[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Korea is in a position to refuseAs most learners of a foreign language know, requests are one of the most difficult areas of language to master. In Korea, important requests are often made after a series of hints in which both parties refine their views. This process helps both parties save face because burdensome requests and direct refusals make both parties uncomfortable.
The U.S. government’s recent request that Korea send a “Polish-style division” (about 3,000 troops) to Iraq is one of the most difficult requests that the United States has made of Korea. Why is it making such an extraordinary request? What should Korea do about it?
For those worried about worsening relations between Korea and the United States, the request may be taken as a sign that the United States still views Korea as a reliable ally. If the United States saw the alliance in the past tense, it would have avoided making the request so soon after President Bush’s call for international support for the occupation of Iraq.
For those who are more critical of American intentions, the request shows that the United States has fallen into a quagmire and is desperately looking for help from any possible donor. The most sinister interpretation is that the United States wants to move its troops to more secure positions to reduce the trickle of casualties that have eroded President Bush’s popularity.
Altruism and conspiracy theories make for bad analysis. To be sure, the United States still views Korea as an ally but the U.S. effort in Iraq is not going as well as the Bush administration had hoped. The sense of drift and the mounting casualties, not the economy, are what has sent his popularity down from 60 percent to the critical 50-percent level in the past few months. Mr. Bush needs to show that he is doing something to internationalize the reconstruction of Iraq with the hope of reducing U.S. casualties.
In dealing with the question of Iraq, Koreans need to think beyond Mr. Bush and near-term politics. Supporters of sending troops argue that the main benefit will be improved relations between Korea and the United States after a period of unprecedented strife. Supporters of this argument believe that the United States has lost trust in Korea and is looking for a way out of the alliance. A breakdown of the alliance would, the argument goes, endanger Korea’s security and encourage U.S. unilateralism in dealing with North Korea. Preserving the alliance is critical to national security, both to protect Korea from invasion and to give Seoul leverage over Washington.
Opponents, meanwhile, argue that sending troops is unnecessarily subservient to U.S. interests and risks the lives of young Koreans. At heart, they were against the war from the start and believe that the United States should take responsibility for its own actions. The alliance, if it has any value, brings benefits to both sides, so there is little danger that the United States will leave Korea on its own. Others remember Korea’s involvement in Vietnam and fear getting bogged down in another doomed U.S. foreign war.
Taking the long view, the United States will eventually face hard questions about its priorities. Does it want to continue the aggressive and increasingly expensive war on terror, or does it want to withdraw from the world stage and focus on problems at home? The hard dynamics of demography suggest that the later argument may win out over the long-term. Like much of Europe and Japan, the U.S. population is aging, but not as fast or as evenly.
Once the retirement of the baby boomers begins in earnest in 2010, the United States will face increasingly large budget deficits as fewer workers support more retirees. The economy, already one of the most mature in the world, is unlikely to grow fast enough to keep up with strain on its national finances. Immigration will ensure that the working-age population does not decline, as it already has in Japan and many European nations, but the bulge of boomer retirees will strain the budget until about 2030.
The hard reality of economics and demography means that the United States must achieve its goals in the war on terror quickly. For Korea, this means that its troops are not needed in Iraq because the United States is not committed to winning the peace there while it can. Loyalty is rewarded most in times of need, so Korea can politely refuse by offering to send aid and noncombatant troops as earlier agreed. In refusing, Seoul could hint that it would help Washington when such help is really needed.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
by Robert J. Fouser