[TODAY]Old friends have a falling outWhen a relatively unknown Roh Moo-hyun started becoming popular in the Millennium Democratic Party presidential primaries in April of last year, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly made the following prediction about the future of the Korean-U.S. relations. At an Asia Society meeting, Mr. Kelly said the United States should keep in mind that the next generation of leaders of Korea would try to redefine the relations between the two countries in a direction that would challenge the traditional role of the United States in Korea.
Had U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld heard that speech, he would have agreed with Mr. Kelly as he left Seoul empty-handed after the security consultation meetings. Mr. Rumsfeld got few concessions from the Roh Moo-hyun administration. The size of the Korean dispatch to Iraq remained at 3,000 soldiers as he had heard before he left Washington.
Mr. Rumsfeld also failed to get any compromise from the Korean government in the negotiations over the future of the Yongsan base after the relocation of the U.S. troops in Korea and both sides concluded the meeting by only agreeing to hold “further discussions.” The “shadow rally” by civil groups which trailed him wherever he went vigorously chanted against the dispatch throughout his visit. This is the first time such a thing has happened in the years of relations between the two countries since the end of the Korean War.
President Roh had emphasized a more “equal” Korea-U.S. relation since his candidacy and has made the United States wary of his idea of turning Korea into the “hub of Northeast Asia,” an idea which has yet to develop into anything material. President Roh has proposed that Korea, China and Japan establish a system guaranteeing peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia without the United States. The United States would hardly welcome such a plan that would shake the foundation of its strategy of checking China, which is expected by many to challenge the U.S hegemony in this region by about 2030. It is in this context that Japan, albeit still cautious of the United States, has started to participate more actively in activities with Korea and China.
The National Security Council members who are behind the president’s call for Korea’s autonomous self-defense believe that it is not such a bad idea for the U.S. military headquarters now located in Yongsan to move south to Osan and Pyeongtaek together with the 2d Infantry Division. This opinion is based on a change of perspective on the role of the U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula. For those who think that North Korea is no longer a threat to South Korea’s security, the U.S. troops in Korea are no longer the “oxygen masks” on which Korea’s security depends.
As a dutiful ally, Korea should be expected to send at least 5,000 soldiers to Iraq to carry out duties of maintaining public order. But the Korean government insisted on 3,000 soldiers whose main duty would be restoration projects and not public order. In effect, Korea has politely refused to give any substantial help to a friend in need. When asked repeatedly by journalists whether he would accept the 3,000 soldiers that Korea has offered to send, Mr. Rumsfeld merely replied that that was a decision for Korea to make. One could feel the disappointment of the United States in his answer. From the point of view of the United States, Mr. Kelly’s ominous prediction had turned into reality.
That is not all, however. The problem is that in keeping an “equal and independent” attitude toward Mr. Rumsfeld, Korea has given free rein to the United States to do with the U.S. troops in Korea as it pleases. The United States is now free to withdraw or reduce the U.S. troops in Korea without having to heed Korea even when claiming to hold extensive consultations with the Korean government. It could now change the role of the U.S. troops in this region from deterring North Korea to maintaining security in Northeast Asia. In this situation where there is no guarantee that North Korea’s nuclear problem will be solved peacefully, the possibility of such a change is an element of instability in Korea’s security.
It is most regrettable that the issue of dispatching troops to Iraq, which would play a big role in shaping the future of Korea-U.S. relations, was decided at the pace of the advocates of “autonomous self-defense.” If we send 3,000 soldiers to do restoration jobs as those advocates want, the safety of the entire Korean troop deployment will be at risk. There are no safe zones in Iraq anymore. Now that organized forces in Iraq are planing and executing attacks against the multinational troops, it is likely that there will be no distinction between combat and non-combat troops. The threats of terrorist attacks in Tokyo are evidence of this. How are 3,000 non-combat soldiers to secure their own safety by themselves?
The dispatch of our troops to Iraq was supposed to have been decided in accordance with our national interest. Instead, it was decided by politics and the desire to save face. There is even a trace of ideology here. It might come as a sort of catharsis that we have finally said “no” to U.S. pressure. But cooperation with the United States is essential in dealing with North Korea, in security matters and on the economy.
President Roh and his nationalist aides should think about what they now have to offer when it is our turn to ask for help from the United States.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie