INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Sharif ShujaNews Weekly
South Korean-US relations under strain
, March 3, 2007
The long-standing US-South Korean alliance is in urgent need of repair, says Sharif Shuja.For over half a century, the Republic of Korea (ROK)-US alliance has been the backbone of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. The ROK-US Mutual Defense Treaty of 1953 has been the cornerstone of the alliance. To a large extent, it continues to be, even today. Over the years, it has served as the linchpin in South Korea's defence and has broadly helped the country's unprecedented economic growth and graduation from authoritarianism to democratisation.
The ROK-US alliance is more than just a security arrangement. It is a partnership based on common democratic values, shared beliefs, and a history of continuous American commitment to the defence and security of the Korean Peninsula. It serves not only these two principal actors, but also to an important degree, the peoples of Northeast Asia who benefit from the regional stability the ROK-US alliance provides.
In terms of security, the umbrella it provided South Korea allowed for the country's democratisation and unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. Since the late 1980s, South Korea has emerged as one of the most vibrant democracies and trading economies in the world.
Within South Korea's vibrant democracy, however, younger generations of South Koreans with no memory of the Korean War are coming forward and expressing themselves and their concerns. Some sections of society are freely coming forward to express the high value they place on reunification of the two Koreas, and therefore at times tend to regard the American military presence in Korea as incompatible with that goal.
Undeniably, Korean society is polarised, and there are some groups which now air extreme viewpoints. In particular, dichotomous ways of thinking are gaining ground. The discourse of "alliance versus autonomy" is one example.
On September 13, America's CNN reported that "the security alliance between the two countries that has helped maintain stability in Northeast Asia for more than half a century faces unprecedented challenges". Last year, it became apparent that the basic ROK-US alliance military command arrangement would soon change.
The Washington Times
(August 28, 2006) reported: "Responding to the natural South Korean request for more responsibility in the alliance, the United States is offering to give up its traditional role as the lead partner in the alliance. In fact, it may be willing to do so as soon as 2009, earlier than Seoul had even requested."
From media reports, the changes would apparently amount to the following:
First, America's top general in South Korea would no longer be the overall military commander of alliance forces. Second, the idea of a unified command would itself be modified or even scrapped.
In other words, it would not be a question of transferring control from an American to a Korean. Rather, both sides would effectively command their own forces in any future military contingencies.
South Korea's position seems reasonable in many ways. A sovereign country, an established democracy, the world's 11th largest economy, one of the top 10 militaries in the world — all of these facts underline that South Korea should not be subservient in an alliance designed for the express purpose of protecting its own territory. Moreover, as we have recently witnessed in Iraq, South Korea is often an important US security partner beyond Northeast Asia. As an ally, South Korea's role is formidable.
Not all Americans will see the issue the same way. Koreans should remember that, in many ways, they get much more out of this alliance than does the US. Americans are sacrificing for an alliance that would defend not them but their Korean friends in a land thousands of miles away. To be sure, Americans would not do this unless it was in their interests. But South Korea has an even more immediate and pressing interest in the goals of the alliance.Perception gap
Last year, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon acknowledged there was a "perception gap" between the two allies on North Korea and other issues, a gap often exaggerated by South Korea's domestic press. He said, "the alliance remained fundamentally healthy".
On other issues, he said the South Korean Government is firmly committed to a new bilateral free-trade agreement with the United States and hoped to have a deal by spring this year, despite strong opposition in South Korea from farmers and other groups. Last September's summit between South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and US President George W. Bush aimed to fix an alliance in urgent need of repair.
It is interesting to note that when Roh met with Bush in November 2005, the official White House statement summed up the official relationship between the two countries as follows:
"The two leaders agreed that the alliance not only stands against threats but also for the promotion of the common values of democracy, the market economy, freedom and human rights in Asia and around the world."
In other words, South Korea and the United States stand together not only for strategic military reasons but also because of a strong overlap in economic and political philosophies. If the United States and South Korea have so much in common, how can we understand the increasing divergence in the policies of the two countries?
South Korea has evolved towards increasing democratisation. It has gone from authoritarian rule to representative democracy and now, under President Roh's leadership, towards greater participatory democracy. Aided by new technologies, political power has become more widely distributed throughout the population.
The election of Roh Moo-hyun was part of a smooth democratic transition. At another level, it was a challenge to a highly centralised power base that rests on certain family lineages, certain educational backgrounds and certain political and economic institutions. Officially, authoritarianism has been laid to rest in South Korea. Unofficially, however, authoritarian patterns persist in how day-to-day business is conducted in the corridors of power.
An outsider in many ways, Roh has harnessed the new participatory democracy to challenge the authoritarian structures that were designed to prevent someone like him from ever occupying the Blue House.
While the current South Korean Government pushes in the direction of participatory democracy, the Bush Administration is pushing in the opposite direction. It has attempted to construct a more powerful executive branch. In particular, Mr Bush has taken power from Congress in the exercise of foreign policy (prosecuting wars) and domestic policy (suspending civil liberties).
Instead of vetoing legislation, Bush has instead issued "signing statements" that commentators say often contradict the intent of new law and allow the executive branch to ignore the will of the people.
In other words, while South Korea moves from representative to participatory democracy, the United States is arguably moving away from even representative democracy.
In the economic sphere, too, the two countries are diverging. They are sitting down at the table to negotiate a free trade agreement. But South Korea remains committed to maintaining its strategic investments in key sectors of the economy such as telecommunications. By contrast, the Bush Administration is ideologically opposed to targeted government investment — except for the America's military sector and certain agricultural subsidies.
While both administrations speak the language of "free trade", South Korea adheres to some form of corporatist development model in which the state and business cooperate closely, while the United States relies on the "unfettered market" to stimulate economic growth.
These political and economic differences certainly contribute to the respective leaders' starkly different worldviews. But the more profound and ultimately determining differences are in the military and geopolitical sphere.
Following a long-term Pentagon review, the Bush Administration has continued to push the US military in the direction of rapid-response power projection. It has moved away from fixed bases and slow-moving tanks.
In the fight against terrorism and other threats, the Pentagon has stressed "strategic flexibility": the ability of allied troops and hardware to move to a rapidly developing crisis. Maintenance of America's unilateral strength requires such flexibility in the exercise of military power.
South Korea's military, meanwhile, is still arrayed to defend against an attack from North Korea. While tensions with Japan have risen recently, the focus of the South Korean army remains relatively fixed. Strategic flexibility is a non-issue.
South Korea is primarily concerned with assuming control of its own defence within the context of an equal alliance with the United States. Towards that end, it is increasing defence spending to over three per cent of GNP, even as economic engagement proceeds with North Korea.
The United States looks regionally at containing not only North Korea but also China. The two allies have developed profoundly differing views on how to deal with North Korea.Personal loathing
Mr Bush has made no secret of his personal loathing for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and his desire to see Kim's regime disappear. In the wake of North Korea's missile tests in July last year, with six-nation talks aimed at curbing Pyongyang's nuclear program almost collapsing amidst growing concern the North might test a nuclear device, the Bush Administration moved to ratchet up the pressure. Washington has been pushing its Asian partners to support tougher sanctions against the North.
In stark contrast, President Roh remains deeply committed to a policy of engagement with North Korea, which, like many South Koreans, he regards not as an enemy but as a wayward cousin in need of help. While Washington talks of sanctions, Roh's administration, in the hope of avoiding a North Korean collapse and encouraging a gradual opening, has continued to supply the North with aid and to encourage South Korean investment there.
The United States looks at North Korea and thinks in terms of non-proliferation; South Korea looks at North Korea and thinks in terms of preventing a war. It is not so much that ROK-US military relations are divergent. The divergence between the two countries, ultimately, is geostrategic.
These radically different views raise a fundamental question: if Washington and Seoul cannot agree on who the enemy is, what is the point of the alliance?
And, in the absence of a shared threat perception, how will the two sides manage a security relationship confronting a host of contentious issues?
One of these issues is South Korea's unwillingness to provide sufficient space for US military training ranges, with the result that Korea-based American units, ranging from air-force bomber crews to special-forces commandos, have been forced to conduct training operations elsewhere in Asia.Blaming American military
Another is a dispute over the cost of cleaning up the land at bases being vacated by the US, with the South Koreans blaming the American military presence for extensive environmental damage.
Above all, there is controversy over Roh's insistence on changing the long-standing structure of the alliance's Central Forces Command, under which a US general would command both American and South Korean troops in the event of war.
Nonetheless, the Pentagon, preoccupied by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the midst of a global force restructuring orchestrated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, appears willing to go along with Roh's demand. Indeed, in response to Seoul's initial proposal to resume wartime command in 2012, the Pentagon has now proposed making the switch as early as 2009.
That has set off alarm bells among many pro-American South Koreans, who see both the change and the way it is being handled as damaging the alliance at a time of rising tension with North Korea. The alliance is in urgent need of repair.— Sharif Shuja is an academic staff member of the International Studies Program at Victoria University in Australia.