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Koreans don’t get it either

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Note: This op-ed was published in The Korean Times (11/13/2019). However, the end-part (highlighted in bold) was omitted by the editors without consultation.

In “Americans just don’t get it” (11/8/2019), Korea Times columnist Oh Young-jin notes the recent slew of “sales” calls on South Korea made by senior U.S. officials.

The pitches by the officials involved maintaining the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), promoting the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) and increasing defense cost-sharing to $5 billion or more.

Balking at the U.S. demand to increase Korea’s share of defense costs, Oh laments that rather than a global leader, the U.S. looks more like “an old landlord eager to get tenants to cough up extra bucks anyway he can.”

As he correctly points out, this sad state of affairs is, of course, the result of the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. He has promised to “Make America Great Again,” in part by “Making American Allies Pay More Again.”

Unfortunately, Trump is neither a geo-strategist nor a historian: It was the British Quartering Act of 1765 that motivated the American colonists to secede. The rest, as they say, is history.

GSOMIA and IPS (as well as the TISA ― Trilateral Information Sharing Arrangement) were sold to the Korean public using North Korean “provocations” as the excuse. But they are likely part of the long-running attempt by the U.S. to slowly but eventually create a pan-Asian/pan-Pacific organization to contain China.

South Koreans, like Oh, appear to ignore this broader geopolitical context and are surprised to see Americans so upset about Seoul potentially suspending GSOMIA. After all, as the Koreans seem to imply, GSOMIA is a matter between Japan and Korea.

And when it comes to push and shove on paying for troop stationing, they say South Korea can go at it alone and ditch the alliance with the U.S.

In saying so, however, it seems like the Koreans don’t get it either.

They balk at spending $5 billion but don’t seem to get the potential for a nuclear war with North Korea under the perpetual state of the un-ended Korean War.

They balk at spending $5 billion but don’t seem to be aware of the dangers of drifting deeper into U.S.-centered multilateral agreements against China.

Finally, they balk at spending $5 billion but don’t seem to see the U.S. interest in perpetuating the Korean War, which in part explains why we keep on failing to denuclearize North Korea.

But when the U.S. pettily demands more and more from South Korea, which itself is struggling economically, they increasingly question the alliance as too expensive and pejoratively call U.S. troops “guns for hire.” (Interestingly, in this, they seem to agree with Trump, who did threaten U.S. troop withdrawal if the allies didn’t pay up. The U.S. military and the U.S. Congress disagree.)

Anyway, the idea of South Korea going it alone is easier said than done. It is tethered very firmly to the U.S. by multiple bilateral treaties. The ongoing Korean War further constrains South Korea as it gave much defense and security sovereignty over to the U.S. and the U.N. Command.

It indeed has little room for independent action. Just witness the rapid dissolution of President Moon Jae-in’s Pyeongchang Peace Initiative.

Still, if South Korea is a self-respecting modern society and democracy, it can no longer be the unquestioning junior partner who, as President Trump says, “doesn’t do anything without our approval.”

But while upset about the cost-sharing, polls show that most Koreans still favor maintaining the alliance with the U.S., which they still value.

That probably makes sense, as the U.S. remains the best and most natural ally for South Korea. Created and molded by the U.S. in its image, South Korea probably has more shared interests with the U.S. than with any other country in the region.

Most South Koreans instead think of North Korea as an exotic and backward place. They aren’t sure about China’s intentions. Japan is practically their new enemy. And Russia seems out of mind in all respects.

So, rather than elimination, reformation or rebalancing of the U.S.-ROK Alliance seems to be in order.

But how?

The ROK first probably needs to regain control over its northern border from the US, which it controls through the UN Command and the Armistice Agreement. ROK probably needs to regain full control over its military by not only concluding the overdue op-con transfer but also by decreasing the size of the CFC (Combined Forces Command) and dissolving the UN Command.

To do this, the ROK probably needs to achieve the declaration of the end of the Korean War and the denuclearization of North Korea, a tall order without US cooperation. (Note: Neither requires the removal of US troops nor the elimination of the alliance, as many automatically assume.)

In the long-term, though, it will be in the interest of everyone to go further. North Korea should follow an open developmental path similar to that of China, Vietnam, and Mongolia, and at some point, drop its hereditary system. After a period of development, the more co-equal Koreas could agree to voluntarily reunify under a new Peace Regime based on the premise of a commercially vibrant Northeast Asian Peace Zone centered around the disarmed and neutral Korean Peninsula.

Photo Source: The White House – President Donald J. Trump, joined by Republic of South Korea President Moon Jae-in, tours the Korean Demilitarized Zone Sunday, June 30, 2019, between North and South Korea. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

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