[Overseas view]Korea’s pivotal position

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[Overseas view]Korea’s pivotal position

The Korea-U.S. Alliance is in much stronger shape today than many analysts might have expected back in mid-2003 when tens of thousands of people protested in the streets of Seoul and the U.S. Secretary of Defense hinted that the United States might pull troops back from Korea if the protests continued.

Today a JoongAng Ilbo poll shows that the U.S. is the most popular country in Korea and both John McCain and Barack Obama have vowed to strengthen the alliance, if elected. In reality, the alliance was never as threatened back in 2003 as many claimed. But if the goodwill between Koreans and Americans remains strong and our two governments work well together on issues ranging from military transformation to North Korea policy, it is still an open question whether the underlying strategic logic for the alliance is truly up-to-date and robust.

This danger occurs to me when I sometimes hear senior strategic thinkers in the U.S. who are not Asia experts refer to the importance of our alliances with Japan and Australia and inadvertently forget to mention Korea. This is a problem for both veteran Republican and Democratic foreign policy elites. Most will quickly agree that the Korea-U.S. alliance is indispensable when the omission is pointed out, but it speaks volumes that this omission occurs at all.

I have asked other Asia hands in Washington why they think this happens at all. Some point to the repeated images in the U.S. media of anti-American protests in Korea, which must undermine the confidence of those who are not looking at the bilateral relationship closely. Others note that bilateral exchanges with Korean politicians and scholars rarely look beyond peninsular issues.

I suspect there is another factor as well. The distinguished Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis described the U.S.-Japan alliance as deriving from the “Cold War of position” - meaning that U.S. strategists knew even from the beginning of World War II that the United States had to be solidly linked with Japan to maintain peace and stability in Asia. Gaddis described the U.S. alliance with Korea as deriving from the “Cold War of maneuver” - meaning that it was an alliance created in the midst of crisis in the front lines of the contest with global communism.

These antecedents of the two alliances continue to have a subtle but important impact on American strategic thinking in Asia. Now it is important to reconceptualize the Korea-U.S. alliance for a new era.

The first task is to recognize that Korea is now critical to the United States beyond just the “Cold War of maneuver.” Certainly, the North Korean threat reminds us that the original cause for the Korea-U.S. alliance continues to make our security ties indispensible to peace in Northeast Asia. But today the Republic of Korea holds strategic importance in its own right in terms of “position” and not just “maneuver” as the world’s thirteenth largest economy and one of America’s largest trading partners and as a nation bonded to us by common values and growing family ties.

The Korea-U.S. alliance is also indispensable in terms of “maneuver” as well. Korea is a “pivot” country - a nation that has the potential to link Asia and the international community on a host of new challenges; or, conversely, a nation that could be caught in the seams should the world fall into blocs

This is true on the great question of whether Asian economic integration will strengthen trans-Pacific ties or lead to decoupling and less security for the region. The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement would go a long way towards ensuring that both Asian regional economic integration and trans-Pacific liberalization go hand-in-hand.

It is also true with respect to the rise of China. The two worst scenarios for future Asian stability would be unchecked Chinese hegemony or the collapse of regional order into two opposing blocs, one continental and one maritime. Former President Roh Moo-hyun vaguely understood this danger when he advanced his “balancer concept,” but his belief that Korea could somehow independently play the role of balancer without being internally divided and swallowed by Sino-Japanese competition was misguided. Eventually, his government recognized that the key would be a strong Korea-U.S. alliance. But even then the Roh administration used the concept at times to push the United States to itself become more neutral between China and Japan. In addition to undermining confidence in the alliance in Washington (since Japan is our ally), the notion of unmooring the Korea-U.S. alliance in order to balance between Japan and China would only encourage Beijing to think it could isolate South Korea with its own maneuvering. A far greater contribution to the maintenance of a stable order in Asia as China’s power rises would be to establish a Korea-U.S. alliance that Beijing considers an immutable feature of the regional order.

The Korea-U.S. alliance is also critical in the ideational game of maneuver now underway in Asia. Some nation states argue that the natural Asian political norm is an authoritarian political system that emphasizes group harmony over individual rights. Japanese leaders have begun arguing that the Asian order should be based on democracy and the rule of law, but Japan still has some historical baggage. Korea, with its own historic transition to democracy and close relations across the region is in a pivotal position to reinforce the notion that universal norms should guide Asian integration. Korea’s “casting vote” would reinforce the consensus that Asia should continue the steady march towards democracy and rule of law - not to undermine the success of China, but to ensure that all citizens in the region enjoy the example set by Korea.

Finally, Korea is in a pivotal position in the global challenge of proliferation. The Lee government’s firm stand that North Korea must provide verification under the nuclear deal has reinforced the international community’s determination not to accept regimes like North Korea as nuclear weapons states. This is particularly important since South Korea is on the front lines of the crisis.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the State Department have initiated an important Strategic Dialogue at the deputy minister level. The focus is on the broader strategic challenges and opportunities the United States and Korea share. As a new U.S. administration comes in, this would also be a good forum for reconceptualizing the alliance for a new era.

*The writer is a former senior director for Asian affairs at the United States National Security Council.

by Michael J. Green
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