[VIEWPOINT]Redefine U.S., Korean linkage

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[VIEWPOINT]Redefine U.S., Korean linkage

When American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visits South Korea later this month for the annual U.S.-South Korea Security Consultative Meetings (SCM), he will face new circumstances on the Korean Peninsula. Progress through ongoing six-party talks in achieving the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programs will catalyze changes in the U.S.-ROK security alliance beyond the reconfiguration already underway.
The Security Policy Initiative inaugurated at last year’s SCM anticipates the need to create a new foundation for the future of the alliance in light of these changes. But prospective inter-Korean reconciliation, South Korea’s own evolving vision of its regional security needs, the American focus on the political and security implications of a rising China, and/or American domestic political pressures could force an early re-evaluation of the alliance. A permanent Korean peninsula peace regime to be discussed as part of six-party talks will have implications for the alliance, which has been primarily focused on deterring the threat from North Korea.
Some critics argue that the United States is opposed to inter-Korean reconciliation, but it is hard to think of an Asian development more favorable to the United States than a peaceful inter-Korean reconciliation process, which would ultimately justify a half-century investment of American lives and treasure on the Korean Peninsula. However, lasting regional stability in Northeast Asia also requires careful management of the regional rivalry between the two rising powers of China and Japan. For this reason, a continued U.S.-Korea security alliance may make sense, but only with unequivocal Korean public support. Otherwise, it is incumbent upon both sides to manage an amicable parting of the ways.
The immediate challenge for the alliance derives from ambiguity surrounding North Korean military intentions. Neither the 2000 inter-Korean joint declaration nor last month’s joint statement at the six-party talks has addressed North Korea’s conventional or nuclear capabilities. Despite growing inter-Korean economic and political exchanges, significant progress on the military side has not been achieved. It is necessary for the U.S. and South Korean military planners to agree on benchmarks for measuring North Korean progress toward elimination of remaining military obstacles to achieving peaceful coexistence.
The U.S.-Korea security ties remain the centerpiece of the relationship, despite the fact that economic, political and grassroots ties have grown in importance vis-a-vis the security relationship. The necessary leadership to comprehensively redefine the relationship must come from the White House and the Blue House, not from the Pentagon and the Ministry of National Defense. President Bush’s visit to South Korea for APEC in November could be one opportunity to begin such a process.
Some on Capitol Hill question the need for a continuing American presence in Korea, given the demands on America’s military in Iraq and other locations and recent American domestic base closures that will hurt many communities that are economically dependent on local bases. If the threat from North Korea is under control, American politicians will wonder why the world’s tenth-largest economy cannot bear the costs and responsibility of providing for its own security. The Roh administration themes of autonomy and self-reliance may be seen as welcome steps toward greater South Korean defense autonomy.
If a true inter-Korean reconciliation is achieved, the Combined Forces Command (CFC) is unlikely to be sustained. South Korea will inevitably regain full operational control of its military as the American deterrent contribution on the peninsula diminishes, eliminating vestiges of dependence on the United States viewed by some as an infringement on Korean sovereignty. However, there may be sound national security arguments for a robust series of military exercises to maintain interoperability and cooperation between U.S. and South Korean forces.
The United States is unlikely to seek a military presence on the peninsula in a post-North Korean threat environment unless those troops could be used for any possible regional or global military contingency. Without a clear understanding that American troops based in Korea could be deployed in any regional contingency, there would be little rationale for continuing an American military presence on the Korean Peninsula.
Americans and South Koreans have never before had more common aspirations, capabilities and potential as partners than today. A common post-Cold War vision for regional cooperation on the basis of shared values of freedom and democracy ultimately will be the glue that is necessary for maintaining a U.S.-Korea security alliance beyond the threat from North Korea.
These core values are also critical prerequisites for building a peaceful Northeast Asian community. Whether such a vision can be achieved will define the future of American relations with Korea for the next generation.

* The writer, a senior associate with The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS, is currently a Pantech Fellow at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC). The views expressed here are personal views. He can be reached at ssnyder@asiafound-dc.org.

by Scott Snyder
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