Want global clout? Korean wave won’t cut it

When it comes to getting recognition on the international stage, there is absolutely nothing that beats the camaraderie developed in the trenches of war or a display of a country’s willingness to shed blood for someone else.

Oct 27,2009
Koreans suffer from GPSS (Gimme a Pat on the Shoulder Syndrome). They are obsessed with getting recognition from the outside world. They love to attach phrases like “world’s best” or “world’s first” to their products and achievements.

But they have yet to learn what it really takes to be considered a true global player. It’s not the “soft” power provided by a country’s cultural scene - such as movies and music - that gets you recognition among your allies.

I am not totally dismissing the idea of soft power. But when it comes to getting recognition on the international stage, there is absolutely nothing that beats the camaraderie developed in the trenches of war or a display of a country’s willingness to shed blood for someone else. In these cases, there is no need for words.

Victor Cha, the former director of Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, said it best in an interview years ago when he described how Washington felt after Seoul decided to dispatch troops to Iraq: “That was big. It really changed the view on Korea as an ally.”

At the time, the Roh Moo-hyun administration took a lot of flak even from its own ranks for sending soldiers to Iraq. But officials pushed for extensions even after the initial deployment period expired.

Civic groups took to the streets and argued that body bags would come home en masse. It didn’t happen. And even if it did, there should have been no question over the importance of a troop deployment in terms of getting international recognition.

With U.S. forces stretched thin around the globe and Afghanistan the focal point of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, we must now make a decision on whether to send the boys to the Middle East again. And the Lee Myung-bak administration is employing the same mantra to try to sell the deal to the public: “The United States is our ally. We have to aid them, no?”

While there is nothing wrong with this approach, it shows you just how narrow-minded our policy makers are.

Korea today is in a position to help others, whether that means sending troops and providing security in war-torn zones and conflict areas or offering up financial aid.

For now, Korea might be safe from a 9/11-style attack from terrorists because it’s not very active in the Middle East. But a bird’s-eye view is needed here.

Troops are going to Afghanistan to nurture the country and help it develop into a full democracy, much like South Korea was aided - by total strangers, I might add - during and after the Korean War.

U.S. officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Washington’s top envoy to Seoul, Kathleen Stephens, have been careful when raising the subject with their South Korean counterparts, knowing full well they are playing with fire.

During a visit to Seoul last week for a security meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Gates had this to say on this particular matter: “We encourage the Republic of Korea’s political leaders to make an investment in defense appropriate to Korea’s emerging role as a contributor to global security and commensurate with the threat you face on the peninsula.

“Going forward, Korea’s international military contributions should be seen for what they are - something that is done to benefit your own security and vital interests.”

He stopped just short of saying that Washington needs those troops.

Korea brought back more than 200 soldiers in medical and engineering units from Afghanistan in 2007 after a hostage crisis involving Korean Christian missionaries, two of which were killed.

Today, Korea currently has a handful of civilian doctors at a U.S. base in Afghanistan and plans to increase the number to 85 by year’s end, adding a protection detail as well.

When Christopher Hill, the current ambassador to Iraq, served as the top envoy here, I asked him once if Washington would be happy if Seoul offered to send combat troops.

He didn’t bite.

“Nice try, Brian,” he said. But I sensed that he would have pulled a Tom Cruise - jumping up and down on a couch - if the country actually made that offer. Korean Special Forces spend a lot of time training in the hilly areas of the country, making them a perfect fit for the rugged terrain of Afghanistan.

But make no mistake: The previous Iraq deployment was one of the safest a country could ever wish for. Far removed from any danger zones, Korean troops were tucked away in the Kurdish-controlled city of Irbil. Like a Praetorian guard unit marching in a parade, there was very little need to draw the sword.

Afghanistan, however, certainly wouldn’t be a picnic.

About 1,400 coalition forces have lost their lives there, and to think that the Taliban or terrorists would spare Korean soldiers because they are just there to guard medical personnel is extremely naive.

The fight is about securing villages and providing locals with the essential tools of life, such as a clean water supply, medical assistance and electricity. The main aim of the enemy is trying to prevent the development of a stable country - the exact opposite goal of the United States and its allies.

Since the days of The Great Game, nobody has ever succeeded in imposing their will in Afghanistan. Whatever impressive firepower or high-tech weaponry has been deployed wasn’t enough, and invading or occupying forces often found themselves lost in the labyrinth of mountain passes and valleys. Winning the hearts of the local population by strenuous reconstruction efforts is a long-term project and the best solution for sustainable success. The Taliban will do its best to undermine such efforts, because it knows full well the game is lost or won in the villages.

Nevertheless, when you talk to Special Forces soldiers the answer is clean and simple: They want to go. They have been training their whole lives for moments like this, and nothing beats field experience.

As one former U.S. commander of South Korean forces said: “We always told our allies that they were good. Because that’s what you try to do. You prop up the morale of your ally.

“We knew they trained hard. But there was always this question mark on how these troops would hold up under real fire.”

Needless to say, the main goal isn’t getting Korean troops combat experience - it revolves around telling others what Korea is all about.

It’s about showing that Korea upholds democracy and tries to help a nation become just like any other free democratic country.

And in that regard, Korea shouldn’t just consider Afghanistan for troop deployment. It should proactively look at any place that is in need.

If only the nation could come to understand that Korea’s diplomacy spans beyond Washington.


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