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[OUTLOOK]Altering U.S. military calls for care

Apr 04,2003
Discord between Seoul and Washington over the size and location of the American military presence in South Korea is symptomatic of the current strains in the U.S.-ROK alliance. U.S. and ROK authorities do not fully conceal suspicions of the other’s motives; neither side instinctively accords its partner the benefit of the doubt. This is troubling.
Irritation among many South Koreans at the visible presence of a large U.S. military base in downtown Seoul a half century after the end of the Korean War is matched by the Pentagon’s discomfort that major army units are tied down in static positions north of the capital, performing missions that the ROK military could readily assume. Seoul’s efforts to insulate its engagement with the North from the fallout from Pyeongyang’s revived nuclear activities, moreover, raises questions among some American policymakers as to whether the alliance is still underpinned by common perceptions of a shared threat. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s unexpectedly enthusiastic display of flexibility regarding possible adjustments in American forces evidently stimulated conflicting fears of abandonment and entrapment among South Koreans. Some apparently worry that a thinning out of the U.S. “tripwire” will weaken deterrence; others are apprehensive that if U.S. forces are relocated south of the Han River, Washington might feel free to contemplate a preemptive attack on the North’s Yongbyun nuclear facility. Dissipating such mutual suspicions should be a priority of both governments.
Much has changed in Korea over the past several decades. But significant adjustments in U.S. troop deployments is not among them. We are now paying a price for that. A new generation of South Koreans questions the value of the U.S. military presence, and regards some features of existing command relationships and the Status of Forces Agreement an affront to their nation’s sovereignty. In America, conservative commentators -- among them, Bill Safire, Charles Krauthammer, Dick Allen and Ken Adelman -- have suggested consideration of major troop withdrawals as a means of pressuring Beijing and Moscow to use their clout to stop North Korea’s nuclear programs, and as a reminder to Seoul that if our troops are not welcome, they are gone. Addressing these issues in a forthright way could help avert further erosion of political support for the alliance in both countries.
Unfortunately, there never seems a good time for adjusting troop deployments. When security conditions are tranquil, inertia reigns. In the face of heightened dangers, policy makers worry that force reductions could convey misleading signals to friends and foes alike.
When the Cold War ended, the Bush Administration introduced the East Asia Strategy Initiative which promised to manage adjustments in U.S. forces levels -- in concert with Asian allies -- through periodic reviews of our strategic requirements in the region. Modest cuts in U.S. forces in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines were announced in 1990. Following a second review in 1992, additional adjustments, mainly on South Korea, were planned, but then suspended when intelligence reports about Pyeongyang’s nuclear activities surfaced. The Clinton administration promptly scrapped the Initiative, and following a period of unsettled relations with the region, sought to dispel Asian anxieties about American intentions by announcing its intent to freeze U.S. force levels in Asia at 100, 000 for at least a decade. This brought further force reductions to a halt, and an opportunity for further rationalizing our deployments in Korea was missed.
With tensions over North Korea again rising, this scarcely seems an ideal time to resume force adjustments. But President Roh Moo-hyun has enunciated hopes for a more “reciprocal and equitable” partnership -- a perfectly reasonable expectation. And the United States is, meanwhile, in the process of transforming its military forces to more flexibly respond to heightened threats from international terrorist groups and states that extend them refuge and support. The U.S. and ROK governments have well established channels for discussing these issues. And this seems an appropriate moment to commence a thoughtful dialogue with the conviction that timely future adjustments could serve both our interests.
We will naturally want to reflect on potential force adjustments in the light of current developments in North Korea. Pyeongyang is threatening to cross the nuclear threshold. It has resumed missile testing. It is demanding security assurances from the United States in the form of a bilateral non-aggression pact with Washington, while refusing to engage in a serious security dialogue with Seoul. These developments have an obvious bearing on our defense and deterrent requirements.
A bilateral U.S.-North Korean nonaggression pact seems problematic for several reasons. Pyeongyang would be tempted to use such a pact as an instrument to promote unilateral reductions in U.S. forces. In negotiations to achieve a non-aggression pact, issues would inevitably arise which we have steadfastly refused to take up with North Korea without South Korea’s direct involvement. Nonaggression pacts, reminiscent of Hitler and Stalin’s cynical diplomacy, evoke little favorable empathy among Americans. And there is a solid intellectual case for multilateralizing any security assurances offered to North Korea.
At a moment of growing geopolitical uncertainty it is useful to remember that force deployments are instrumental. They should be designed to serve larger strategic purposes. Until we forge a joint strategy for dealing with impending issues with North Korea, it would be premature to implement major US force adjustments in South Korea. But the time has surely arrived for urgent discussion of the options.

* The writer, a former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs and ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.


by Michael H. Armacost


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