The departure of James Mattis

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The departure of James Mattis


Nam Jeong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned a week ago. He was a hidden protector of the Korea-U.S. alliance, standing against U.S. President Donald Trump and siding with South Korea. At the height of North Korea’s nuclear threat in December 2017, Trump wanted to evacuate families of U.S. Forces in South Korea (USFK), but Mattis opposed it as North Korea may consider it a sign for a possible strike and could make a move first.

In December 2017, Trump mentioned breaking the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA). White House aides asked for help from Mattis as he was the only aide who could persuade Trump. Mattis ran to the White House and offered all the reasons why the Korea-U.S. FTA should not be scrapped. But Trump was agitated, as the United States was spending $1 billion to set up a Thaad anti-missile system in South Korea. Mattis explained that helping South Korea was helping the United States. The crisis was quickly averted. Mattis knows the importance of alliance better than anyone. In his letter of resignation to Trump, his key message was not to forget the value of alliance.

As Mattis has stepped down, the last bulwark preventing Trump from abandoning allies has gone. The president has openly said he would break alliances on many occasions. In July, he threatened European allies, saying that the United States would leave NATO if its share of defense cost were not increased. It would not be surprising if he withdrew the USFK.

Security is like air: you don’t appreciate it when you have it. While the Korea-U.S. alliance has been in place for 65 years, flaws are more often noted than merits. The alliance is a typical asymmetrical relationship with negative aspects. In such an alliance, the weaker country earns security in exchange for a degree of intervention by the powerful one. In the Korea-U.S. alliance, it is partially true that South Korea was swayed by Uncle Sam.

But it is not desirable to consider that entirely bad. Gains so far are bigger than the losses. Thanks to the USFK, we did not have to worry about invasions from China and the Soviet Union, not to mention North Korea. South Korea was saved from an astronomical defense cost. According to a 2011 research, it would cost a maximum of 36 trillion won ($31 billion) for us to re-establish military strength in case of a U.S. withdrawal. Without the USFK, we might not have benefitted from foreign investment. Without the USFK, our credit rating would have been lower and it would have been hard for us to borrow money from international financial institutions.

Naturally, when the mutual enemy is eliminated, any alliance is bound to disappear or change. If North Korea abandons nuclear weapons and sincerely pursues peace, it may be right to either dissolve the Korea-U.S. alliance or seek a new one. But just look at what North Korea has done since promising to denuclearize: it shut down one or two nuclear test sites, but hasn’t scrapped a single nuclear weapon. What would we do if the shield of the alliance disappeared when the North Korean threats are present?


U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis listens as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the news media before a briefing from his senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington on Oct. 23. [REUTERS]

President Moon Jae-in has been critical of our dependence on the Korea-U.S. alliance. In the name of self-reliant diplomacy, he even tried to move the nation from the influence of the United States to China. But lately he may have realized his old friend’s value. At a Ministry of Defense briefing on Dec. 20, he said he was for a reinforcement of the Korea-U.S. alliance.

It may be too late. On Dec. 23, Trump sent a frightening tweet, with Mattis’ letter in mind. “Allies are very important — but not when they take advantage of the United States.” It is not clear exactly which country he was referring to, but there is no assurance that it is not South Korea. I hear the sound of the Korea-U.S. alliance cracking like a breaking iceberg. I cannot help but feel we are headed for a worst-case scenario with the breaking a decades-old alliance without removing North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 25, Page 26
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