HONOLULU — A drive to compel the United States to withdraw its military forces from South Korea is picking up steam with a curious alignment of advocates from the left and the right.
This drive complicates U.S. President George W. Bush’s efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons and to engage in valid negotiations on a wide range of issues. “I believe this is not a military showdown,” the president said in Texas last week. “This is a diplomatic showdown.”
On the left, the leader in the drive is North Korea, of course, with almost daily demands from its propaganda machine that the “Yankee go home.” Support for a withdrawal comes from an increasingly broad spectrum of South Koreans, including the middle class that sees continued South Korean reliance on the U.S. for defense as insulting to national sovereignty.
The demands for withdrawal from young people are especially noteworthy, as they seem ignorant of the 54,000 Americans who died in the Korean War of 1950-53 to help prevent their nation from being overrun by the North Koreans and their Chinese allies.
On the American right, the influential columnist in The New York Times, William Safire, recently called for the withdrawal. “Because the U.S. is not an imperialist power, it does not belong where a democratic nation decides America is unwanted,” Safire wrote.
Among other conservatives, Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute has renewed his five-year old call that the U.S. get out of South Korea. Patrick Buchanan and other isolationists have demanded that the U.S. break its alliance with South Korea.
The U.S. has 37,000 troops in South Korea. Most military observers agree that U.S. ground forces are not needed militarily as the South Korean Army can defend the nation. Rather, the mission of the U.S. forces is political, to guarantee that the U.S. will fulfill treaty obligations to South Korea if North Korea attacks.
Confronted with these spreading demands, the Bush administration would appear to have five options:
(1) Seek to retain the status quo and muddle through with cosmetic changes intended to appease critics. This has often been the favored tactic in the past.
(2) Move the headquarters of U.S. forces out of Seoul to the southern part of the Peninsula, where it would be less visible. The headquarters sits on prime property — at the site of the former post of the Imperial Japanese Army, making it a vivid reminder of Japan’s harsh rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945.
(3) Level up the rhetoric and the reality of the U.S. alliance with South Korea to that of the U.S. alliance with Japan. Many Koreans are irked by what they consider to be American favoritism toward Japan. The U.S., for instance, has certain operational control over Korean forces but not over those of Japan. And the agreements governing legal jurisdiction over U.S. military people who commit crimes off duty appear to favor Japan.
(4) Offer to negotiate a reduction of U.S. forces in Korea in return for a North Korean pullback of its forces from positions just north of the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, which divides the Peninsula. North Korea today has a large portion of its offensive power within striking distance of Seoul, 55 km south of the DMZ.
(5) Stage a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. forces and abrogate the security treaty between Washington and Seoul. The South Koreans would be left to fend for themselves and might seek an alliance with China. The U.S. would strengthen its alliance with Japan.
Given the emotional anti-Americanism that seems to be raging through South Korea today, Option 1 seems unlikely to satisfy the increasingly nationalistic South Koreans.
As for moving the U.S. military headquarters, this has long been under consideration, and the U.S. has offered to relocate if South Korea will provide a new space for the headquarters and pay for the move. The South Koreans have so far declined, but the current spasm of anti-American demonstrations may give new life to this possibility.
Option 3, leveling up the U.S.-Korea alliance to be equal to that with Japan, would require a bold change in American thinking. Combined with a new headquarters out of Seoul, this could be the basis of a new and far more satisfactory alliance for both the Americans and South Koreans.
The chances for Option 4 being selected are slim, given the heightened suspicions between Washington and Pyongyang. And Option 5 would be tantamount to surrender and is a nonstarter all the way around.
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