[OUTLOOK]Fixing the U.S.-Korea allianceIt is clear that something is wrong with the Korea-U.S. alliance, but it is not at all clear just exactly what that something is.
This is not the first time that there have been alliance problems; tension and mutual distrust hit a peak when U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea without any prior consultation with the Korean government.
More fundamentally, the inevitable gap between the authoritarian governments of Korea in the past and the liberal democracy of the United States always cast a shadow on relations between the two countries.
Compared to the authoritarian regime in the past, it should be far easier to maintain U.S.-Korea relations these days. No longer is there any reason for Koreans and Americans to argue about their fundamental identities.
If the task in the 1970s and 1980s was to protect the alliance from being tarnished by Seoul’s authoritarian image, the task since the 1990s has changed to protecting it from too much democracy.
What does “too much democracy” mean? When the government listens uncritically to the unfiltered demands of many interest groups and tries to respond, that is too much democracy. I worry because our society’s concept of group interests has turned simplistic and unilateral.
So-called “anti-American” sentiment also seems a part of this undesirable social phenomenon. It is natural that the public should make demands concerning U.S.-Korea relations. The problem is how political leaders respond to such demands.
There is no society in the world without some element of anti-Americanism. This is the price the United States must pay for being the single military superpower in the world that takes the lead on many issues, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the international trade system.
Such formidable power is bound to be accompanied by critics. The problem is whether there is a political leader in Korea who can appeal to reason ― someone who can persuade the public to regain its composure when it gets excited and makes demands that may not be in our best interests over time.
The Korea-U.S. alliance is not the only alliance in trouble these days. France and Germany, two traditional allies of the United States, are criticizing U.S. policies on Iraq. Several reasons could be inferred to explain the anti-American trend in Europe, but the fundamental reason lies in the fact that the Cold War is over.
An alliance is based on the recognition of a common threat. During the Cold War era, European countries and the United States needed each other to cope with the threat of the eastern bloc, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact members. Resentment of Americans surely must have welled up in the hearts of Europeans when the United States stalled their ambitions to seize the Suez Canal in 1956. But the Europeans refrained from anti-American gestures at the time because they needed the United States.
The Korea-U.S. alliance is also a product of the Cold War. The common awareness of North Korea’s military threat was what held the two countries together, so the end of the Cold War posed a very difficult question for the Korea-U.S. alliance: How are we to perceive North Korea’s existence?
If the United States sees North Korea as a military threat and South Korea sees it solely as an object of cooperation and reconciliation, the Korea-U.S. alliance is bound to run into rough waters.
It would be a serious folly to think that the Cold War is over in the Korean Peninsula; the Korean Peninsula is not Eastern Europe.
Here we must ponder on a most basic problem. What is North Korea to us? Ignoring the complexity of the existence of North Korea and simplifying it to fit a simple manner of thinking could bring unexpected serious consequences for us and for our links to the United States.
The Korea-U.S. alliance essentially depends on our perception of North Korea.
Let’s not give way to the temptation to think that the Cold War is over in our part of the world and that the reconciliation of the North and South is a simple affair.
* The writer, a former ambassador to the United States, is president of the Institute of Social Sciences.
by Kim Kyung-won