[Viewpoint]Alliance strain‘It is not true that the United States did not know about the scheduled inter-Korean summit meeting. We had sufficient dialogue with Washington.”
This was what concerned government authorities said after the Aug. 8 announcement of the second inter-Korean summit meeting was met immediately by criticism that there had not been enough prior consultation with the United States.
The next day the State Department commented: “We support the inter-Korean summit and we consulted with South Korea [beforehand].” Regarding this comment, a U.S. Embassy official in Seoul said, “Because the Korean media pressed the government hard on this point, the United States confirmed that it was consulted by its counterpart beforehand.”
But was it true?
“We were only notified by South Korea a few hours before the announcement,” a U.S. government official I met with recently confessed. “But it’s no big deal, because we have known for several months that South Korea was pursuing the summit.”
It seems clear that South Korea and the United States have not had as much dialogue as the Korean government claimed.
On top of that, the planned summit also has had an adverse effect on the South Korea-U.S. alliance.
When the initial schedule for the summit ― Aug. 28 to 30 ― overlapped with the annual joint military exercise, Ulji Focus Lens (UFL, scheduled for Aug. 20 to 31), the U.S. Department of Defense was concerned about whether South Korea would put off the war games or reduce the scale of the drill to please North Korea.
Within two days of the summit announcement, North Korea demanded during military talks at Panmunjeom that the exercise be discontinued, as if it had waited for just that opportunity.
But the South Korean government did not flatly refuse the demand. The Blue House spokesman’s vague comment about the process of preparing for the summit talks ― “It is not likely to pose an issue to delay the exercise” ― increased the Pentagon’s suspicions.
Three days after the announcement of the summit meeting, Richard P. Lawless, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs, requested to meet with South Korean authorities.
Lawless said, “Perhaps North Korea wanted to cancel or reduce the exercise by holding the summit during that period since it would have known the UFL schedule long before.”
He warned, “If South Korea agrees to such a demand from North Korea, it will have a fatal impact on the preparedness of the South Korea -U.S. combined forces.”
This is an unprecedentedly strong public warning. Prior to this, the Pentagon sent warnings in much the same tone to South Korea’s Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command.
Perhaps perceiving this atmosphere, Defense Minister Kim Jang-soo argued for the exercise to be carried out as scheduled, saying, “The delay may cause big trouble in the bilateral alliance.”
The South Korean government finally announced on Aug. 13, five days after the announcement that the summit was happening, that the Focus Lens exercise would go on as planned. Seoul only cancelled a small exercise by its own army.
Observing this turn of events, an expert on the Korean Peninsula observed in Washington, “The event revealed the distrust and negative sentiment that has accumulated between South Korea and the United States over the past five years.”
The South Korean government may think it was treated unfairly in this, and perhaps it believes Lawless was excessive in giving such a warning even before the decision to put off the drill was made.
But it should be pointed out that the level of faith and trust between South Korea and the United States has gone down down noticeably because of the incident.
Certainly, the inter-Korean summit, agreed upon with difficulty after seven years, is a matter of great importance that has been achieved independently by North and South Korea. But for the talks to succeed, it is necessary to secure cooperation from surrounding countries, including the United States. In order to gain the support of the United States, we have to be able to draw on a long relationship of trust built up over time. Trust is a precious resource in bilateral relations. Insignificant events and minor slights can be overlooked while basic support grows. This is the basis of the alliance.
This is not to say that the South Korean government should heed the United States without question. Our government only has to discuss and inform its ally promptly and clearly about important issues ― such as the summit and the schedule of joint military exercises between the two countries ― that may significantly affect the ongoing process of the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear problem.
The United States also knows the significance and the proper function of inter-Korean dialogue. But we will only be able to secure the support of our ally if we show more consideration.
*The writer is the Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Khang Chan-ho