[OUTLOOK]Not the right time to test alliance

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[OUTLOOK]Not the right time to test alliance

The letter that the U.S. Secretary of Defense sent last week to his South Korean counterpart, Yoon Kwang-ung, caused a powerful storm. The letter basically covered two issues. The first part was about the transfer of wartime control of Korean forces by 2009. The second was that Washington suggested Seoul share the cost of keeping U.S. troops here. But different interpretations and explanations keep coming up, in regard to how and why such a letter was sent.
As speculation spread that the letter was a means to press Korea or leverage for negotiations with Korea, the Korean Defense Ministry has worked hard to quiet them, saying the letter was not a one-way notice, but made as a response to a letter Minister Yoon had sent earlier. As controversy arose over any additional payment for defense, the Blue House explained that the demand by Washington to share the cost of deploying its troops was nothing new and was not directly related to the transfer of wartime operational command.
As politicians criticized this issue as political fighting using national security as collateral, government officials downplayed the letter’s meaning and said Washington did not have any specific political intention when sending the letter but that the two countries were exchanging opinions on pending issues concerning the alliance. After these explanations and excuses by the Korean government, the “Rumsfeld storm” seems to have downsized to a storm in a tea cup.
However, the two countries have totally different stances on the issues. It is also hard to believe that grave issues concerning the alliance between the two countries were discussed in letters, instead of through dialogue.
The Korean government officials involved are busy making excuses, which clearly reveals the administration’s poor capacity for public relations and the insecurity in the Korea-U.S. alliance.
The 2009 timeline for the transfer of wartime control certainly comes from Washington, regardless of how it was delivered. Washington had until February stuck to its stance that wartime control of the Korean army would transfer to Korea sometime, that it should not be hurried and that it should be completed when the Korean military has acquired sufficient capability. The drastic change toward an earlier than planned transfer is certainly a grave matter.
The decision of when to regain wartime control is for experts to decide. This matter is not something that should be decided by public opinion manipulated by dividing people into proponents of self-reliance versus pro-Americans. However, this issue has often been approached with populist political maneuvering and misused for political purposes. It is understandable that Washington felt unhappy about this situation. It looks like Washington said, “If you say you already have sufficient military capabilities to exercise wartime control on your own, there is no need to wait until 2012.”
The government said the request by Washington for sharing the cost of keeping its troops here is nothing new, but this explanation is not persuasive. Even if there has been such a demand for a long time, sharing the costs is naturally related to the transfer of wartime control because the handover will transform the combined forces command into a joint defense system.
As the Korean administration’s plan to have sufficient military capabilities for self-reliance is severely damaged, Koreans are about to lose a longtime ally, pay more taxes and feel less secure. Trusting that Washington will support Seoul in the event of an emergency becomes more important as wartime control is to be transferred and the Korea-U.S. alliance is to become flexible so that U.S. troops in Korea can be mobilized swiftly for America’s purposes.
South Korea is nearly helpless in the face of North Korea’s overwhelming weapons, such as nuclear bombs and long-range missiles. If the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command is dismantled, there will be no reason for more U.S. troops to be deployed immediately in an emergency. To have this guaranteed in documents is easier said than done. It makes no sense that the U.S. military, armed with high-tech weapons, should take a supportive role under the Korean military’s command. If Washington becomes reluctant to support Seoul, the Korea-U.S. combined military capabilities will weaken seriously.
To transfer wartime control earlier than planned can be only a fancy package at best or a failure in national defense at worst, some say. The raison d’etre of the U.S. forces in Korea is changing as cooperation between the U.S military and the Japanese military is enhanced.
If South Koreans believe such leisurely assumptions as “North Korea has no capabilities to invade the South,” or “The U.S. troops in Korea cannot leave for their own good,” a national security crisis could erupt, just as a financial crisis did in 1998. Any changes in the format of the Korea-U.S. alliance should be discussed and negotiated with great care at a time when North Korea is prolonging its nuclear issue and there are possibilities of provocative acts from it.
In regard to the wartime operational command, effective management of the command through a military network between Korea and the United States is more crucial than the transfer itself. Thus, transfer of the command and follow up measures should be negotiated only when the alliance remains strong. If a husband and wife reach an agreement to stay married without love, they will inevitably regret their decision and agreement. Now is not the right time, looking at the relationship between President Roh Moo-hyun and President George W. Bush.

* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Byun Sang-keun
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