[OUTLOOK]Control need not be absoluteA historic summit meeting between Korea and the United States is to be held in two weeks. There is a reason for calling the meeting a historic one when there have already been five summit meetings before. That is because the wartime operational command of Korean forces is about to be adjusted in a new direction. This adjustment is not a mere change in the military system of the two countries, but a historic choice for a new survival strategy by Korea and the United States. With this historic choice soon to be made, one old quote springs to my mind; “A swallow and a sparrow are having fun, without knowing that the house is on fire.” This excerpt is from a booklet titled “Joseon Chaengnyak,” or Joseon Strategy, written by Huang Zunxian, a councilor to the Qing dynasty’s envoy to Japan. Huang Zunxian gave this booklet to visiting Korean Kim Hong-jip in the summer of 1880. The Joseon dynasty had then being seeking a new strategy for survival.
This expression sounds undiplomatic for a diplomat to say. However, one can see why he used that expression, looking at the conversation that the Chinese councilor and the Korean envoy had on the first day they met. Councilor Huang boldly pointed out that the global situation they were facing was totally different from the world order of the past 4,000 years. He said that it was impossible to cure a modern disease with old medicine. However, Kim Hong-jip said the Joseon dynasty could not go beyond trying to protect its waters, even if only trying to deter the modern military capacity of the West by using its conventional military capacity. In the end, the expression Huang Zunxian used became self-fulfilling.
The Korean administration expects this summit meeting to become an important stepping stone to develop the ties of the two countries to become embracing, dynamic and reciprocal relations.
But this expectation will likely turn out to be nothing but fancy rhetoric because President Roh Moo-hyun and President George W. Bush perceive the current era from different angles; President Roh values self-reliance over alliance while President Bush emphasizes transformation of the format of the alliance as the world order is changing.
An emphasis on self-reliance in the alliance is based on a 20th-century understanding of the world, although we are living in the 21st century. People with this view want to restructure the alliance for self-reliance, reunification and cooperation, instead of survival. Thus, the current Korea-U.S. alliance for survival is naturally losing its importance.
President Bush has a different idea about a new alliance for the 21st century. The United States is fighting against weapons of mass destruction and tyrannies. It is building a new alliance to compete over leadership with other forces that have different ideologies and political systems than its own, such as China.
As Korea pursues “cooperative self-reliance,” it is hard for the country to keep the status it used to have in the alliance during the Cold War era, in the current alliance that the United States is building now.
Despite two different interpretations of alliance, Seoul and Washington have agreed to adjust the wartime control. The two parties have reached an agreement through different interpretations of the situation. However, this decision will likely entail far more complicated problems.
The new ties with Washington will highly likely enhance subordination, instead of self-reliance. As fewer things are institutionalized and documented, we will need to try harder than before to persuade Washington in each case of an emergency.
Domestically, in the next presidential election, a large number of people will turn away from the ruling party candidates, worried over the enormous military cost of independent military capacity, instead of crediting the ruling party for pursuing self-reliance and thus voting for its candidate.
Although Washington will face fewer problems than Korea does, the United States will find limits in pursuing strategic flexibility in Southeast Asia, having basis only in the United States, Japan and Australia.
However, it is not too late. The direction of the summit meeting needs to be changed now, before even the new house is burnt down. The meeting should focus on each country’s rights and obligations in pursuing its own ideas about the transformation of an ally on the Korean Peninsula, in East Asia or on the global stage. Based on this understanding, a consensus should be made to review the situation that categorizes wartime operational command in detailed parts so that each country can exercise some parts of the control together and other parts exclusively.
* The writer is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University.
by Ha Young-sun