[OUTLOOK]Flexibility or balance in Korea?Lately, securing the strategic flexibility of the U.S. forces in Korea has become controversial. Strategic flexibility is a concept of extensively utilizing the U.S. forces in Korea to respond to crises across East Asia. Washington, however, needs to prudently review the geopolitical characteristics of the Korean Peninsula before implementing any plan.
Just as the former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has pointed out, the Korean Peninsula is a geopolitical buffer state. It is a region indispensable to the formation of mutual understanding among regional powers in order to maintain peace. The diplomatic maneuvering on the eve of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 starkly illustrated this reality. Since 1900, Russia had committed a large number of forces to Manchuria in the name of suppressing the Boxer Rebellion. In the years before the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, there had been several attempts to neutralize Joseon (Korea).
However, both Russia and Japan had suspected that there was an enemy influence hidden behind the proposal to neutralize Korea’s Daehan Empire. They decided that Korea did not have the capacity to maintain neutrality and opposed the plan. For some time after 1901, Russia had aggressively supported the neutralization of Joseon. However, by that time, there was no room for negotiation, because the hardliners in Japan were already promoting the entire occupation of Joseon.
In May 1903, the hardliners in Russia led the seizure of Yongampo, near the mouth of the Yalu River. Japan saw the incident as Russia’s attempt to create a sphere of influence in the northern Korean Peninsula and started its last attempt at negotiation. In short, the negotiations, which continued for nearly six months, were a contest to define the spheres of influence.
While Russia insisted on establishing a neutral domain in the northern region of the Korean Peninsula over the 39th parallel, Japan hoped to install 50-kilometer (31-mile) wide demilitarized zones along both sides of the Yalu River, and the border between Korea and Manchuria. The claims of the two nations were irreconcilable, and in the end, Japan provoked Russia and initiated the Russo-Japanese war in February 1904. Later, Japan occupied Joseon by force, but after abandoning its naturally advantageous defensive position as a maritime power, Japan got involved in a series of conflicts, including the Manchurian Incident and the Sino-Japanese War. Japan suffered a great deal because it did not recognize the independence and neutrality of Joseon, and in the end, wound up a loser in World War II.
The process of the entry of the Chinese forces during the Korean War is also an important reference. Boosted by the success of the Incheon landing, the Korean and U.S. forces recovered Pyongyang and pushed up to the Yalu River. In China’s eyes, it had only a border between itself and the U.S. forces. Having won the Nationalist-Communist Civil War in 1949, Communist China was gearing up to invade Taiwan until the spring of 1950.
However, with the beginning of the Korean War, the U.S. Seventh Fleet was committed in the Taiwan Strait. Now, China had to directly face the United States, which had been supporting the Chinese Nationalist forces. The Soviet Union, which did not want to start a third world war with the United States, refused to provide supporting air power. However, Mao Zedong judged that China had to defeat the United States and eliminate the threat on its borders, and decided to enter the Korea War.
Speaking about the experience of war between China and the United States, Mr. Kissinger and other strategists said that Washington fell into disorder in strategic planning by ignoring the distinctive quality of Korea as a buffer state. He stated that if a truce had been formed near Pyongyang and Wonsan, the burden on Korea and the United States could have been lessened, with North Korea as a vulnerable buffer state.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration’s excessive ideology has dangerously cracked the Korea-U.S. alliance. However, the Bush administration needs to be careful as well. The presence of U.S. forces in East Asia has been welcomed by our neighbors because they play the role of peace-keepers, controlling the elements of conflict in a region where mutual distrust prevails.
However, if Washington is too ambitious in its advocacy of the concept of strategic flexibility, the United States might be perceived not as a balancer in the region but as a ruler, and other nations in the region will put up their guard. When the United States shows the virtue of “strategic moderation” in consideration of the geopolitical character of the Korean Peninsula, its policy and strategy will be welcomed by every nation in East Asia.
* The writer is a lecturer of political science and international relations at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Seung-young