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Will Lee Join US Missile Defense Program?
[Analysis] Can pragmatic diplomacy and missile defense participation coexist?
Cheong Wook Sik (cnpk)     Print Article 
Published 2008-01-30 04:19 (KST)   
This article is only lightly edited.  <Editor's Note>
In South Korea, the Missile Defense (MD) issue is becoming controversial again. This controversy rests on two things. One is that the incoming government is suspected of leaning toward joining the United States-led MD program. It is based on a Jan. 8 report by the Defense Ministry to the Presidential Transition Committee, which included the MD issue. The other is the news that the Korean Navy is considering arming Aegis warships such as the Sejong the Great with the US-made anti-ballistic missiles called SM-6s. The SM-6 missiles can intercept North Korea's ballistic missiles.

The MD system is designed to intercept enemy ballistic missiles with other missiles or lasers. MD is recognized as the main thrust of the US's supremacy in the 21st century. The US currently has the most powerful offensive military force, and if the US can defend itself against missile attacks from the opposing power, its military hegemony will be strengthened. At the same time, it will be easier for the US to carry out preemptive strikes.

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Because of that, those countries that the US officially regards as rationale for MD, such as North Korea and Iran, as well China, Russia, and other countries that are potentially competing with the US oppose the US-led MD program.

As a matter of fact, Russia is strengthening its nuclear missile force while issuing warnings to countries like the US, Japan and Eastern European countries that are collaborating with the US MD program. China recognizes MD as the threat of the 21st centuries and is putting a lot of effort into increasing its nuclear power and developing anti-satellite weapons rather than diplomatically opposing it.

Bush in a Hurry, Ending His Term

The Bush administration's feverishness in building up the MD has earned the remark, "The administration with MD on its forehead." The administration has been asking South Korea, one of its allies neighboring North Korea, China and Russia, to join the program.

In the presidential term of Kim Dae-jung, the Bush administration bluntly asked for participation in their MD program, which brought diplomatic disaster to the US and South Korea. Also, in the term of Roh Moo-hyun, although it lowered the proposed level of participation in the program, the Bush administration arranged for new Patriot missiles, PAC-3 missiles at Suewon-Pyungtaek (Osan Air Base)-Kunsan and included the MD operation in the ROK-US joint military exercise that has been building up the foundation for the MD program.

The US expectation for South Korea to join the MD program has been elevated ever since Lee Myung-bak was elected. Victor D. Cha, who filled the post of the White House National Security Council (NSC) as director of Asian affairs, and other conservative figures, openly demanded that the Lee administration strengthen the South Korea-US alliance by joining the MD program.

In the expected South Korea-US summit talk this March, the chance of participation in the MD program becoming its agenda is increasing. Because the Bush administration doesn't really have any achievements to put up, by building up the MD system in Eastern Europe and the US-Japan-South Korea MD network in East Asia, it will set these as their achievements.

The Transition Committee Running Hasty Investigation

According to the Korean press, such as Hangyoreh, Yonhab News and others, the Transition Committee requested the Defense Ministry to report on the MD program and was additionally informed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Prior to this, at the interview with the Seoul Newspaper, professor Kim Woo-Sang of Yonsei University, one of the brains of Lee's team, said, "There is no need to close the door to the MD program." This implies that Lee's incoming administration is more willing to join the MD program than the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations.

The participation controversy of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) followed by the MD issue spurred the Transition Committee to get the situation under control. Lee Dong-kwan, a spokesman for Lee's transition team, explained that "this is the matter that we have to carefully consider not only inter-Korean relations but also related countries," and "it is the Transition Committee's policy to think about it over a long term since enormous resource loss is expected."

'Bolstering the ROK-US Alliance Policy' Possibly Subjected to the Boomerang Effect

Lee believes relations with the US have been weakened under the ongoing administration; his administration advocates stronger relations with the US. However, the relocation of US bases in South Korea and the allotment of its moving cost, the largest dispatch of troops to Iraq excluding the US and the U.K., respect for US strategic flexibility, and environment recovery cost of returned military bases indicate that the claim regarding the Roh administration's weak relations with the US is most likely a political one.

The problem occurs when Lee's policy of strengthening South Korea-US relations becomes one of his top priorities. The policy can be a heavy burden for the South Korean government to deal with. Furthermore, it can result in a weakened South Korea. President Roh often spoke anti-US and self-reliant rhetoric. This brought about the accusation that the Roh administration was anti-US, and his team had to take in more US demands in order to clean off the accusation, which left the government more vulnerable to the US's demands. In other words, that the anti-US remarks backfired is a kind of boomerang effect.

Although not the same as the Roh administration in the context, the Lee administration might result in the same. Whether it is for flattering the US or for appealing to the conservatives within the country, there will be a time when the Korean government actually has to be responsible for their remarks on bolstering the ROK-US alliance. This is very much possible that the US will ask for more cooperation on US policy toward North Korea, participation in PSI and MD, an increase in South Korea's share of defense costs, etc., based on what the South Korean government has said about the alliance with the US.

In that case, the Lee administration would have a very difficult situation to deal with. Not to meet the demands may bring out criticisms such as that remarks bolstering the ROK-US alliance were mere flatteries. To meet the demands, South Korea has to make many sacrifices -- disrupted public opinion and loss of national interests among them. This is why Lee and his aides have to be careful stating the alliance matter with the US.

Pragmatic Diplomacy Cannot Go Hand-in-Hand With MD

Obviously, South Korea's national interest is not up to the MD program. Nevertheless, the program is ridiculously expensive, has no proof of its effectiveness and will bring about diplomatic and security stirs to relations with North Korea, China and Russia. Maintaining the conciliation policy with North Korea, which fundamentally rules out the possibility of war, and expanding amicable relations with China and Russia are what is really beneficial to South Korea.

If South Korea decides to join the US-led MD program, it will stir up South Korea's foreign policy, national security and much more. Once the arms race in and out of the Korean Peninsula is heated up and the tension grows, it is inevitable that the "Korea risk" will be present (again). Lee's pledge to boost the economy may be severely hurt, too. In this context, the choice Lee makes about the MD program will be the litmus paper to test so-called "pragmatic diplomacy."

There is one more important point. The US presidential election is coming up soon. Whoever is elected, no one will be as enthusiastic as the Bush administration is to MD despite the difference between the liberals and the conservatives. This means there is no need for the Lee administration to rush the investigation of MD participation.

To US hard-liners, the absence of South Korea to the MD program is displeasing; however, it doesn't bring any loss to their vital matters. On the other hand, South Korea's vital interests will be violated in the case of participation. This is where President-elect Lee has to start when he is considering this issue.
Wooksik Cheong is the representative of Peace Network (www.peacekorea.org). Soyoung Park contributed to the translation of this article.
©2008 OhmyNews
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