Korea: A pact whose time has passed?

Alliance: As North Korea pursues a nuclear policy, opposition to the U.S. presence in the South builds in the peninsula and in America.

January 05, 2003|By Richard Halloran | Richard Halloran,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A drive to compel the United States to withdraw its military forces from South Korea is picking up steam with a curious alignment of advocates from the left and the right.

This complicates President Bush's effort to persuade North Korea to abandon its ambitions for nuclear arms and to engage in valid negotiations with the United States because the North Koreans are certain to see this development as giving them a bargaining advantage. As Bush said last week: "I believe this is not a military showdown, this is a diplomatic showdown."

On the left, the leader in the drive is North Korea, with almost daily demands from its propaganda machine that the "Yankee go home." Support for a withdrawal is coming from an increasingly broad spectrum of South Koreans, including the middle class that sees continued reliance on the United States for defense as insulting to their national pride and sovereignty.

Demands for withdrawal from young people are noteworthy as they seem ignorant of the 54,000 Americans who died in the Korean War of 1950-1953 to help prevent their nation from being overrun by the North Koreans and Chinese.

On the American right, the influential columnist in The New York Times, William Safire, recently called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea. "Because the U.S. is not an imperialist power, it does not belong where a democratic nation decides America is unwanted," Safire wrote.

Another conservative, Doug Bandow of the CATO Institute, has renewed his call of at least five years for the United States to get out of South Korea. Patrick J. Buchanan and other isolationists have demanded that the United States break its alliance with South Korea.

The United States has 37,000 troops in South Korea. Most military observers agree that U.S. ground soldiers are not needed militarily, as the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) can defend the nation. Rather, the mission of the U.S. force is political, to guarantee that the United States will fulfill its treaty obligations to South Korea if North Korea attacks.

Indeed, the United States has no security interest directly at stake in South Korea. North Korea may volley and thunder in its belligerent propaganda and may soon have missiles with conventional warheads to attack U.S. forces on Okinawa and even to hit Alaska and Hawaii.

But North Korea is, by any stretch of the imagination, no match for U.S. military power. The avowed posture of the U.S. Pacific Command, with headquarters in Hawaii, is that a North Korean assault on American forces would trigger a retaliation that would destroy North Korean forces and bring about the end of the regime headed by "the Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il.

Against this backdrop and confronted with these spreading demands, the Bush administration and the Pentagon appear to have five options:

Try to retain the status quo and muddle through with cosmetic changes to appease critics of U.S. policy. This has often been the favored tactic.

Move the U.S. headquarters out of Seoul to the southern part of the peninsula, where it would be less visible. That headquarters sits on prime property - once a post of the Imperial Japanese Army, a vivid reminder of Japan's harsh rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945.

Level up the rhetoric and the reality of the U.S. alliance with South Korea to that of the U.S. alliance with Japan. Many Koreans are irked by what they consider favoritism toward Japan, including operational control over forces and jurisdiction in soldiers' off-duty crimes.

Offer to negotiate a reduction of U.S. forces in Korea or even a withdrawal in return for a North Korean pullback of its forces from positions just north of the 4,000-yard wide, 151-mile demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the peninsula. A large portion of North Korea's military power is within striking distance of Seoul, 35 miles away.

Stage a unilateral withdrawal of all U.S. forces from South Korea and abrogate the security treaty between Washington and Seoul. South Korea would be left to fend for itself against North Korea and might seek an alliance with China, which sees Korea as a buffer between it and Japan. The United States would strengthen its alliance with Japan, possibly helping to expand its armed forces.

Given the emotional anti-Americanism that seems to be raging through South Korea, Option One seems unlikely to satisfy the increasingly nationalistic South Koreans.

Moving the U.S. headquarters out of Seoul has long been under consideration. The United States has offered to relocate if South Korea will provide the space and pay for the move. The South Koreans have declined, but the current spasm of anti-American demonstrations may give this new life.

Option Three, raising the U.S.-Korea alliance to equal that with Japan, would require a bold change in American thinking but might be the most productive. Combined with moving the headquarters out of Seoul, this could be the basis of a far more satisfactory alliance for Americans and South Koreans.

The chances for Option Four being selected are slim, given the heightened suspicions between Washington and Pyongyang. North Korea is not likely to permit the inspections needed to verify that it is holding up its end of the bargain.

Option Five would be tantamount to surrender and is a non-starter all the way around.

Richard Halloran writes about security issues in Asia from Honolulu.

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