The Bush administration’s attention is focused on the Middle East, but the Korean Peninsula also requires attention. The impending inauguration of conservative Lee Myung-bak, who won South Korea’s presidency in a landslide, provides an excellent opportunity to refashion the U.S.-South Korean relationship.
President-elect Lee has promised to forge better relations than did outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun, who was not trusted by Washington.
Lee said he "will do my best to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem through cooperation and a strengthened relationship with the United States."
Moreover, Lee intends to take a more realistic approach to the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For instance, he is expected to address North Korean human rights violations. Even more important, Lee says he will include nuclear disarmament in the two Koreas’ talks.
Although Lee’s views will receive a warm reception in Washington, he is not interested in a confrontation on the peninsula. He is no more likely to risk war, or support a U.S. policy risking war, than was the current government.
Washington should incorporate a more aggressive stance by the Republic of Korea (ROK) into its nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang. The DPRK had been moving forward with the six-party nuclear agreement, but cooperation has ground to a halt.
However the current controversy is resolved, plenty of other obstacles could yet wreck the plan. Moreover, the North might refuse to give up its existing weapons even if it closes its nuclear facilities.
Lee’s victory also provides an opportunity to transform Washington’s ties with Seoul. South Koreans, whose fluctuating attitudes have increasingly inclined toward China and North Korea and away from America, are growing less tolerant of the ROK’s dependent status.
From Washington’s standpoint, the existing military alliance is not worth strengthening. The original purpose, to defend the war-torn South from an aggressive North Korea backed by China and the Soviet Union, long ago disappeared.
During Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ November visit to Seoul, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Jang-soo opined: "We cannot say that the threat from North Korea has reduced tangibly or discernibly."
Yet if the North is so dangerous, why has the ROK lavished aid, investment, and commerce on Pyongyang? Why should Washington underwrite blatant appeasement of a potential aggressor?
In any case, the South can defend itself. South Korea’s GDP has been estimated to be as much as 40 times as large as that of the North. The ROK has twice as many people, possesses a vast technological edge, and is friendly with far more countries, including all of the advanced industrial powers and long-time DPRK allies China and Russia.
Although North Korea retains a numerical military edge, its weapons are archaic and its forces are ill-trained. Moreover, there is no special gravitational field on the peninsula which locks South Korea into a position of quantitative inferiority.
Arguing that the ROK needs defending against the North is as absurd as America requesting allied assistance to deter Mexico.
Some South Koreans don’t even attempt to demonstrate military necessity. Foreign Minister Song Min-soon simply states: "The U.S. military will continue to stay on the Korean Peninsula after the establishment of a peace regime and play a role that suits the new security environment in Northeast Asia."
However, in this environment the ROK, with the world’s 12th largest economy, doesn’t need a permanent defense subsidy.
Some Washington policymakers view U.S. forces stationed in the ROK as possessing "dual use" capabilities. But to do what? Alliance advocates blithely talk about maintaining regional security and stability, but offer no practical role for American troops.
The real U.S. goal is "containing" China. However, the ROK is an unlikely conscript in an anti-China coalition. Seoul does not want to turn itself into a target of its permanent neighbor in a conflict begun over U.S. objectives, such as defending Taiwan.
America’s alliance with South Korea should be seen as a means, not an end. The objective of protecting the South from absorption by the DPRK has been fulfilled. Instead of looking for new goals to justify an old alliance, the U.S. and Seoul should move to informal military cooperation tailored to new circumstances.
The best South Korean government to manage such a transformation would be a serious, pro-business, pro-defense regime ― like that expected to be established by President-elect Lee.
The ROK deserves to be treated with respect by America. In return, it should take over responsibility for its own defense.