[Viewpoint] Understanding the Korea-U.S. alliance

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[Viewpoint] Understanding the Korea-U.S. alliance

Given that it has been almost a year without significant anti-American demonstrations, this may be a good time to disclose some surprising realities in United States-Korea relations. Otherwise, in the heat of future demonstrations, the following could be misconstrued as some kind of knee-jerk defense by an American. So, allow me to try to set up and knock down some misconceptions about the South Korea-U.S. relationship.

Myth: The U.S. Army has ultimate authority over Korean units assigned to the Combined Forces Command.

Reality: Since 1978, the CFC has been accountable to a joint military committee that gets its authority from both U.S. and South Korean national command authorities.

The Korean units assigned to the CFC are designated by the Korean side and can be withdrawn by South Korea at any time simply by notification. The CFC commander cannot refuse such notification. All he can do is point out the impact it may have on the performance of his mission.

These points have not been well understood by most Koreans or most Americans. Neither have they been well explained. When U.S. officials stated their position publicly in 1980, they were stymied by martial law and censorship. Subsequently there was little effort to set the record straight because of the priority accorded to stability.

In other words, despite a technological gap, the relationship between the two sides has been much more equal than is publicly imagined. But to be fair, as of today, not only does a U.S. four-star general command CFC (with a Korean four-star deputy), but U.S. two-star generals head up the most important staff sections - C3 (operations and training, the primary war-fighting team) and C5 (plans, policy and strategy) - each with one-star Korean deputies.

But most Korean officers seem quite comfortable with that, realizing as they do that their hierarchical system and relatively rigid training simply do not equip them to react swiftly and flexibly to events and situations as CFC would have to in case of hostilities. Thus, the persistent opposition to wartime operational control transfer by 2012 from so many retired Korean generals and officers, as well as from other conservative groups.

However, we should note that the U.S. Army continuously maintains the lead in cutting-edge technology, sophisticated command and control procedures, air power, and, thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan, comes here “battle-hardened.” All of which makes the perception of the South Korean Army operating under the U.S. Army very much a reality, despite legal technicalities. But, as noted above, come 2012, much of this will change.

At times I have wondered if some politicians have found it advantageous to allow the public to remain ignorant of the evolving complexities of the relationship. It could be advantageous for Korean politicians to tacitly give the impression to their public that they have less power than they actually possess. Being “under the thumb of Big Brother” gives Korean politicians a plausible rationale to suggest they have no other choice but to do what may be unpopular.

Of course, this potential misleading of the public brings along with it the liability of Koreans understandably jumping to the wrong conclusions during populist movements - such as during last year’s anti-mad cow demonstrations.

Myth: The U.S. government at least tacitly backed the South Korean military’s suppression of the 1980 Gwangju uprising.

Reality: Many Koreans assume that the U.S. had excellent intelligence about what was happening in their country. Actually, the Americans have proven to be remarkably uninformed time and again. In the case of Gwangju, the American government had little accurate knowledge of what was happening, other than a general awareness that there was significant civil unrest in that regional capital.

In fact, the U.S. government did not understand until Monday, May 19, 1980 what had happened over the weekend or why there should be reports of 100,000 people in the streets. The U.S. Peace Corps at the time ordered its volunteers out of Gwangju. But some of the male volunteers refused to leave and, on several occasions, were seen physically shielding demonstrators with their bodies from army troops.

Meanwhile, back in Seoul, things were made even murkier for the U.S. government with the Korean government’s news blackout. In other words, it took over a day for the U.S. government and its military to understand that violence had broken out on Gwangju’s streets on the morning of Sunday, May 18. Contrary to many people’s perceptions, the Korean units from the CFC had been withdrawn earlier than the Gwangju events - not suddenly, just before the government’s response to the Gwangju civil unrest.

In other words, Korean units had already been withdrawn in response to the ongoing demonstrations in Seoul some time prior to the Gwangju incident. Here again, the Korean public, lacking knowledge of the relationship between CFC and the Korean military, tended to assume that U.S. officials supported Korean Army operations in Gwangju.

Myth: South Korea is forced by the U.S. government to accept the stationing of U.S. forces on the peninsula.

Reality: The presence of U.S. Forces Korea is entirely at the pleasure of the Korean government. As demonstrated in the case of the Philippines in 1992, and more recently in Kyrgyzstan, it only takes a request by the host country’s national government to send the U.S. military packing.

So where does this place the Korea-U.S. relationship? No alliance can guarantee there will be no problems between friendly countries, but a good alliance can provide a means of solving problems and dealing with common threats. More than many people realize, the two countries stand together as equals, and the U.S. recognizes and encourages the increasingly significant, multidimensional role Korea plays on the peninsula, in the region, and in the world.

The leadership of both countries would to well to better explain the benefits both sides derive from the present relationship and the benefits that will accrue to both from continued, close cooperation.

(This is the second of a two-part article. The first part was printed in the April 6 edition.)

*The writer is the president of Soft Landing Consulting, a technology sales and marketing firm (www.softlandingkorea.com).

by Tom Coyner
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