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Testing times for U.S.-South Korean alliance

by Lee Byong Chul

The United States is now wrestling with the nuclear fears of two close allies — Israel and South Korea. Israel’s alarm at the prospect of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon is existential in nature. The same is true of South Korea, whose capital sits only 40 km from the border with the North.

On Feb. 29, the U.S. and North Korea reached an agreement in which the North promised to halt its nuclear weapons development in exchange for food aid. But South Koreans know that the poverty-stricken North is unlikely to give up its nuclear-weapons programs, no matter what it promises. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ complaint that he was “tired of buying the same horse twice” from North Korea appears to have been forgotten.

To be sure, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has had some positive influence on the North, which has now agreed to a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at its Yongbyon facility. Moreover, the North’s hermetic communist regime will accept International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in exchange for food aid. But such promises are usually short-lived.

Pundits argue that the allure of humanitarian aid might dissuade the North from advancing its nuclear weapons program, but they fear that South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s government may refuse to assist the U.S. efforts.

Some South Koreans hope that the latest agreement will pave the way for the revival of the six-party talks among the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, which have been dormant since late 2008, as well as for dialogue on a wide range of strategic and economic issues.

South Korea’s government has, in the eyes of liberal and left-leaning pundits, paid a severe price for turning its back on North Korea since Lee came to power. The cost has included the North’s sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, in 2010. Lee’s progressive opponents must share some of the blame for undermining him.

Now it is the U.S.-South Korea alliance that is being tested by worries about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The South Korea-U.S. Mutual Security Agreement, signed in 1954, following the Korean war, has remained unchanged since its inception, despite South Korea’s rise as an industrial power and the nuclearization of the North. Considering the risks that the South faces, and the priority that America now gives to its relationship with China, maintaining this “status quo” indefinitely is likely to prove impossible.

Indeed, pessimists now see a fundamental change in how South Koreans perceive the U.S. While it is unlikely that either the government or the people will turn away from America and pivot toward China, South Koreans have begun to wonder whether the U.S. is still willing to guarantee their core security interests.

Koreans’ perceptions of America are no longer shaped solely by the 1950-1953 war. Conservatives insist, quite rightly, that America’s sacrifices in the Korean war must not be forgotten. But these memories are growing dim. The most bitter expressions of anti-Americanism today come from the younger generation. Those who suffered through the war and dictatorship do not criticize the U.S. military presence on South Korean territory, but the younger generations feel humiliated by this and want a more equal partnership.

Unless the two countries’ recent free-trade agreement, in effect as of March 15, helps to resolve the widening economic gap between South Korea’s rich and poor, it could incite more anti-American sentiment. Opposition parties and left-leaning critics assert that the agreement will merely deepen the inequality of the bilateral relationship.

In a letter addressed to Obama, South Korea’s opposition parties urged him to reconsider the free-trade pact. With April’s general election in mind, the main opposition Democratic Unified Party has declared that it will demand that America renegotiate — a hypocritical stance, given that the party endorsed most of the pact during President Roh Moo Hyun’s term. These “dogmatic liberal” skeptics see America, as the late Roh once quipped, through the prism of the 1980s, when the U.S. backed the South Korean dictatorship.

The bilateral alliance with South Korea has represented the cornerstone of U.S. strategic doctrine for Northeast Asia for 58 years. Both countries continue to have a supremely important common interest: nonproliferation and containment of the North’s nuclear program.

Moreover, the allies share essential values and commitments: democracy, a free-market economy, human rights and the rule of law.

But there is an old saying in South Korea: “After the rain, the ground becomes more solid.” If the sunny facade of the “status quo” continues, South Koreans fear that their country, faced with the North’s obsession with nuclear weapons and uncertainty about America’s security guarantee, could become a wasteland. In this respect, Israel is not alone.

Lee Byong Chul, formerly on the national security planning staff for Presidents Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung, is a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation, Seoul. © 2012 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)