America’s alliance with South Korea is in crisis. Strangely, few in Japan seem to have noticed, let alone grasp, what it portends for their country. Japan is now on the spot in a way that was not the case during the Cold War.
No alliance can survive unless it rests on a congruence of strategic interest and a willingness to share risk. The U.S.-South Korean alliance was a consequence of the Korean War, representing a huge shift in the global balance of power after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had brought the Cold War to East Asia. But the East Asian balance is now shifting again, as a consequence of the end of the Cold War.
These new strategic circumstances have eroded the congruence of interest between the United States and South Korea. That’s because the two parties no longer see the North Korean problem through the same lens.
South Korea, fearing the costs of regime collapse in the North, wants the failed regime in Pyongyang kept alive so that it can engineer an eventual “soft landing.” Moreover, it’s hardly a secret that many South Koreans would like to inherit the North’s nuclear-weapons program, and point it at Japan.
For its part, the U.S. cannot tolerate North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, especially since the regime in Pyongyang is likely to sell fissile material. And because arms-control solutions will not work, the only way to stop that happening is a collapse of the regime.
Moreover, many South Koreans see the U.S. not as a protector, but as an impediment to reunification. In the lead-up to last December’s elections, there were massive anti-American demonstrations following an incident last June when two South Korean girls were accidentally killed by a U.S. military vehicle.
That election saw the victory of Roh Moo Hyun, an anti-American human rights lawyer. On the eve of his election, Roh said if there were a war between the U.S. and North Korea, the South might remain neutral. He then appointed a foreign minister who had just said, in private but widely reported comments, that he preferred a nuclear North Korea to a regime collapse there. A recent poll suggests that seven of 10 South Koreans wants U.S. forces out.
They should be careful of what they wish for. For some months, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been talking about “rebalancing” U.S. forces in South Korea. Two weeks ago, he was more explicit. Noting that South Korean forces were capable of defending the border, Rumsfeld said America would seek to make South Korea an air and naval hub. U.S. ground forces, he said, might be redeployed southward, sent to other countries or sent home.
On March 18, a senior Pentagon official — believed to be Richard Lawless, deputy assistant secretary of state for Asian and Pacific affairs — gave a pointed briefing to South Korean reporters in Washington. He indicated that the U.S. intends to relocate the Second Infantry Division south of the Han River. He also said if South Koreans wanted U.S. forces out of their country, they could be out in a day. Lawless is due in Seoul next month to start negotiations on the rebalancing of U.S. forces in South Korea.
Now South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun is complaining about “inaccurate” and “groundless” remarks — no doubt because the South Korean military is weighing in. Roh is also presenting himself as a useful ally; he now says he will send 600 military engineers and 100 medics to Iraq. But it’s too late. The rot in the alliance has set in beyond repair.
If North Korea starts reprocessing plutonium at its Yongbyon reactor, America will be able to make a credible threat to take it out only after U.S. ground forces are redeployed south of the Han River — beyond the range of the North’s artillery and rockets. So will Gen. Tommy Franks suddenly “discover” he needs the Second Infantry Division in Iraq?
China will then be on the spot to rein in North Korea, or risk watching it provoke another war — the last thing China wants. That is presumably the message that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld’s close friend, intends to deliver in Beijing next month.
In all of this, there is also an implicit message to Japan. In the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis, Japan went to water. Lack of support from key allies was one reason the Clinton administration made a deal with North Korea that kicked the problem down the road. If Japan seeks to run away this time, the U.S.-South Korean alliance will not be the only one in turmoil.
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