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  Global Views
Gazing at the Crystal Ball
The Bleak Future of the US-ROK Alliance
Special Contributon
By Alexandre Y. Mansourov
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (left) greets South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung at Pyongyang's Sunan Airport in June 13, 2000 before the two leaders began historic summit meeting on June 15 in the North Korean capital.

Generational shift in the ROK (Republic of Korea) and President Roh Moo-Hyun's foreign policy of "independence/self-reliance" opened a wide perception gap and policy divergence between Seoul and Washington, especially on the North Korean issues. In contrast to American views, the generation 386-run South Korean government regards the North Korean conventional military threat as diminishing and downplays the significance of the North Korean asymmetric warfare threat, including the WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) threat.

Seoul regards Pyongyang as a "partner," not as "evil," and views inter-Korean reconciliation and reunification, not the regime change in Pyongyang, as the only viable long-term solution to the North Korean security threat and nuclear crisis. Moreover, the ROK public is increasingly worried about the possibility of the U.S. unilateral use of force against North Korea.

A groundswell of anti-American sentiment in South Korea dominated the presidential and mayoral elections in December 2002; it is responsible for the victory of the "pro-independence faction" in a major government reshuffle in January 2004, and it is likely to determine the character of the next National Assembly in parliamentary elections on April 15, 2004. Anti-Americanism reinforces the impetus for more "independent" foreign policy and "self-reliant" national defense and creates uncertainties for the future of the U.S.-ROK alliance.

There are three schools of thinking about the challenges facing the U.S.-ROK alliance and its future prospects the optimists, the pessimists, and the moderates. The optimists argue that the state of the alliance understood in broad terms, including the military security relationship, political and cultural affinities, economic bonds, and personal ties, is good. They believe that the issues and concerns arising in the day-to-day alliance management reflect its maturation, vitality, and resilience.

Anti-American protest
A group of student activists are chanting anti-American slogans on the tanks in a US military base in South Korea.

Obviously, both American and Korean sentiments toward the alliance are complex and range from strong support to indifference it is only natural in a democratic society. The optimists stress that it is incumbent on the national leadership in both countries to strengthen mutual understanding and personal trust and lead the alliance restructuring in such a way as to adept the military alliance to the evolving international threat environment, by making it a comprehensive security alliance. Its primary strategic mission should shift from the peninsular defense to the maintenance of regional stability.

In contrast, the pessimists contend that our two nations are looking at the sunset of the US-ROK military alliance. The anti-American sentiment in the South has reached a critical mass (it is not "a radical few" or a "passing phenomenon"), and, if left unabated, it can destroy the alliance on its own. Public support for the USFK (US Forces in Korea) is crumbling both in the ROK and the United States. The USFK organizational structures are increasingly regarded as relics of the Cold War.

Americans are irritated that Korean conservatives aren't willing to stand up to the defense of the US-ROK military alliance. At the same time, many Koreans are wrongly convinced that the alliance arrangements, including the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and OPCON, are unfair to the Korean side, that the United States is oblivious to the wishes of the Korean people, and that the USFK allegedly hinders Korean unification.

The pessimists believe that the alliance is "in crisis," that one side recognizes it whereas the other does not (which one — depends on the nationality of the speaker). In their opinion, the "regional alliance" will never happen: when the North Korean military threat finally disappears, the US-ROK alliance may fade away, too. That is why the ROK government is "in a rush" to develop a self-reliant national security doctrine and self-reliant defense capabilities.

Furthermore, the sea change has been missed, and the US-ROK military alliance is regarded as being increasing irrelevant and burdensome to the current U.S. military needs, especially when it ties up in Korea the 37,000 U.S. combat-ready troops badly needed in other places of the world where the U.S. military conducts the global war against terrorism.

The U.S. national security policy is arguably frustrated by the alliance rigidities, sensitivities, and complications, which does not bode well for its long-term survivability. The burden is on the Koreans now to determine whether they want the alliance and in what shape and start selling their future vision really hard in Washington before it is too late. Alliance and defense self-reliance were said to be mutually exclusive and incompatible.

People who hold the middle-of-the-road views, however, caution against extreme conclusions. While recognizing that the US-ROK relationship is facing a critical moment, they urge against crisis talk and stress that anti-American sentiment was probably born under past authoritarian regimes and is an inevitable result of the growing pains and democratization of the South Korean society, that it ebbs and flows, and that mature political leadership can address the alliance management issues without causing any needless ruptures in the overall bilateral relationship.

They assert that the emerging South Korean movement toward a more self-reliant system in national defense should be seen as part of the national reconciliation process with the North. It is designed to enhance the ROK's national security, and, therefore, it is supplementary to the US-ROK alliance, and is not a strategic alternative to it.

Despite recent growth in the ROK's military capabilities, the ROK armed forces still need the U.S. air and naval power, as well as strategic reconnaissance assets to repel a possible North Korean invasion. Moreover, the ROK needs the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella in order to deal with the rise of China and Japan's evolution toward a "normal state."

It is wise to assume that the transfer of responsibility over the Joint Security Area (JSA) to the ROK armed forces, the Yongsan garrison relocation out of the capital area, the OPCON reform, and the USFK consolidation in a sea and air hubs in Pyongtaek and Osan should adequately satisfy the defense needs and assuage public fears of both allies. One wonders whether the US-Japan security relationship will perhaps serve as a model for the future evolution of the US-ROK military alliance.

Dr. Alexandre Y. Mansourov is an associate professor at at the Dept. of Regional Studies at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii. As Northeast Asian expert he focuses primarily on the securities of the Korean Peninsula. Dr. Mansourov was a visiting fellow at Brookings Institution's Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, and was a faculty of the Dept. of Regional Studies at the College of Security Studies. He earned his Ph.D. in political science from Columbia Univ., and B.A. in int'l relations from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) in Russia, and advanced diploma in Korean studies from the Kim Il Sung National Univ. in Pyongyang.






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