&#91OUTLOOK&#93Who needs U.S. forces in Korea?

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&#91OUTLOOK&#93Who needs U.S. forces in Korea?

Long before the candle-light vigils began, I had three or four interesting conversations last summer with various Koreans fretful about the presence of U.S. military forces here.

"If Koreans want them to go, they will leave," I said.

"Of course they won't" was usually the reaction. "The Americans aren't here because they are our friends. They are here because American military presence in Korea suits American interests."

"Nevertheless," I said. "If a democratically elected Korean government asks the Americans to go, they must go. They may try to find a compromise, or offer Korea a better financial deal. But in the end, they will go. A decade ago the Philippines decided it did not want U.S. soldiers stationed there, and the Americans left."

The response to this was usually to attack my premise -- that Korea might ask the United States to remove its forces. I was wrong, my interlocutors said, because "the Korean government will not do that."

"Well, then," I suggested, "the Korean government must think that the U.S. military presence here suits Korean interests."

I suspect that some variant of this conversation will be played out this year between Koreans and Americans of much higher rank, military or diplomatic, than my friends and I. The issue has been forced by the recent series of rallies asserting that U.S. military "occupation" is an affront to South Korea's dignity.

This may not be majority sentiment here, but it seems to be quite widely felt. The U.S. flag is burned and U.S. soldiers are spat upon. A Canadian woman, mistaken for American, was harassed on a subway and told to "go home." For the first time in my nearly two years in Korea, I am encountering insulting taxi drivers who tell me that Americans are "bad people, and that "President Bush strangles small countries." (I don't know the Korean for "strangles," but the two-hand gesture was eloquent enough.)

So American pundits and strategists are starting to think about it. William Safire of the New York Times called for a pullout, reasoning that the 37,000 American troops are no deterrent to North Korea but rather hostages to it. A Pentagon official was quoted in a news story as saying the United States has been teaching South Korea to ride a bike, "holding on to its handlebars for 50 years. At some point you have to let go." Congressmen are harrumphing about not wanting to stay where we are not wanted.

Some of the American reaction is emotional pique. But it is good that the question has been raised. Just whose interests are served by the American military presence here?

I have been reading "Undiplomatic Memories," a memoir by William Franklin Sands, who served as a U.S. diplomat in Korea between about 1897 and 1904. In those closing years of the Joseon era, Korea's weak and corrupt government was prey to the intrigues of the surrounding great powers ?Japan, Russia and China.

Factions in the Korean court favored one or another of the powers, and some attempts were made to play them off against each other. King Gojong's boldest bid to solve Korea's security problem was to turn to the United States. He made Sands his personal adviser and offered gold mines, railroads and other economic concessions to American entrepreneurs. His reasoning was that the United States was far away and had no territorial ambitions in Korea; but if he could engage American economic interests, the United States might protect its own interests by protecting Korea.

Alas for Korean independence, President Theodore Roosevelt and the U.S. government refused to be drawn into the great-power game in Northeast Asia.

A century later, Korea is cut in half, but South Korea has a strong and nationalist government. Japan, Russia and China are still surrounding powers, the latter growing rapidly in military and economic might. The weak and isolated northern half of Korea has nuclear ambitions that, if realized, could lead to the nuclearization of Japan, even Taiwan.

Are South Koreans so sure that only American interests are served by the United States playing a stabilizing role in this part of the world?

Pyeongyang beats the drums today for the U.S. forces to leave Korea. But at the 2000 North-South summit it was widely reported that Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il had privately agreed that they should remain even after reunification, as a guarantee of stability.

If there is a case for the U.S. forces to remain, Koreans will have to be convinced of it. They will not be convinced by the speeches of American ambassadors and generals. Only President Roh Moo-hyun can sell the U.S.-South Korea alli-ance to Koreans. After his inauguration, we will see whether he wants to take up that task.

by Hal Piper

* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.
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