The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
While South Korea was paying attention to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s visit to China, an important event directly linked to the South’s destiny took place in New Delhi on Jan. 10. It was the Raisina Dialogue, hosted by the Indian government. The event was the fourth of its kind. Named for Raisina hill, the location of the Indian prime minister’s residence, it was aimed at furthering cooperation among the United States, Japan, Australia and India — four key countries in the Trump administration’s “Indo-Pacific era” campaign. In the international community, security cooperation among the four countries is already called the “Quad Alliance.”
Why do we have to pay attention to this new alliance? It is because South Korea’s strategic value is declining — from the point of view of the United States — as the importance of the new alliance grows. In East Asia, the United States has to date adopted a “hub-and-spoke” strategy. With the United States at the center, bilateral alliances were formed with Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia and Singapore to oversee the East Asian region.
But since Trump took office, Washington has introduced the concept of the “Indo-Pacific strategy,” shaking up the existing security structure. The Quad Alliance has emerged as a new security axis. As a result, South Korea, which used to be treated as a key ally of the United States, is about to become a minor ally.
Foreign and security affairs experts are increasingly talking about a “new Acheson line.” The so-called Acheson Line was declared in 1950 by Dean Acheson — the U.S. secretary of state at the time — to define the line of U.S. defense in the Far East. While it included the Aleutian Islands, Japan, Okinawa and the Philippines, Korea was excluded. As a result, North Korea believed the United States wouldn’t intervene, even if it invaded the south.
There is another reason why the Acheson line is being mentioned again. Ahead of a second U.S.-North summit, many people talk about a possible reduction of the U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK). Trump himself argued for withdrawing the USFK, insisting that South Korea is enjoying a free ride. Since he wants to pull out the troops, he will likely do so as soon as he finds a reason.
A more serious problem is that a troops cut will mean the reduction of combat infantry soldiers. The First Brigade of the Second Infantry Division currently has 4,500 soldiers. They will return to the mainland in July based on the nine-month rotation schedule. If Washington sends no replacements, the reduction will take place automatically.
Wasteful disputes with Japan can also fuel a troops cut. Japan has been a fierce opponent of the withdrawal of the USFK, not because of Korea’s security, but because of its own. Japan believes that the Straits of Korea will become the frontline of defense against North Korea if the U.S. soldiers leave the Korean Peninsula. When Trump mentioned a possible withdrawal of troops in June last year, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera immediately phoned then U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and requested the troops stay.
But Japan’s sentiment has changed. It often discusses the security of Japan based on the presumption that the USFK have been withdrawn. There is a larger possibility Japan will not oppose a possible troops withdrawal from Korea. The Moon Jae-in administration is responsible for endlessly confronting Japan.
If the current situation continues, a troops cut or withdrawal may abruptly take place thanks to Trump’s America First policy and Japan. Withdrawal of the USFK is an issue that needs to be seriously discussed someday, but not now as Korea is not ready yet. It is lamentable that the Moon administration seems to show no sign of sensing a looming crisis.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 22, Page 30