[GLOBAL EYE]But a trip wire is still necessaryThe U.S. government is voicing more and more objections to describing the role of U.S. troops in Korea as a “trip wire.” U.S. officials want the term dropped; they say it is an insult to the U.S. 2d Infantry Division and an outdated concept.
The “trip wire” description comes from the division’s front-line position, which would automatically mean that the United States would be in combat if North Korea attacked the South. The troops are, in a sense, hostages that guarantee Korea’s safety. Although that is undoubtedly not a pleasant thought for the American soldiers in the division, the description was not a problem in the days when relations between the two countries were going smoothly.
The “trip wire” concept started in the early days of the Cold War with U.S. troops stationed in Berlin. At the time, Berlin was divided and occupied by four countries, an isolated island within East Germany. By positioning a small number of U.S. soldiers there, U.S. intervention was guaranteed in case of an emergency. With the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the trip wire was used as a strategic concept justifying the stay of U.S. troops in Europe, and was later used as a synonym for concepts like “automaticism” and “deterrence.” After the Gulf War, the U.S. troops that stayed behind in Kuwait were called a “trip wire,” preventing any second invasion by Iraq.
The trip wire has a special significance in the U.S.-Korea alliance. The 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries does not guarantee automatic intervention by the United States as the NATO treaty does. President Syngman Rhee had insisted on the stipulation of “immediate and automatic intervention” but the United States refused. The presence of U.S. troops near the Demilitarized Zone was concrete proof of the United States’ vow to meet the “common threat,” and the U.S. soldiers were not “bullet shields” but the “frontier of freedom.”
The United States gives three reasons for the relocation of the U.S. 2d Infantry Division to the south of the Han River. First, its strategy now centers on high-tech naval and air power. Second, with the urbanization of the present location of the U.S. troops, more unnecessary tension between the soldiers and the residents has risen. Finally, the Americans say, everyone and everything in the South is within the target distance of North Korean missiles, so there is basically no difference between being north of the Han River or south of it. South Koreans, however, see a tre-mendous difference from the perspective of security.
First, the Korean Peninsula is technically still at war and thousands of soldiers on both sides are positioned along the Demilitarized Zone. South Korea was not a party to the armistice and there is no guarantee of automatic intervention from the United States. A symbol of U.S. deterrence is vital now that North Korea has admitted to owning nuclear weapons. That symbol is not only for the security of Korea but also for the stability of the entire Northeast Asian region.
Moreover, it is impossible for the South Korean Army to take over in a short time for the U.S. 2d Infantry Division with its mighty firepower. If a defense strategy is built on air power and naval power, there is no guarantee that the U.S. presence will stay south of the Han River and not move to Okinawa. Many foreign investors in Korea prefer being south of the U.S. troops, and the withdrawal of the U.S. soldiers from the peninsula altogether would cause a panic among them. There are even rumors that the U.S. troops are moving south of the Han River in order to attack North Korea should we fail in a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear program.
Whether we like it or not, the trip wire is the backbone of the U.S.-Korean alliance, and all reconciliation policies toward the North are only possible because of it. Until North Korea’s nuclear problem is solved and there is a mutual reduction of troops on both sides of the cease-fire line, the trip wire must be maintained as a symbol of deterrence. The Americans have become cross enough to abase themselves in a mechanical interpretation of what the term “trip wire” really means.
A trip wire is a line that is set to trigger an explosion when it is disturbed. The comments made by the Roh Moo-hyun administration on the U.S.-Korea alliance are land mines that are ready to go off both within Korea and elsewhere. The laid-back attitude of our government in trying so hard to interpret North Korea’s admission of having nuclear weapons as either an attempt to start negotiations or as a lie is putting the rest of us on edge.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Byun Sang-keun