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An Alliance in Disarray
Future of U.S.-ROK security relationship uncertain
Walter Hendler (cicero)     Print Article 
Published 2006-08-28 15:27 (KST)   
The United States and South Korea are in the initial stages of a divorce process, which might turn acrimonious and could have momentous ramifications for the security on the Korean Peninsula and in the broader Northeast Asia region. The heretofore-close allies distrust each other's motives and intentions. The half-century old U.S.-R.O.K. alliance is dissolving before our eyes. Now the policymakers in both countries have to determine what -- if anything -- can be salvaged from the old alliance, and reshape it in a way that would make it tolerable to the South Korean public while ensuring U.S. geo-strategic interests in Northeast Asia.

Roots of the Crisis

Ceremony marking General Burwell Bell's assumption of command of U.S. Forces Korea
©2006 USFK
The U.S-R.O.K. alliance has been badly shaken in recent years by the tectonic shifts in the South Korean society and body politic. It stands little to no chance of surviving unless it undergoes a fundamental transformation. Four main factors underpin the current strain in the relationship: a generational change in the South Korean voter population and political elites; increasing self-confidence and nationalistic sentiment in South Korean society; changing perception of the threat posed by North Korea; and the inexorable emergence of China as the critical powerbroker on the Korean Peninsula.

In the last several years the South Korean voter population has undergone a profound change. Older generation voters, sharing vivid memories of the miseries of the Korean War and the hardships of the post-war reconstruction, are fading away. Fading along with those voters is the sense of gratitude to America for its defense of the South from the communist North and for the financial largesse provided by the U.S. to South Korea in the years -- indeed decades -- of post-war reconstruction.

The generation of people in their 20s and 30s, which now comprises the plurality of the voting population in South Korea, does share their fathers' sentimental attachment to America and tends to perceive it as a global hegemon at best or, at worst, as a bully that uses Korea as a forward base in its quest for regional domination. They see the demeanor and actions of the U.S. government toward Korea as arrogant and disrespectful. They doubt the value of a continuing American presence on Korean soil.

The recent disputes over the trade issues and the relocation of American military bases have done little to improve the attitudes of Koreans toward America. Large segments of the South Korean population have come to believe - erroneously -- that the United States is imposing an FTA agreement on Korea and resisting Korean desire to regain war-time control over its military.

If, as stated before, the shift in the Korean voter population is profound and irreversible, it is bound to translate into a similarly significant change in the cadre of legislators and policymakers responsible for determining Korean national interests and formulating Korean foreign policy in years to come. Like the younger voters, the new crop of Korean politicians generally believe that the world's 10th largest economy must not rely for its security on a foreign power, which, when push comes to shove, may not even be interested in defending Korea. Proud of Korea's transformation from a backward, agrarian society to a world-class industrial power, they argue -- justifiably or not -- that South Korea is now strong and rich enough to take care of itself.

Further contributing to the erosion of the U.S.-R.O.K. security alliance is the changing perception of North Korea by younger generations of South Koreans. While once seen as an existential threat, North Korea is now perceived by large segments of the South Korean public as an eccentric and misunderstood poor cousin. Or, worse, as a close relative victimized by the imperial bully, i.e. the U.S. They tend to blame the North's plight on the U.S. policies rather than the nature and conduct of the Kim Jong-il's regime.

The voices claiming that the U.S. is the primary obstacle to Korean unity are growing increasingly loud in South Korea. It is becoming increasingly common to hear South Koreans discuss reunification with the North as a foregone conclusion, with the expectation of it happening in a very short time, certainly within a decade.

For its part, the Pyongyang regime is no doubt carefully monitoring the public mood in the South and exploiting the growing U.S.-R.O.K discord to further its strategic aims. The Pyongyang regime sees an opportunity to undermine the U.S.-R.O.K security alliance, which stands in the way of its apparent objective of blackmailing the South for financial assistance far exceeding the amounts available to it at the moment. Pyongyang has apparently concluded this to be the most viable way of assuring the long-term survival of the regime.

By making well-timed "concessions," mainly in the form of accepting another installment of southern aid, or allowing a few more family reunions to take place, North Korea plays right into the hands of those in the South who claim that the U.S. rather than the North is the main source of tensions on the peninsula. Thus, ironically, the most ardent advocates of the sunshine policy in the South could be laboring toward a permanent division of the nation.

No account of the security situation on the Korean Peninsula would be complete without discussion of the changing and growing role of China as the main security factor in the region. As a far cry from the days of the Cold War, when mainland China was viewed by South Koreans as a communist nemesis and the main backer of the North Korean regime, these days China is increasingly perceived as a stabilizing force and, potentially, the main security guarantor on the Korean Peninsula. The increasing comfort level of the South Korean public and officialdom with the PRC is being further reinforced by the burgeoning economic ties between the two countries (China has recently supplanted the U.S. as South Korea's largest trading partner).

The aforementioned reality leads many in the Seoul's establishment to believe that replacing the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance with closer alignment to China is not only possible but would, indeed, be beneficial to the Korean national interests. As the North nuclear crisis shows no sign of resolution any time soon, and the bilateral U.S.-South Korea ties continue to be eroded by the numerous disputes -- both significant and trivial -- the voices of those in South Korea advocating realignment are bound to grow stronger.

Ramifications for Korea

If the dissolution of the U.S.-R.O.K. security alliance does come about, then what would be the consequences for the security of South Korea? The answer will depend, in large measure, on the manner in which the divorce occurs. Would it be gradual and well-managed or abrupt and chaotic? Should the former be the case, it would allow both parties sufficient time to adjust as best they can to the altered security environment in the region. For South Korea, the adjustment would imply a substantial boost in defense outlays and a significant increase in the size of its military.

Still, given the geography of South Korea and proximity of its major population centers to the DMZ, it is highly improbable that any security measures undertaken by the R.O.K. would be sufficient to compensate for the loss of U.S. security guarantees. As a result, South Korea would find itself highly vulnerable to nuclear or conventional blackmail by the North. The only conceivable option available to South Korean government in such circumstances would be to seek security assurances from China. Those assurances may not be forthcoming, however.

For one thing, extending formal security guarantees to another nation would run counter to Beijing's long-standing policy of noninvolvement in formal security alliances. For another, any formal security relations with Seoul would signify Beijing's betrayal of its communist brethren in Pyongyang, an action China would be highly unlikely to take, notwithstanding its growing irritation with the North Korean regime. Finally, an insecure South Korea suits Beijing's geopolitical interests in two respects: it makes South Korea dependent on China, even without requiring the latter to make any formal commitments to the former, thus pulling Seoul into Beijing's orbit and away from Washington; and it transfers the burden of sustaining the North Korean basket case onto South Korea.

Ramifications for the United States

The breakup of the security alliance with South Korea would affect the U.S. national interests in three main ways: It would dramatically enhance China's geo-strategic posture in Northeast Asia; it would require a substantial expansion of the security alliance with Japan; and it would necessitate a rebuilding of U.S. alliances with Southeast Asian nations.

The most immediate consequence of the dissolution of the U.S.-R.O.K. security ties and the ensuing withdrawal of the U.S. military from South Korea would be a dramatic rise of Chinese influence on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere in the western Pacific. Beijing would no doubt use the strategic opening, created by the retrenchment of the American forces, to try to impose its version of reunification on Taiwan and to carve out a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia.

It is also a virtual certainty that, faced with a dramatic geopolitical shift on the Korean Peninsula, the government of Japan -- regardless of its composition -- would be under tremendous pressure to substantially bolster its defense capabilities, quite likely necessitating revisions to the constitution. Furthermore, in order to protect Japan and meet other geo-strategic objectives in the region, the United States may have to significantly bolster its military presence in Japan. Substantial revisions to the U.S.-Japan defense treaty, expanding its scope and perhaps changing its nature, may also become unavoidable.

Elsewhere in Asia, the United States would have to enhance its security cooperation with nations such as Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, and, possibly Vietnam that might feel threatened by the growing Chinese influence and ambitions. That would have to be done in order to allay those nations' fears and to preserve the U.S. credibility and influence in Asia.

Can (Should) the Alliance be Saved?

If the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance is to have a future, it would have to regain the confidence or, at least, acquiescence of the Korean people. That may prove to be hard, if not impossible, to achieve. Most of the Korean resentment of the U.S. stems from the very nature of the two countries relationship: South Korea depends on the United States for its security, and dependency breeds resentment. Hence there may not be any specific measures that would mollify those in South Korea who accuse the U.S. of arrogance and disrespect. Reducing the number of troops and the size of footprint of the American forces in South Korea may lower the "temperature" for a while; it would do nothing to address the root causes of Korean resentment, however. To do that, Korea must take ownership of its security.

The question that U.S. policymakers must answer in the coming months and years is this: Is a continuing U.S. military presence in a democracy where a plurality, if not a majority, of population resents their presence in American national interests? If the answer to the question is no, then, lest the divorce becomes acrimonious and threatens to degenerate into chaos endangering regional stability, the two nations should begin the process of orderly and gradual disengagement, taking into account the interests of both sides. And then, with the passage of time, with the security threat posed by North Korea growing, the costs of self-defense skyrocketing, and the danger of falling under Chinese domination increasing, the people of South Korea may come to reassess the value of the alliance with the United States.

Much like marriages between people, alliances between nations have varied underpinnings. The U.S.-R.O.K. alliance has been one based on mutual necessity. South Korea needed it for its very survival; the U.S. needed it to counter the spread of communism in Northeast Asia. Now that the aforementioned imperatives have faded in significance, it is essential for the two nations to find a new basis for their relationship.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Walter Hendler

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