic performance, it has not been unreasonable for observers to expect that any major reconfiguration of the international security equation in the Korean region would be precipitated by Pyongyang. By contrast, South Korea is a rapidly developing society that has already joined the oecd-the club of affluent aid-dispensing Western states-and has, over the past decade and a half, established its credentials as a genuine constitutional democracy. To the modern eye, advanced industrial democracies are not epicenters of political instability, much less potentially far-reaching international security challenges. Yet just as unaccountable autocracies have been known to miscalculate in the international arena-not least so in Korea in 1950-free peoples and their representatives are similarly capable of misjudging their own best interests. South Korea's ongoing pursuit of its current "sunshine policy" toward the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has inadvertently set in play powerful forces that, if mishandled, could threaten the foundations of the U.S.-rok military alliance, and with it the future of all U.S. forward force deployments in East Asia.

In this regard, South Korea's next presidential election, to be held in December, could prove a watershed event. Never have the regional security implications of a South Korean election been greater. The analysis here shows why.

"Sunshine" and its Corollaries

Since his February 1998 inauguration, ROK President Kim Dae-jung has forcefully and consistently promoted his vision for bringing reconciliation, peace and eventual reunification to the Korean peninsula. His "sunshine policy" seeks to dismantle what he calls "the Cold War structure on the Korean peninsula" and to replace the 1953 military armistice agreement with a peace treaty between Seoul and Pyongyang. To date, the results of President Kim's efforts to entice the dprk into intra-Korean cooperation have been stunning, but decidedly contradictory.

On the one hand, the policy can claim a series of spectacular diplomatic distinctions: the June 2000 Pyongyang summit between Kim Dae-jung and dprk National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il (the only meeting between the top figures of the two Koreas since the peninsula's 1945 partition); the subsequent, also unprecedented, high-level military talks between North and South Korean delegations (and other nonmilitary high-level talks-in all, a noteworthy total of over twenty such sessions over the past two years); and the award of the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize to President Kim. On the other hand, these landmark events have not translated into any palpable reduction of North Korea's actual military arsenal. To the contrary: early last year, General Thomas Schwartz, then-Commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, testified that Kim Jong-il's "military forces are bigger, better, closer and deadlier" [emphasis in the original] than before-and, he added, "I can prove it." Last December, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that in the mid-1990s North Korea had produced one, possibly two nuclear weapons, and warned that North Korea was still at work developing long-range ballistic missiles. And just a few months ago, cia Director George J. Tenet stated there is "no evidence that Pyongyang had abandoned its goal of eventual reunification of the Peninsula under the North's control."

Be this as it may, a popular perception of significant movement toward intra-Korean reconciliation unavoidably invites the re-examination of the U.S.-rok military alliance. Absent a compelling new rationale for its continuation, this alliance will come under mounting pressure for revision, and even termination, if the electorate in South Korea (or the United States) no longer finds the "North Korean threat" to be credible. That perception of progress is set to sharpen because President Kim, now approaching the end of his term, has defined his legacy in terms of his "engagement" with the North. The president and his party are entering an election campaign in which their own credibility rests upon the perception that their approach has substantially deflated the threat-and will deflate it still further if the South Korean electorate continues to back them. As recently as June 2002, President Kim confidently declared that "the possibility of a military confrontation is lessening" in the Korean peninsula, and that the situation was indeed "heading toward stability and peace." (Ironically, just days later, North Korean gunships sank a South Korean naval vessel in the Yellow Sea.)

If President Kim seems prey to wishful thinking, however, he is hardly alone. The South Korean public, like so many other oecd electorates, is eager to enter into a peaceful and prosperous millennium. Irrespective of varying estimates of Pyongyang's current intentions, there is a widespread and entirely natural longing in the South to be rid of the North Korean threat and to jettison the burdens it entails. From the North Korean point of view, of course, the sight of the South Korean political system taking itself in can only be cause for surprised celebration and a determination to further its purposes. In the past, North Korea's international diplomacy has not been famously successful in persuading the unconvinced of its pacific intentions (to put it mildly). But if an objective of North Korea's tactical reorientation since 1999 has been to foster conditions conducive to a U.S. pullout from South Korea, the program looks to be progressing nicely. North Korea's new approach to dissolving the U.S.-rok alliance looks like a waiting game-an implicit calculation that patience and self-control will reap strategic dividends. Strange as it may sound, the North Korean leadership may be betting that time is on its side-at least as far as the U.S.-rok military alliance is concerned.

The Logic and Politics of U.S. Forward Deployment in Korea

Sweet reason may not normally be North Korea's métier, but the dprk today can pose an entirely reasonable question about a continuing American military relationship with South Korea: If the two Koreas are moving toward reconciliation, as the leadership in both capitals professes, why are American forces scheduled for indefinite residence in the Republic of Korea? North Korea's case, repeated incessantly in its official media, clearly turns on the impression that the two Koreas are making real progress toward a peaceful resolution of their differences. America's ally, the rok, concurs; the Kim Dae-jung administration maintains that its "sunshine policy" is paving the way to a lasting peace in the Korean peninsula.

Under the pressures of political competition in an open, multiparty system, South Korea's political leadership has at times gone even further, suggesting that peace in the Korean peninsula is now virtually at hand. Immediately upon his return from the Pyongyang summit, for example, President Kim declared: "[W]e should all regard the North as our compatriot. . . . [M]ore than anything, it is important for our citizens to believe there will no longer be war." The same effusive spirit has begun to inform various aspects of official South Korean policy-including, to some degree, even its defense strategy. In March 2001, for example, the rok Ministry of Defense divulged that it "was examining a plan to use a different expression than 'primary enemy' in the official description of South Korea's relationship with North Korea." (When it became clear that there would be considerable opposition to the proposal, the Defense Ministry cancelled its 2002 White Paper altogether rather than designate North Korea as the main threat to South Korea's security.)

A government's words have consequences; in this case they are affecting public perception of the international security environment. Emblematic of newly emerging perceptions within the Republic of Korea was a 2001 report about an opinion poll canvassing fifth and sixth graders in the country's southeastern most province-Kyong sang-namdo, one of the country's more conservative regions. In that survey, a plurality of children-42 percent-identified North Korea as "the friendliest nation toward South Korea." (The United States came in second, with 39 percent.) Commenting on the results, the report remarked that "the government's peace policy toward North Korea and reunification education for younger students has greatly affected their thinking." One should not invest too much meaning in a single sample of youthful opinion, but the same tendencies emerge in recent surveys of adult opinion. In November 2000, a Donga Ilbo poll found that a majority (54 percent) still viewed the dprk as "a militarily threatening state." On the other hand, 55 percent of the respondents "had a good impression of Kim Jong-il", and fully 59 percent believed "the possibility of war had almost disappeared following the North-South summit." In this climate of perceptions, deep divisions of opinion were expressed about the future of U.S. troop deployments. Only 42 percent favored "maintaining current [U.S. force] levels", while an equal number approved of "reductions" in U.S. troop levels; yet another 15 percent preferred "withdrawal" of U.S. forces altogether. In other words, a clear majority of South Korean adults favors re-evaluating and downgrading the American troop presence in their country.

That sentiment is freighted with history. Not a few South Koreans still blame the United States for the division of the peninsula, for infantilizing South Korean institutions with its overbearing presence, or for too long supporting non-democratic military leadership in their country. But it also speaks to the here and now: the U.S. military presence in South Korea was originally predicated on the existence of a North Korean military threat to the South. If that threat is no longer compelling, neither is the rationale for the U.S.-ROK Treaty.

Moreover, whatever the benefits of an American military presence in the rok may be, U.S. forward-deployed troops bring real costs to their hosts, as well. This is literally true due to "burden sharing" arrangements: this year's rok budgetary payment for U.S. troop support is slated at $460 million. But it also entails less obvious costs. American military exercises have inadvertently damaged the property and allegedly caused bodily injury to civilians from South Korea. American bases are a perennial source of environmental headaches for neighboring localities. The behavior of young U.S. soldiers in South Korea-like the behavior of young men anywhere-is sometimes less than exemplary: but when these men violate local law, the Status of Forces Agreement under which American troops serve in the ROK protects them from local prosecution if the crimes alleged carry a sentence of less than three years in prison. (Such provisions will strike some as coming uncomfortably close to "extraterritoriality.") All else equal, these are surely not costs that a free people would wish upon themselves unless there were good reason for them.

Further evidence for strains in the U.S.-ROK relationship may be gleaned from the South Korean reaction to the events of September 11, 2001. One immediate and dramatic effect of those attacks was a sudden and sincere show of solidarity by American allies across the globe. On September 12, NATO invoked Article 5 of its charter to declare that its signatories would respond to the assault on the treaty's American member. Although the ROK and the United States are bound by an analogous clause (Article 3) in their joint military-security treaty, no such support emanated from Seoul. Instead, the Kim Dae-jung Administration announced its own initiative to cope with global terrorism: a proposed joint declaration against terrorism with Pyongyang!

Ambivalence and indecision in official quarters were mirrored in the South Korean public's response to the terror attacks. In a September 18 poll, less than 40 percent of South Koreans surveyed opined that the United States should react to the attack with military force, the distinct majority preferring that Washington address the problem in "a humane way"; if the United States did pursue military retaliation, only a razor-thin 46 percent to 42 percent plurality favored joining in the campaign. (Levels of public support for the U.S. anti-terror campaign were typically 20 to 30 percentage points higher in other countries bound to the U.S. by a military treaty.)

The contradictions in the U.S.-ROK alliance exposed by the first flash of the terror attacks have not eased over time, and President Bush's January 2002 labeling of North Korea as part of an international "axis of evil" evoked criticism in both popular and some elite political circles. According to one poll, South Koreans disapproved of Bush's formulation by a 56-36 majority. Even fairly trivial incidents seem capable of evoking anti-American outpourings. After a disputed call in the 2002 Winter Olympic Games (in which a jostled South Korean skater lost the gold medal to an American rival), a Gallup poll reported that nearly 60 percent of rok respondents stated that they "disliked" the United States. Such is the temper of the times that South Korea's most popular "bubblegum pop" girl band-a heretofore entirely apolitical group with a reputation for extreme wholesomeness-released a harshly anti-American MTV-style video.

To the Polling Booths

No matter what the South Korean public's current perception of the benefit-to-cost balance in the present military alliance with the United States, the next steps in the "sunshine policy" promise to tilt the calculus further toward the debit side of the ledger. This is because the Kim Dae-jung government has been straining to frame a "peace declaration" that Seoul and Pyongyang could sign before the December election.

President Kim has been advocating a peace declaration with North and South Korean signatories since before assuming the presidency. Under questioning from the incoming Bush Administration, he backtracked on the idea in March 2001; shortly thereafter, however, the rok Unification Minister (a key architect of the "sunshine policy") explained that there had simply been a "misunderstanding over terminology", and since June 2001 President Kim has called for a "peace treaty" with the North. Domestic pressure has since mounted on him to seal such a deal-or at the very least, to arrange for a joint expression of peaceful intentions by divided Korea's paramount leaders. Eliciting such a dramatic gesture or seemingly friendly diplomatic response from the dprk would now, in the latter part of his presidency, weigh heavily on any ultimate reading of his own legacy. It would likewise bear directly on the future feasibility of Kim Dae-jung-style "sunshine policy" for any successor.

From Kim Dae-jung's own standpoint, the imperative of securing a conciliatory response from the North has taken on an ever-growing importance as the President's domestic leeway for movement has been steadily narrowing. Despite his international acclaim, Kim is caught in a political straightjacket at home. His ruling coalition is no longer in charge of the country's legislative branch, having essentially lost control of the National Assembly to the rok's main opposition party in September 2001. In practical terms, the loss of the National Assembly now prevents the President from following through on the unfinished items of his domestic agenda (health care reform, education reform, business reform and all the rest). But the National Assembly would not have switched hands if Kim's government had not already lost much of its initial luster. The South Korean electorate is today deeply dissatisfied with the country's political and economic situation. In 2000, three out of four South Koreans surveyed said the nation was "not on the right track", and last year, according to the finding of the Korea Democracy Barometer, cited by Columbia University's Samuel S. Kim, "a plurality of South Korean citizens [rated] the Kim Dae-jung government more negatively than the past military government headed by former General Chun Doo-hwan" [emphasis added]. Mired as he now is in his own family's corruption scandals, and increasingly perceived as a do-nothing president, Kim's popularity has plummeted to 20-30 percent-down from almost 90 percent at his inauguration.

But while President Kim may be down, he is hardly out. Previous South Korean presidents have suffered even greater ratings drops: President Kim Young-sam was down to single-digit approval ratings when he left office. And seething public dissatisfaction hardly spares Kim's political rivals; indeed, to judge by the surveys, many of Kim's opponents are held in even lower public regard than he is. In one poll, Lee Hoi-chang-de facto leader of the parliamentary opposition and now presidential nominee for the principal opposition party (the Grand National Party or gnp)-garnered an approval rating of less than 13 percent. Furthermore, South Korean domestic politics is a highly fractured affair, with crosscutting cleavages separating voters by region, class, education and age. No candidate has ever won an absolute majority of votes in an open Korean presidential election.

Given the semi-paralytic state of his presidency, President Kim's best shot for affecting a sudden boost in his own popularity-and in support for his party's presidential nominee this election year-may therefore lie in a powerful symbolic gesture in foreign policy. Given the precarious balances and the deep, seemingly structural divisions that characterize politics in the rok, such a gesture could end up making the difference for the "sunshine" candidate in a tight presidential race.

Thus the possibility of a visit to South Korea by Kim Jong-il, and the prospect of a North-South peace document, takes on extraordinary portent for the Kim Dae-jung administration and his ruling party. Given the importance that the current rok government invests in such a visit and that envisioned document, the prospect of a peace proposal scripted to Pyongyang's tastes may be one of the enticements Seoul will use to lure Kim Jong-il to South Korea. (That prospect assumes more than a hypothetical possibility: former rok General Lim Dong-won, a confidant of President Kim Dae-jung and co-architect of the "sunshine policy", went to Pyongyang in April of this year on a mission to jumpstart the "Korean peace process", and more impromptu missions may follow.) If so, President Kim would not be the first worried politician in a democracy to gamble on national security for the sake of maintaining his party in office-and the June 2002 gunboat incident, serious as it was, does not necessarily leave the possibility of an election-influencing "peace breakthrough" dead in the water. South Korean polls show that while 70 percent of the public believes Pyongyang deliberately engineered the shoot-out, nearly 60 percent nevertheless want the "sunshine policy" to continue. It is worth recalling, too, that President Kim has choreographed such "breakthroughs" to coincide with the South Korean electoral calendar before: his historic visit to Pyongyang, for example, was announced just three days before the country's April 2000 National Assembly elections.

If Seoul and Pyongyang do sign some sort of declaration, the issue of the future of American forces in the rok will be thrown into sharp relief. A peace deal removes the stated rationale behind the U.S.-ROK alliance-to deter a North Korean attack-and opens up the question of the future role of U.S. forces on the peninsula. Signs of such a reconsideration are already in the air. While President Kim and his top officials have been explicit in their desire for a continuing U.S. troop presence in the peninsula after reunification, they have been vague about the nature of that presence. Their remarks indicate that Seoul might request that American forces in the country remain not as allies but as peacekeepers: troops, in other words, with no special political relationship to their host government, but instead charged as a sort of international constabulary (much like the current U.S.-led missions in portions of the former Yugoslavia).

On its face, there may be a certain logic to the transformation of the U.S.-rok military alliance into a Korea-based U.S. peacekeeping mission for the duration of any transition period en route either to Korean peace or, beyond that, unification. Such an arrangement might well garner broad regional acceptability. Some unnamed Chinese sources quoted in the Western press have said that both Beijing and Pyongyang might be amenable to a continuing U.S. presence if the military alliance were disbanded and U.S. forces reconfigured as a peacekeeping operation. That proposition, however, is by no means automatically attractive to the American voting public and its representatives. To the contrary: confronted with the prospect of stationing Americans as peacekeepers in Northeast Asia-that is to say, in replicating Kosovo-style rules of billeting and engagement in a potentially much more dangerous neighborhood-Congress might decline the invitation. Thus, not only in South Korea but also in the United States, circumstances are developing that could severely challenge the justifying logic and the political sustainability of U.S. troop deployments in South Korea.

Of even greater concern, therefore, than the possibility of a Korean "October surprise" was the April nomination by President Kim Dae-jung's ruling party (the Millennium Democratic Party) of Roh Moo-hyun as its candidate for president in the coming election. A dark-horse candidate until this spring, Mr. Roh is virtually alone in the entire constellation of contemporary South Korean political figures in having never visited the United States: an achievement that can at once be understood as an act of conscious will over the years (he is now 56), and as a political signal in and of itself. A former human rights activist, Roh was publicly agitating for the ouster of U.S. forces from South Korea as recently as 1990. Roh insists that he has subsequently had a change of heart, but his newfound allegiance to the U.S.-rok security alliance remains to be tested.

At this juncture, the outcome of the presidential race is far from certain. Throughout much of the spring, Roh led his main rival (Lee Hoi-chang of the Grand National Party) by as much as twenty points in the polls. Then, in June, what the South Korean press dubbed the "Roh wind" hit the doldrums: the ruling party was shellacked in regional (gubernatorial) elections, and Roh fell behind Lee. The ruling party was further battered in the August by-elections, losing eleven seats in the National Assembly. Yet at this writing, nearly five months before the vote, the contest is hardly over. Handicapping political contests is unusually difficult, for South Korean domestic politics are extraordinarily volatile-in part because political parties are more fragile and less institutionalized that in any other oecd country. (In South Korea, political parties often seem to enjoy the half-life of certain rare elements in the periodic table: the constant state of flux is illustrated by the fact that President Kim's current ruling party is not the same one under which he was elected to the presidency.) Roh himself has liabilities: his (comparatively youthful) age; his habit of making off-the-cuff remarks; his associates; even his regional origins.

Indeed, any number of factors could sink Roh's presidential hopes: an unexpected crisis with North Korea (his rival Lee is an outspoken proponent of a tougher posture toward the dprk, and a staunch supporter of the rok-U.S. alliance); a successful effort by his opponents to define him as "radical" (most South Korean voters today characterize themselves as moderate, or slightly conservative); or an infelicitous but memorable turn of phrase during the heat of the campaign. But Roh is electable, and even if he loses the coming election, he will not be the last major rok presidential candidate to cast a cold eye on the United States.

There are other, deeper problems, too. Unresolved structural difficulties in the rok economy (including, but not limited to, the rapid graying of the rok population, the to-date tentative progress in desperately-needed corporate and financial reforms, the fragility of the country's service industries, and the country's continuing difficulties in establishing a domestic scientific-research infrastructure) promise to exacerbate economic frictions in the U.S.-rok relationship. All else equal, and no matter which party wins in December, such frictions will prompt voters to scrutinize the U.S. military alliance more carefully than ever, and to be less deferential in criticizing the alliance's burdens.

An American troop withdrawal from Korea, or the downgrading of the U.S. presence into a peacekeeping force, would generate far-reaching reverberations-though some U.S. analysts favor such a course of events. One such reverberation would concern the future of U.S. forward bases in Japan. For Japan to be the only East Asian state hosting U.S. troops, this on top of the continuing controversy in Japanese domestic politics with regard to Okinawa, might be hard to sustain for long. Thus, an American military pullout from South Korea, far from leading to a bolstering of U.S. forces elsewhere in East Asia, might trigger a major diminution of American influence in the Pacific.

The worst of all outcomes would be a politically rancorous American withdrawal from Korea at a time when a highly armed North Korean state fronting an effective charm offensive saw opportunities to further its old ambition-the re-unification of the peninsula under its aegis. Those particulars could all too easily set the stage for a potentially devastating conflict in Korea, with spillover potential to other major powers.

But even presuming genuine rapprochement between North and South and some measure of stability in Korea, an American withdrawal from Korea would still create a security vacuum and invite a latter-day version of the Great Game of realpolitik the Pacific powers played so roughly in the region a century ago. A U.S. military withdrawal from Korea might be welcomed in Moscow or Beijing, but, in truth, both are ambivalent about the departure of the American military presence in Korea. In public they support U.S. withdrawal, but privately they recognize that Northeast Asia would be a less stable neighborhood-and a region less disposed to economic growth-without the U.S. military presence. Although any losses-in terms of diminished economic potential and reduced national security-would be distributed unevenly in the region, all the Pacific powers and South Korea would lose from an end to the U.S.-ROK military alliance and the U.S.-dominated security order in East Asia. Of all the political actors in East Asia, only the dprk-the region's lone radical revisionist state-could reasonably expect any benefits.

Absent a convincing rationale, the Mutual Defense Treaty-and the forward deployment of U.S. forces in Korea for which it provides-cannot count on the continued support from both the South Korean and American publics that is necessary to sustain it. Since it is manifestly in the interests of Seoul and Washington to keep the U.S.-ROK military alliance in good repair, it is incumbent upon American and South Korean policymakers to elucidate that rationale.

The original rationale-premised on the risk of hostile external maneuvers against South Korea-may not yet be so passé as some think. If the day arrives that the North-South struggle is no more, however, a compelling rationale for a continuing ROK-U.S. alliance can still be made, based upon deterring instability in an economically important, too well-armed, and not-yet-solidly-liberal international expanse. On both sides of the Pacific, national audiences wait to be persuaded of that rationale. Statesmen who understand the value of the relationship would be well advised to devote a little more effort to the task.

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