Just like a pair of castanets

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Just like a pair of castanets

The idea that the military alliance between South Korea and the U.S. will remain perennially is a deeply embedded myth a lot of Koreans once believed. I, too, was a great admirer of the myth but now, I rarely speak publicly about my views on the fate of the decades-long alliance between the two countries, simply because I know that after all, the living alliance will expire someday, albeit it’s not like the “dust bin of history.” The alliance, unlike the tattoos, wears thin over time. It will become reality any time soon.

Even though it’s not like the movements of tectonic plates on the earth’s surface, a tide has turned in South Korea. A nationalistic self-esteem of trying to end yesterday’s submissive patron-client relationship based on military protection permeates our society. A different alliance with different purposes is being begun.

I’m not saying that anti-Americanism is on the rise in the no-longer-dictatorship-state. On the contrary, I’m ready to acknowledge that as the guardian of the Cold War in the region, the U.S. has done a lot of good for the U.S.-friendly South Korea. Seen in the context of over six decades, the grim truth is that the two allies have a real success story of the alliance. But the story is going out of fashion because of China.

China as an economic powerhouse looms very significantly in South Korean strategic consciousness. To the eyes of American watchers, South Korea appears to be pushing a hedging strategy by seeking its security relationship not with Washington but with Beijing as well. So the assertion that there is a slight shift in the center of gravity of South Korean foreign policy toward China has long been a subject of discussion.

The fact that the South Korean President Park Geun-hye met with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping five times since she took office in February 2013 underscores this trend, whereas the Americans ask the South Koreans to give up their free ride on defense. It shows the unavoidable plight of South Korea, trapped between the world’s two giants.

The Seoul government’s belated decision to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has generated, for example, a bit of controversy as it dragged its feet due to the United States’ public opposition to Seoul signing on to the new financial institution. So South Korea’s AIIB participation as a founding member looked as if it were the “last moviegoer who has no choice but to take an extreme right or left seat on the first row.”

But that tells the completely different story, especially on defense policy. China expressed a strong objection to South Korea’s latent deployment of the terminal high altitude area defense (Thaad) system. It’s because the Thaad battery, which is designed to intercept ballistic missiles at high altitude, has radar that can track objects 2,000 km (1,200 miles) away, a range which would include much of the Chinese mainland, not to mention North Korea. Thaad must be a higher issue on Beijing’s agenda than North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Bewildered by China’s reaction, the right-leaning Park government claimed that it’s odd to be robustly debating the Thaad issue that has not been requested at all and that it has no intention of buying the mobile, land-based missile defense system, but only a small number of people believe so. And unless South Korea fears China’s growing power, it is certain that whether to deploy the Thaad system would be entirely decided through the close consultation between Seoul and Washington. In particular, when China is seen to be moving ahead, the U.S. will increasingly take confrontational courses. The South Korean national security and foreign policy establishment is obsessed with the ‘blood relationship,’ a phrase commonly shared by most South Koreans on the street, even though it is difficult to say that the Park government has hugged the Obama administration closer that the previous Lee Myung-bak government did George W. Bush. While the U.S. has a special place in her heart, like many South Koreans, few believe that Ms. Park is America’s poodle in Northeast Asia.

The liberal pundits have thus urged their government not to be a pawn in the hegemonic bickering in-between the world’s two great powers in the region. These skeptics point to a few claims about the exogenous variables of the controversial missile system: First, the system is not only defenses designed to protect the U.S. military personnel stationed in South Korea but a way of counterbalancing China’s rising military might as well. Second, it would also undercut the Soviet Union’s small but constructive efforts to denuclearize North Korea. Third, it would certainly cause the military repercussions from the communist regime in Pyongyang. Finally, it would complicate China’s essential task of persuading North Korea to give up on its nuclear ambitions. After all, hawkish politicians and military strategists will likely gain increasing power and use that influence to maximize the degree of tension on the peninsula.

The simple and hard truth is that the truck-mounted missile system is not technically perfect to deter North Korean nuclear missiles. So the benefits of the Thaad battery are not many. Were the U.S. to deploy it within South Korea, Pyongyang’s likely response would be to advance its nuclear technologies faster than ever before. This could put the whole South Korea into disaster. Plus, imagine the reaction if the Chinese were to test their own version of the Thaad to defend against American missiles launched from submarines. The peninsula, again, can become a battlefield for the superpowers.

In spite of the fact that the Thaad could be a strong deterrent to curb the communist North Korea’s foolhardy nuclear ambitions, there is no compelling need to bring in the land-based missile system immediately. On the contrary, we should deal with the Thaad issue wisely, emphasizing that South Korea’s preferred scenario is to engage with the hopeless regime in the North. The spirit of the alliance should remain as a backbone of the scenario. It’s wrong to say that the alliance stands, if not frozen, on thin ice.

Of course, the alliance is not like rubber-soled shoes that make hardly any sound on the long asphalt road, so that we should not allow ourselves to be affected by this crackling, often called the ‘alliance fatigue.’ Assuming that the alliance continues to remain a cornerstone of regional security, I find it incorrect to claim that soon China, not the U.S., may have the strongest voice in the peninsula. In short, the alliance now looks older than its 62 years but still looks amazingly stable, although U.S. foreign policy analysts may understandably question the fate of the alliance.

“Let’s go together,” a symbolic catchphrase of the military alliance, already became a buzzword as a few U.S. high ranking officials, including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Ambassador to Seoul Mark Lippert, chanted it. It means this is not the Cold War alliance anymore. And it’s often said that reminiscences of the old alliance are usually written differently, but the future alliance should be like a pair of castanets in deterring the North’s threats and advancing peace and security in the region. One thing is certain: Seoul and Washington both should demonstrate their political solidarity with each other that without the Thaad system, the two staunch allies are likely to go together.

*The author is director for Nonproliferation Centre at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, South Korea.

by Lee Byong-chul

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