[OUTLOOK]Going with the new ‘flow’Since U.S. President George W. Bush’s announcement that some of the U.S. troops in Korea will be redeployed to Iraq, talks about a reduction of the U.S. forces in Korea have begun in earnest.
Last Nov. 25, President Bush announced that the U.S. government, together with its allies and the U.S. Congress, would start talks on reassessment of the U.S. military presence overseas in order to pursue a new strategy of military transformation in the post-Cold War, post-Sept. 11 era.
At the time, I wrote a column in the JoongAng Ilbo warning that South Korea would face a harsh winter instead of a spring of peace on the Korean Peninsula should we fail to read the significance of these military changes correctly.
Even with discussions of a reduction of the U.S. troops in Korea starting in earnest, our understanding of these military strategy changes is still at an elementary stage.
There is an anecdote about Kim Hong-jip when he returned from a visit to Japan as an envoy in 1880. The Chinese minister to Japan asked Mr. Kim whether he understood the term, “balance of power.” Kim answered that he had heard of the term but was not sure what it meant. If the United States were to ask us if we understood the significance of military transformation, would we have a better answer ready than Mr. Kim had in the 19th century?
Our domestic discussions about relocating U.S. troops in Korea to Iraq and reducing the number of remaining troops are based on the false assumption that we are still living in the era before the transformation. We don’t have the answers to the simplest questions such as whether the relocated troops will return to Korea or not. After President Bush’s announcement, there was a round-table discussion among senior U.S. military officers and journalists at the Pentagon. A journalist asked if there was a need to return the troops to Korea if, as the Pentagon claimed, relocating them in the first place would not compromise the deterrence against North Korea. The answer given by a U.S. official showed an accurate understanding of the military transformation strategy. The return of the troops would be decided on when the time came, he answered. What was important was not the possibility of the troops’ return but the fact that should deterrence need be reinforced on the peninsula, the U.S. military was capable of “flowing” further deterrence forces and that it would do so if necessary.
It is interesting to notice the verb “flow” was used in the answer. Flow is usually used to describe the movement of liquids, such as water. The core of the military transformation strategy is mobile military capabilities. Mobility is similar to ubiquity, the word popularly used to mean “anytime, anywhere” in computer technology these days. What the United States wants in the 21st century is to appear anytime, anywhere in the world at the speed of light. U.S. troops have gone from being stationed abroad in the Cold War era to being deployed abroad and now to being “flowed” abroad. We must not understand the words “transfer,” “reduction” “withdrawal” and “redeployment” with the nuances of the Cold War era.
With the stationed troops of the Cold War era being replaced by flowing troops of the transformation era, the military alliance between Korea and the United States becomes, ironically, more important. In the age of transformation, the United States will ceaselessly move its mobile military capabilities in accordance with dynamic assessments of global political-military changes. Therefore, we need to understand our alliance not as a fixed asset but as a circulating one. Because we are more likely to borrow rather than lend military capabilities, we must carefully read and react to how our ally reads the situation and controls the flow of its military capabilities.
The reduction of U.S. forces in Korea in the transformation era presents a difficult task for us, because we are experiencing serious confusion in our concepts of national defense and alliances. We don’t have time to discuss “self-reliant defense” or “cooperative self-reliant defense” at leisure. We must form a consensus in our political community and society in general about why we need military power and military alliances in this post-Cold War era. If a country is to function properly, it needs first of all to have answers for issues of life and death, of war and peace. The reality of international politics is that even though the post-Cold War era of the 21st century is here, it is still a world where no one can guarantee our lives.
We are caught in the middle of four great powers and divided into North and South. If we don’t understand the concepts of national defense and alliances correctly, there is a bleak future waiting for us.
* The writer is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Ha Young-sun