If President George W. Bush ever worries about his low public standing, he can look across the Pacific to South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. Roh, a leftist and frequent critic of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, has dropped below ten percent approval in some polls. Few members of his own Uri Party will mourn his departure from office early next year.
The leading candidate to replace Roh is former Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak of the opposition Grand National Party. His closest competitor is another GNP member, Park Geun-hye, daughter of long-time dictator Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated a quarter century ago.
The Uri Party's leading candidates are well behind. Indeed, desperate party officials are talking about creating a new organization with a new name and seeking to ally with other leftish and independent parties.
President Roh's travails have brought more smiles than frowns in Washington. Before his election, Roh was an opposition lawyer who demanded the withdrawal of U.S. troops. He won the 2002 campaign by riding a wave of public anger over the impact of American forces in the Republic of Korea, and especially the deaths of two teenage girls in an accident involving a U.S. military vehicle.
Although Roh subsequently declared the U.S.-ROK alliance to be "precious," in the campaign he sharply criticized the unequal nature of the bilateral relationship. Recently he complained that his nation was "clinging to the crotch of the U.S.'s pants and hiding behind the U.S.'s ass." Moreover, Roh's government has seemed determined to subsidize North Korea irrespective of the latter's behavior, no matter how outrageous.
YET A VICTORY BY THE GNP should not be taken as an opportunity to revive the alliance. Just as six years of united GOP rule in Washington proved the truth of George Wallace's adage that there's not a dime's worth of difference between America's two major political parties, the last four years of ROK politics suggest that the most important differences between the two leading parties there regarding America's role are more perception than reality.
For instance, despite Roh's fulminations against America, he has not sent home any U.S. troops. To the contrary, once Washington indicated its intention to begin refashioning the bilateral relationship, Seoul got nervous.
Thus, it was South Korean officials who complained when Washington decided to draw down its forces from 37,000 to around 24,000. The ROK's National Security Council, speaking on behalf of a nation with 40 times the GDP and twice the population of its presumed enemy, opined: "Our military capabilities are not strong enough to deter North Korean threats on our own."
The Roh administration reacted in much the same way when the Pentagon insisted on redeploying American soldiers south of Seoul, cutting the so-called tripwire which ensured immediate American deaths in any North Korean invasion. The South Koreans even delayed the transfer of war-time command authority-- something they have emotionally and persistently demanded for years--lest a speedier hand-over appear to diminish alliance credibility.
By the same token, the GNP remains committed to engagement with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The GNP has sharply criticized the Roh administration over what at times has looked to be mindless appeasement. But Washington would find only limited support even in a GNP government for tough action against the North should the ongoing negotiations break down.
For instance, Sohn Hak-kyu, another GNP presidential contender, told the Los Angeles Times: "Engagement is acceptable and should be continued." His complaint is that "this government just gives aid to North Korea without a strong will to reform and change North Korea." Geographic proximity obviously matters. Hawks in the South wouldn't qualify as hawks in America.
FAR MORE IMPORTANT, HOWEVER, is the fact that no ROK government, whatever its ideological complexion, can create a new raison d'etre for the alliance. The fundamental issue is not whether the Roh government is liberal or naive or hostile -- it is all of them, but it still clings to America's defense subsidy. Rather, the issue is whether the U.S. has any reason to continue underwriting the South Koreans, and it does not.
There's still good reason for positive relations between Washington and the South. Cultural, family, and economic ties all remain strong. Implementing a free trade agreement would help enhance the latter.
The military alliance, in contrast, is no longer relevant, having been created for a different geopolitical purpose in a different geopolitical time. Happily for both the U.S. and South Korea, the good guys won the Cold War. Neither China nor Russia would back the North in a new war, and the ROK is capable of deploying whatever size military that it deems necessary to deter potential DPRK aggression.
There are no good secondary uses for the troops now stationed on the Korean peninsula. Most of the subregional squabbles within East Asia aren't of much concern to America; Washington's other friends and allies, like South Korea, are capable of defending their own interests.
Most important, Seoul isn't going to join an anti-China coalition. Any American attempt to "contain" Beijing is likely to founder on the ROK's unwillingness to turn its behemoth neighbor into a permanent enemy. Indeed, China already trades more with South Korea than does the U.S. American domination inevitably will ebb.
THE LAST RESORT FOR ALLIANCE defenders is to claim that ending the relationship would embolden the North. But Washington has begun negotiations with Pyongyang over establishing diplomatic relations; an American withdrawal could become an important bargaining chip.
North Korea long has demanded America's departure from the Korean peninsula. Both the U.S. and South Korean governments should challenge the North to respond by demobilizing soldiers and pulling back military units from the Demilitarized Zone.
It's far too early to judge whether the nuclear accord recently forged with Pyongyang will succeed when others have failed. But Washington and Seoul should use the prospect of American disengagement to test the sincerity of the DPRK's professed interest in relaxing tensions and forging a new regional compact.
All politics is local, claimed late House Speaker Tip O'Neill. In a different sense, all politics is national. There's little Washington can do to influence the upcoming South Korean elections even if it desires to do so.
But should a more America-friendly ROK government emerge in December's election, that result should not deter the U.S. from updating today's antiquated military alliance. The changing world, not changing politicians, is why it is time to bring home America's troops.
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