[Viewpoint]Lawless departure a sign of a new eraWhen someone asks him for an autograph, he signs it “Outlaw” and laughs a hearty laugh. He has strong connections with high-ranking Koreans in politics, bureaucracy and in business circles, and drinks poktanju (also known as a boilermaker; a glass of beer with a glass of whiskey submerged in it) with them. Influential Korean figures, including presidential candidates, try to meet with him every time they visit Washington.
He is Richard Lawless, the deputy under secretary of defense who has been in charge of matters related to the Korea-U.S. alliance since the inauguration of U.S. President George W. Bush. He is scheduled to step down from his current job in early July.
Where information about the Korean Peninsula is concerned, no one else could possibly collect more information.
Last fall, when various theories and rumors circulated that North Korea might test-fire a nuclear bomb, he said, “The officials of both South Korea and the United States will have to go to work early on the second Monday of October (the 9th in Korea).”
He predicted the date of the North’s nuclear test precisely. Korean officials sighed, “Lawless always has more information on North Korea than we do.”
Lawless worked in Korea for several years in the 1970s as an agent for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. His highly developed instincts caught the nuclear development plans promoted by former President Park Chung Hee, which made a decisive contribution to U.S. efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation.
He actually acquired a whole set of documents related to South Korea’s nuclear development plans by tracing and listening closely to conversations between Korean officials.
Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. secretary of defense, put Lawless in a key position at the Pentagon and entrusted him with affairs related to the Korea-U.S. alliance. As a result, big pending issues such as the deployment of South Korean troops to Iraq, the transfer of the Yongsan military base to the Korean government, the reduction and realignment of U.S. forces in Korea and the transfer of wartime control of South Korean troops from Washington were all dealt with by Lawless.
Lawless is noted for using “shock and awe” tactics on his Korean counterparts during serious negotiations. As soon as talks about the Future of the Alliance Policy Initiative resumed in Seoul on July 9 of last year, Lawless made a shocking announcement: “The United States will hand over wartime control of South Korean troops to South Korea in 2009.”
Korean officials who planned the handover around 2012 at the earliest turned pale.
A month later, Lawless invited Korean correspondents in Washington to the Pentagon. He unilaterally announced that the United States planned to transfer wartime control of South Korean troops in 2009: “We believe the Korean military has sufficient capability to take over wartime control in 2009 ...”
He read the written text without expression, like a cold-hearted negotiator, not a partner in an alliance.
Since then, Korea’s position on the transfer of wartime control has been reversed. It is now defensive, trying to delay the timing of the transfer as long as possible.
Lawless was fully aware that although the Korean side said it wanted wartime control of South Korean troops, it was actually worried that its deterrent against North Korea’s military would shrink if there were an early transfer of the control.
Needless to say, Lawless acknowledges the importance of Korea as an ally and has affection for the country.
However, he doesn’t break from the frame of reference he formed in the 1970s that considers “the United States to be a caretaker and Korea a younger brother.”
In the changing international environment, Korea’s plan for the 21st century, which is based on its alliance with the United States, needs to counteract the sudden rise of China and the isolation of North Korea as it seeks flexible foreign relations. But it must get rid of its 1970s way of thinking.
Korea reacted against Lawless, who frequently used pressure tactics from the Cold War era such as “Choose between the United States and North Korea,” or “If you want the U.S. forces in Korea to leave, we will leave,” in negotiations. As a result, there were unnecessary outcries that a rupture had developed in the U.S.-Korea alliance.
Perhaps the United States was aware of this problem, too, because James Shin, a known realist and a professor at Georgetown University, has been appointed as Lawless’ successor.
The exit of Lawless is a sign that the U.S.-Korea alliance, which was once based on the Cold War structure and the notion of a caretaker/younger brother dynamic, is evolving into reciprocal relationship based on realism.
Just in time, the Roh Moo-hyun administration, who has frequently confronted the United States, is finishing its term of office in Korea.
*The writer is the Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Khang Chan-ho
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