[OUTLOOK]If ‘neat’ becomes ‘let’s roll’Although it’s admittedly easy to have been distracted by an impeachment, the fact still remains that the Roh administration has made a pretty good mess of its security relations with the United States. And although it would not be entirely fair to blame the Bush administration for “unilateral” steps that were either seen as necessary by Washington for many years or became necessary because of setbacks in Iraq, the thinking behind those steps and the grudges that have accumulated along the way could lead to some poorly-thought out policies on both sides of the Pacific.
Bilateral U.S.-Korea relations are where they are now because Koreans equate deterrence with grunts and their rifles stationed in harm’s way, and have continued to do so despite the lesson of a quarter-century ago when Jimmy Carter, for different reasons, began rattling chains and threatening a withdrawal of U.S. troops. Then, the reason was Mr. Carter’s personal disgust with Park Chung Hee; today, the reason is the increasingly anachronistic presence of the 2d Infantry Division in suburban garrisons where they have no real role in defending South Korea.
American diplomats in the past cooperated with Korea’s fixation on keeping troops here because they were sensitive to Korea’s political needs and willing to fight for the status quo out of concern for the “overall relationship” between the United States and Korea.
But suddenly the frustrated Pentagon planners, intent on transforming U.S. forces into a light, mobile, hard-hitting military machine, saw their opportunity. After President-elect Roh began rumbling about the perceived problems with the U.S. military presence here, the boys in the Pentagon knew just what to do. A base in Seoul is an insult? We agree, and we’re pulling it out. Koreans are insulted by the wartime command arrangements here? We agree; let’s change them. Here are some more military responsibilities to boot. You’re big boys now.
The irritated State Department and National Security Council saw no overriding “overall relationship” issues to lead them to argue against those plans.
Now, we learn, those changes in the positioning of U.S. forces here were not the full extent of the Pentagon’s efforts to exploit its opening. Even last fall, according to Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy defense secretary, planners there were working on troop reductions on the Korean Peninsula.
Then came the debacle. Without denigrating at all the good work that the Korean military could do in Iraq, it is still true that the request for troops was a political plea for moral support more than anything else. If that sounds exaggerated, it would pay to reflect on U.S. patience ― public patience, at least ― with Korean requests for a different operational zone in Iraq and with the delays in the troop dispatch while politicians here wavered and the public mood shifted. A symbol of political unity between Seoul and Washington quickly degenerated into a Namdaemun haggling bout, even though all Mr. Rumsfeld wanted to be able to do was continue to say, “...and the Koreans are holding firm.”
Defense planners in Korea have said privately that they are also concerned about the removal of the planning staff for U.S. military operations in Korea from here to Japan as part of the U.S. force restructuring. That move is probably inevitable, and another shoe is still to drop. The four-star U.S. Army billet here in Korea will probably be moved to Hawaii.
But a loss of firepower is not the issue. A disgusted GI recently posted an anonymous comment on an Internet bulletin board to the effect that the United States could easily maintain its deterrence here with three “boomers,” as missile submarines are known. “One each on the east and west coasts and one in Japan,” he advised. “One North Korean boot over the line, and they’re toast.”
Such braggadocio is, of course, not the answer, even if a similar concept, under the name Mutually Assured Destruction, was a Cold War staple of defense planners on both sides of the Iron Curtain. But in a sense, the threat of massive firepower, “shock and awe,” if you will, would work quite well to deter a North Korean attack or, disturbingly, to launch an attack. The failure in Iraq was not because the United States lacked firepower, but because there were bad assumptions about what would happen after the country had been occupied.
That problem would not occur in Korea. After the “major combat” ended, there would be little further need for U.S. forces. There would be no occupation; there would be a reunification, and the only U.S. role might be to snoop around up north to make sure that no ambitious South Korean generals were bundling off a few leftover nuclear weapons for a rainy day.
There are some loose strings here, of course, but the idea is perhaps far too neat: a smaller number of U.S. troops, out of harm’s way, protected from missile attacks by Patriot batteries. An occupation force would be welcoming brothers and sisters back into the fold instead of wondering if they were terrorists. Japan would be safer from physical attack, although the verbal warfare across the inland sea would continue.
So let’s posit a continued stand-off in the North Korean nuclear problem during a second Bush administration and an administration in Seoul that still doggedly refuses to consider North Korea anything but a needy and deserving relative. Myopia here and further North Korean provocations internationally could make “neat” a synonym for “let’s roll.”
* The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by John Hoog