[OUTLOOK]Missteps on the U.S. troop issue
The future course of relations between South Korea and the United States over national security issues is worrisome.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Defense reported that one of the American brigades in Korea will be dispatched to Iraq. Also, the commander of the U.S. 8th Army, Lieutenant General Charles Campbell, said at a press conference that the U.S. troops in Korea would become fast-moving mobile forces ready for action anywhere in the world. Korean soldiers would be the core of the Korean Peninsula’s security, he said, while Korean and U.S. forces might be called upon to take part in peacekeeping or humanitarian missions in East Asia.
This statement must be viewed gravely, since it could have a serious effect not only on the Korean Peninsula but also on Northeast Asia.
The bigger problem is that the person who made the statement is the commander of the 8th Army, and the statement was made at a time when Korean-American relations are more sensitive than ever. Why did he do it?
The announcement could have been made by both the Korean and U.S. governments after negotiations had led to a mutual agreement. So why did General Campbell choose to make a statement on his own?
I happened to be in Washington when the decision to send the U.S. troops in Korea to Iraq became final, and reflecting on the opinions of the people both inside and outside the government that I met in America, one thing is sure: the reason the decision was made is because the situation in Iraq requires more combat soldiers.
The United States expected that the troops the Korean government promised to deploy in Iraq would be a force of largely combat soldiers, but they found out that this was not the case. If they decided to transfer U.S. soldiers in Korea instead, because they needed combat soldiers, there is a chance that there was some disappointment toward Korea when the decision was made.
The statement made by General Campbell is similar in content to the changes made to the role of NATO when NATO geographically expanded its functions after the end of the Cold War. But the situation in Northeast Asia is quite different from that of Europe. NATO was intended as a multiple regional security system from the beginning. But in Northeast Asia, it is not possible to establish a regional security system because there is no common security interest among the countries in the region.
More importantly, while NATO expanded its functions after earnest and thorough discussions among its member nations, General Campbell’s statement was neither a proposal to start negotiations between governments nor an explanation of the position of the U.S. government. It only gave the unnecessary impression that the United States is trying to pressure the Korean government.
Although we cannot be sure, it seems that high-ranking officials of the U.S. Defense Department do not consider the Korean government to be a trustworthy subject with which to have negotiations. Perhaps that is why they used the commander of the 8th Army to bring an idea involving a serious aspect of U.S.-Korea relations out into the open. It should be noted that the State Department may have had different opinions than the Pentagon on sending U.S. soldiers in Korea to Iraq. The State Department is in a position where it must be more sensitive to the reactions of the Korean people, and so there is a possibility that it was skeptical of, or at least not keen on, the solution the Pentagon came up with.
The problem is that the United States and South Korea do not trust each other. Looking at recent events between the two nations, the United States took the view that it wanted to handle such an important matter as the role of the U.S. forces in Korea by disclosing it publicly because it does not trust Korea. Korea in turn avoided the reality that mistrust has been created between the two allies, and therefore showed an attitude of negligence on the matter.
The relationship between Korea and the United States faces a lot of problems now. The U.S. Department of Defense sees China as the only country that can stand up to the United States since the latter became the sole superpower in the world after the breakup of the Soviet Union. At the moment, the United states employs a complex strategy of keeping China in check while embracing the country at the same time. The problem for us is where we will stand in the midst of such a strategy? Will Korea stand on the side of China? Or will we continue our alliance with America? Or should Korea have a third strategy?
The problems we must solve have piled up. The important thing is that we should not make the mistake of losing the trust of our existing allies when we try to choose another ally out of strategic necessity.
Throwing away something old before we get something new is not a matter of a choice between progressivism and conservatism, but between wisdom and stupidity.
* The writer, a former ambassador to the United States, is a professor emeritus at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Kyung-won