[OUTLOOK]Send troops and sound trumpetsAs the South Korean government deliberates over whether it will dispatch forces in support of the American occupation of postwar Iraq, it unwittingly faces an almost inescapable dilemma. The United States has reportedly requested the dispatch of about 5000 troops from Seoul to the war-torn country. President Roh Moo-hyun says he would like to discuss the issue with President Bush when both leaders attend the APEC summit later this month. In the meantime, Seoul says it needs time to make its decision, and recently has explicitly linked a positive response to the American request with a more forward-leaning posture by Washington on engagement with North Korea.
The decision to put troops in harm’s way is undeniably an important decision that requires careful deliberation by the young Roh government. Although this issue has received tremendous attention within South Korea, however, it has received virtually no attention in the United States. The focus of the American media and political intelligentsia has been on the search for mass weapons in Iraq, Mr. Bush’s request for an additional $87 billion for operations in Iraq and the difficulties of gaining a United Nations commitment for the occupation without handing over authority to the international organization.
To the extent that allies are considered, only U.S. discussions with Germany (i.e., a rapprochement of sorts) and France (i.e, a continued split) have gained the public’s attention. Indeed, the majority of Americans do not even know that South Korea sent about 650 troops (mostly noncombatant) to Iraq last spring during the U.S. invasion.
In the face of such public inattention by Americans to the Korean case, does this mean Seoul can deliberate unendingly on the troop dispatch decision or choose not to send forces because no Americans would notice in any case? Absolutely not. Although the American public does not appear to be paying attention now, if South Korea chose not to send forces to Iraq it would likely have a very negative effect on U.S. opinion of Korea.
A recent study by public opinion experts found that while American attitudes toward South Korea overall have improved since early 2003, there is a large soft middle sector of the population that is apathetic or responds, “I don’t know” when asked about their opinions on Korea. From the perspective of the U.S.-Korea alliance, this impressionable soft middle is very precarious because it could shift dramatically in a negative direction depending on how relations are managed.
If Seoul declined the U.S. request, the American public (this includes the general public, political pundits, and Congress) would piece this together as the latest in a sequence of South Korean actions that would justify skepticism of their ally. This started with the Kim Dae-jung government’s decision not to participate in U.S. missile defense, followed by the anti-American demonstrations in late 2002, protesters attacking U.S. bases and Seoul’s decision not to join the Proliferation Security Initiative. Even more Americans would begin to discount Korea in future visions of American security strategy in Northeast Asia.
On the other hand, if Seoul supports the Iraqi occupation, there is little chance that American public opinion would shift dramatically in a positive direction. This is the inescapable dilemma faced by the Roh government. If Seoul sent troops to Iraq, few Americans would notice it as improving U.S.-Korea relations. But if Seoul did not send troops, everyone would notice it as a deterioration in the alliance.
Therefore, should Seoul support the Iraqi occupation, it needs to trumpet this troop dispatch as consonant with a history of South Korean support for fighting against the dark forces of authoritarianism around the world. Whether it was Seoul’s participation in Vietnam in the 1960s or more recently in East Timor, Afghanistan, or Iraq, South Korea dispatched these forces not as a lackey of the United States (as the North Koreans claim), but as Asia’s most vibrant liberal democracy and an OECD country that believes in providing stability to the Middle East and countering terrorism. A decision of this nature would gain the widest respect among Americans, both inside and outside of Washington.
* The writer is an associate professor of government at Georgetown University.
by Victor D. Cha