Saturday, March 6, 2010

Security Crossroads in Northeast Asia

A growing number of pro-American foreign and defense policy pundits in Seoul are optimistic about the US-South Korean defense relationship, as if the relationship couldn’t be better. But trouble could be looming.

The alliance cannot endure another several decades in its current form. A new form of security needs to be created as soon as possible, working for the defense and expansion of a more stable order in Northeast Asia. That new security forum, of course, must deal with China and North Korea logically in their place. One of South Korea’s central tasks is to set up detailed and strategic plans toward the current Korea-US alliance and to forge a more balanced order in the region. The taster’s choice moment for the alliance is over.

At the heart of the current concern is the so-called Opcon — operational control of Republic of Korea forces in the event of resumption of hostilities on the Korean peninsula. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak values highly the importance of an alliance with the United States, particularly in contrast to the situation under the late President Roh Moo-hyun, who presided over the most strained relationship in recent memory between Seoul and Washington in terms of the “equal partnership.” It was Roh who called for taking back troop control authority from the United States, to build Korea’s indigenous defense capability.

South Korea, almost completely overrun by the North in 1950, voluntarily handed over operational control to the United Nations Command at the outbreak of the Korean War. Command authority ultimately was transferred to the US-South Korea Combined Forces Command. And, although Seoul took over peacetime control of its own forces 11 years ago, wartime command remains in the hands of an apparently reluctant United States, which would rather get rid of it.

Conservatives are concerned that the command changes could presage a US move to reduce the American security commitment on the peninsula. Others point out that a series of US diplomatic conflicts with Japan and China underlines South Korea as Washington’s solid and reliable friend in the region.

Far beyond the troublesome North Korean nuclear issues, and beyond the question of the alliance, however, lies a still more fundamental issue: What exactly is the nature of the military alliance facing North Korea as a nuclear state and how would American power be projected if necessary?

As soon as Lee took office in 2008, he started seeking to convince his US counterparts how crucial their alliance should be to regional stability in Northeast Asia. In short, the conservative president at least acknowledges that America’s role should be bigger than that of China in the course of making an eventual Korean unification happen.

The overarching question is whether operational control of South Korean troops during wartime should indeed pass to Korean commanders. Today, many military experts embrace a different view of South Korea’s self-defense capability, but the reality is that the transition of wartime operational control is entirely based on US strategy that South Korea-based US troops could be temporarily pulled out of the peninsula at any time in consideration of US national interests.

Washington may feel it has a winning hand in the bargaining as operational control is considered more important to South Korea than to the United States. While the United States has already confirmed several times that the authority would not be altered, it may be quietly scoffing at Seoul’s goal. It is clear that America cannot forever bankroll the security of South Korea. South Korean military policy-makers should examine the American military strategies as they are, not as they want them to be. That will be a reality of the 21st century between the two countries.

In the broadest sense, most government leaders, regardless of whether they want to obtain wartime operational control as scheduled, share the same goals in South Korea. At the same time, each wants South Korea’s defense capabilities to remain independent and is watching cautiously as North Korea, a de facto nuclear state, seeks direct negotiations with the United States over the denuclearization of the communist regime that would fundamentally reshape the political geography of the peninsula.

Each is also worried about insecurity, as the United States and Japan are focused on the whereabouts of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, as well as the possibility that China could be the fastest to engage in the event a serious confrontation takes place. As the six-party talks try to harness support for sanctions, China says that they will not be an end. As the likely successor for dominion in Asia, China is getting tougher and tougher on the world stage.

Inevitably, South Korea is paying close attention to what many China analysts consider to be newfound Chinese activism across the globe. Expanding Chinese influence in North Korea would be especially alarming to policy decision-makers in Washington, given that Beijing and Pyongyang share a long and robust blood bondage. US estimates are that China lost 400,000 men defending North Korea. That said, China has always considered North Korea to be its backyard, although not the same as Taiwan, the self-governing island that China views as a “renegade province.” Beijing regards Pyongyang, no matter how weak, as an essential buffer against the west on its eastern flank.

From the US perspective, the Korean peninsula’s geopolitical significance can be in no way ignored, because North Korea has already gone nuclear. Likewise, the peninsula has emerged as a crucial site where America’s global strategies could potentially be embarrassed on North Korea’s foolhardy nuclear weapons program. By Lee Byong-Chul is a senior fellow at Seoul ’s Institute for Peace and Cooperation.

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