Seoul Searching

Seoul Searching

Why should the United States maintain troops in the Republic ofKorea (ROK)? What American interests are being served by thealliance? Officials in both capitals maintain that the allianceremains as relevant as ever. The two governments insist that the"fundamental goal is to enhance deterrence and security on theKorean Peninsula."

But Washington's Cold War security concern for the ROK hasdisappeared. Even if the security of South Korea remained vital tothe United States--and it does not--America's treaty and troopsaren't necessary to achieve that end. The South has dramaticallyoutstripped North Korea on virtually every measure of nationalpower and can stand on its own.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun told graduates of the KoreanAir Force Academy in March: "We have sufficient power to defendourselves. We have nurtured mighty national armed forces thatabsolutely no one can challenge." Within a decade, he added, "weshould be able to develop our military into one with full commandof operations." The ROK spent $16.4 billion last year ondefense--roughly nine times North Korea's outlay--and rankseleventh in the world in total defense expenditures. His governmentis increasing military spending, up about 8.6 percent this yearover 2003, to create a "self-reliant defense that could help bringpeace and unification to the Korean peninsula."

The Bush Administration also seems to think that South Korea isbetter prepared to stand on its own. Moving U.S. forcessouth--essentially dismantling the fabled tripwire of fiftyyears--and cutting the American garrison by one-third suggest thatWashington no longer believes its military presence to be centralto the ROK's security. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeldexplained after meeting with South Korean Defense Minister YoonKwang-ung, "the South Koreans are appropriately increasingly takingthe lead in their own defense" and will be "assuming some missionsand some responsibilities as we adjust our relationship goingforward." Dealing with a nuclear North Korea would be morecomplicated but would not be aided by conventional troopdeployments. To the contrary, America's force presence exacerbatesthe problem by creating thousands of American nuclear hostageswithin range of Pyongyang's weapons. Whether Washington ended upholding a nuclear umbrella over the ROK or encouraging South Koreato create its own nuclear deterrent, the United States would gainnothing by maintaining an Army division and other units in theSouth.

The newly inaugurated Security Policy Initiative (SPI) talks,expected to run bimonthly over the coming year, will study, as theofficial statement after the first meeting explained, "how theKorea-U.S. alliance should be transformed to prepare for a futurein which security conditions on the Korean peninsula, such asimproved inter-Korean ties, occur." Mitchell Reiss, director ofpolicy planning for the State Department, acknowledges that "someof the assumptions that underpinned the alliance in 1953 are beingre-examined." But many Koreans worry that what Washington has inmind is the evolution of the alliance from a defense pact to aKorean blank check that will support any U.S. military action inthe region. Last fall Hankyoreh, a liberal daily newspaper,editorialized: "We must not let down our guard to the possibility[that] changes in the role of U.S. troops in Korea or a changedU.S.-Korea alliance could get Korea unwillingly dragged into aregional conflict."

An Alliance in Search of a Purpose

It would be a miraculous coincidence if a commitment forged inthe Cold War to deter a ground invasion from a contiguous neighborfunctioned equally well without adjustment to meet completelydifferent future contingencies. One cannot help but suspect thatthe means has become the end for most alliance advocates, to bepreserved irrespective of changes in the regional and globalsecurity environments.

Some alliance advocates, however, are vigorously re-imaginingthe rationale for retaining U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula.Advocates of a permanent U.S. occupation talk grandly of preservingregional stability and preparing for regional contingencies. SomeSouth Koreans do so as well: Kim Sung-ban of the Institute onForeign Affairs and National Security argues that "Even in theabsence of a military threat from North Korea", the alliance shouldbe revamped "to focus on promoting stability in Northeast Asia."Yet it is difficult to spin a scenario involving real war betweenreal countries. No general East Asian conflict, other than apossible China-Taiwan confrontation, seems to be threatening tobreak out. The region is no longer the focus of global hegemoniccompetition. All of the major regional powers benefit from peace;none has significant and growing differences with other majorpowers. Nor is it clear how unexplained "instability", as opposedto widespread conflict, would harm the global economy and thus U.S.interests. Only if nations throughout East Asia essentiallycollapsed--an unlikely event in the extreme--would there besubstantial harm to America and other countries.

North Korean acquisition of nuclear weapons would obviouslygenerate instability beyond the Korean Peninsula, but a continuingU.S. conventional presence in the ROK would do nothing to moderatesuch geopolitical shock waves. In contrast, allied cooperation todevelop a theater missile defense would help limit the threat. Sucha program would not, however, depend on maintaining today'sbilateral defense guarantee to Seoul.

Some alliance advocates argue that America's military presenceaddresses other potential enemies besides North Korea. That is, thealliance serves what Avery Goldstein called "dual-use" purposes.For instance, some analysts and politicians have suggested thathaving troops in Korea could help contain a resurgent Tokyo.Advocates of this fanciful scenario are stuck in 1945. Those whoplanned and initiated Tokyo's aggression in the 1930s and 1940s arelong dead; Japan has achieved all of the economic benefits of theGreater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere peacefully, and pacifistsentiments remain strong in what remains an overwhelminglycommercial nation. It is to the benefit of states throughoutnortheast Asia that North Korea's repeated threats and China'scontinuing hostility have moved Japan to begin doing more topromote regional security.

In response, some supporters of America's position in SouthKorea suggest using forces stationed there to intervene in localconflicts and civil wars. However, a commitment to defend"stability" in East Asia implies a willingness to intervene in ascore of local conflicts revolving around border disputes, ethnicdivisions and other parochial squabbles. Of course, Washingtonrefused to use force against Indonesia over East Timor; it is notlikely to intervene in inter-communal strife in the Moluccas orindependence demands in Aceh or Irian Jaya. The greatest threats toregional stability come from within weak if not outright failedstates: insurgency and corruption in the Philippines, democraticprotests and ethnic conflict in Burma, economic, ethnic,nationalistic and religious division in Indonesia. Most of theseproblems are not susceptible to solution via U.S. militaryintervention--nor is it clear why the Mutual Defense Pact betweenSeoul and Washington is required.

Advocates also fall back on a familiar litany of transnationalthreats such as terrorism, piracy, drug trafficking and infectiousdiseases to justify the continued existence of the alliance. Onewonders, however, how stationing troops in Korea helps to combatthe spread of aids, or whether the Air Force is preparing to bombopium fields in Burma. Piracy is a major problem, but not only isthere no reason that the regional powers--including South Korea,Singapore, Australia, Japan and Indonesia--cannot deploy more shipsand other assets to cope with this threat, U.S. ground forces basedin Korea cannot patrol the Malacca Strait. Terrorism, meanwhile, isbest combated by accurate intelligence and special forces, notthousands of conventional forces configured to repel a landassault.

Alliance advocates are searching for a new raison d'être for aCold War relic. As much as the United States might prefer tomaintain its current dominance of every continent on earth, itcannot realistically expect its influence to persist forever. Thereno longer is a global hegemonic struggle turning local disputesinto a cause for global war. So the United States should be able todevolve upon its populous and prosperous allies the responsibilityof developing adequate deterrent forces necessary to guaranteetheir own security.

The Chinese Conundrum

The one important case where the American presence more crediblycould retain relevance is the People's Republic of China. But it isnot obvious that the United States should implement a plan to"contain" Beijing, or that the ROK should join such a system.

China may soon marry the world's largest population with itsbiggest economy, assuming it continues to enjoy strong economicgrowth. It is a potential superpower, the most obvious peercompetitor to America in the not too distant future. Nothing iscertain, of course; China remains relatively poor, faces ethnic andseparatist issues, and suffers an uncertain political future.Nevertheless, its economic influence is already surpassing that ofAmerica in East Asia. In 2003, China overtook the United States asthe biggest trading partner of South Korea; in 2004, China becameJapan's biggest trading partner. By the close of 2005, China ispoised to become the dominant trader with the Association ofSoutheast Asian Nations.

China's rising "soft power" is having an impact on Koreanattitudes. A recent poll by the Program on International PolicyAttitudes found that 49 percent of South Koreans viewed Chinafavorably, compared to 47 percent negatively. Significantly, thosein their forties and younger chose friendship with China overAmerica.

The future course of Chinese-U.S. relations is uncertain, asdisputes over human rights, non-proliferation and Taiwan remain farfrom resolution. It is by no means inevitable that Beijing willemerge as an antagonist--and we should be very careful to avoidcreating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nonetheless, Taiwan poses themost worrisome flashpoint. Despite the assumptions of some analyststhat a pragmatic leadership in Beijing would not risk its economicgains by taking military action against Taipei, nationalistsentiments are powerful throughout the Chinese population and eventhe Chinese diaspora. It would be foolish to underestimate China'sdetermination to reclaim its "breakaway province", evidenced by thevery public initiation of anti-secession legislation aimed atTaiwan.

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