[OUTLOOK]Autonomy is an impossible taskIt is rumored that some officials in Washington are calling the Roh Moo-hyun administration ― and the Blue House in particular ― the second Taliban. To certain U.S. officials, the Roh administration is an uncomfortably unpredictable, adolescent and even dangerous government.
A senior U.S. official recently said that he got the impression that the Roh Moo-hyun government cared more about its relations with North Korea than about the U.S.-Korean alliance. The official said it seemed that Seoul was showing more tolerance for North Korea and more interest in improving relations with China than in cooperation with its allies, the United States and Japan. A Japanese official who also said he wished to remain anonymous expressed a similar opinion.
The two officials agreed in that the U.S.-Korea alliance was in the midst of a serious crisis and that there were more than a few formidable obstacles in the future of the Korea-Japan relations as well.
In this unsettled atmosphere, President Roh Moo-hyun called for autonomous self-defense in a speech at an Independence Day ceremony. This raises the question of the reasons the president had to make such a speech at this particular time and what the significance of the speech will be, especially for the U.S.-Korea alliance.
There is no former president who had not emphasized the importance of autonomous self-defense. No one among us would say we do not want the ability to defend ourselves by ourselves. Even the United States hints whenever it can that it would be a good idea for Korea to heighten its defense capabilities and take a more active role in the stability of the Korean Peninsula.
Yet President Roh’s autonomous self-defense speech has become the subject of much debate within and out of the country. It has made the Korean people even more nervous about their future. Why are these old words causing new doubts and new worries?
The key to the problem lies in the fact that President Roh did not clarify the concept and direction of his autonomous self-defense. His words on the subject held two contradictory meanings.
On one hand, Mr. Roh’s autonomous self-defense means retrieving the independent function and rights of the Korean Army from the U.S. forces in Korea. In other words, it revealed a strong desire to gain autonomy or independence from the U.S.-Korea alliance. On the other hand, it held the contradictory hope that this concept of autonomous self-defense would go hand-in-hand with an alliance relationship with the United States.
It is uncertain to the public which way the president will finally choose. The first meaning might be temporarily attractive to some of the younger population, but it is a very dangerous choice because it could result in a cancellation of the U.S.-Korea alliance.
Peace and security on the Korean Peninsula does not concern North Korea and South Korea alone. Geopolitically, there is definitely a limit to the autonomous self-defense that we can pursue with our national and economic power when we are surrounded by such powerful neighbors as China, Russian and Japan.
In this situation, one cannot help feeling a little bit of doubt as to whether President Roh’s words that we could build within the next 10 years the foundations of an autonomous self-defense strong enough to keep neighboring powers at bay are responsible and realistic words. Confidence is good. Excessive ambition, on the other hand, could impede the pursuit of our national interests. We could be isolating ourselves from international society and further down the road drive our economy to ruin.
Moreover, there is not a single country on the face of this earth that practices completely autonomous self-defense. Even superpowers such as the United States plan their defense policies within the framework of international cooperation. From the perspective of the national interest, true autonomous self-defense cannot be achieved by strengthening our military power only.
An indispensable element in our self-defense is the maximum utilization of the current situation and conditions of regional and global security and the building of a close security cooperation system based on the trust of our allies and friendly states. In this sense, the concept of autonomous self-defense goes hand in hand with the U.S.-Korea alliance for us. In other words, without the U.S.-Korea alliance, there can be no autonomous self-defense. What we need right now is not a sloppy pitch for autonomous self-defense but, in consideration of the security strategy situation of the Korean Peninsula and the Northeast Asian region, to fortify and develop the joint U.S.-Korean defense system that is the root of the U.S.-Korea alliance. This is what we need and this is what the people of Korea want.
According to a recent survey, only 18 percent of the people supported autonomous self-defense without any U.S. presence while more than half wanted the U.S. forces to stay in Korea and supported the U.S.-Korea alliance. The road that President Roh must choose at this point is to consolidate the alliance with the United States, not to expand our military abilities.
There should be no more references to an ambiguous autonomous self-defense that would inflame the confusion in these times when there are doubts being raised as to the amount of fundamental trust in the relations between Korea and the United States.
* The writer is a senior associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
by Kim Seung-hwan