Concerns are growing here over the future of the seven-decade-old military alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States that is apparently weakening. Signs causing such concerns are abundant.
Annual joint exercises of the allied forces, some involving trans-Pacific deployment of troops from the continental US to any part of the Korean Peninsula, have been reduced in scale and duration or outright cancelled. US President Trump called them “provocative” and “waste of money.”
Donald Trump has enough sympathizers over here among the leftists whose political DNA system is particularly allergic to the US military presence on this land. Over the last few years, they targeted the THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense) anti-missile system that the US Forces started introducing here three years ago against outcries from China and North Korea.
Only one out of six THAAD batteries shipped here has become operational on a converted golf course owned by the Lotte business group; the remaining five are gathering dust in a US Army base as the Korean government failed to address opposition from leftist activists and local residents.
Several of Lotte’s consumer outlets in China have been closed and withdrawn from the country under open and veiled retaliation from the Chinese authorities. Meanwhile, Shin Dong-bin, chairman of the Lotte group, who was indicted for bribery and business improprieties in complicity with the previous Park Geun-hye administration, had his suspended sentence finalized by Korea’s Supreme Court last week.
We wonder what kind of compensation the business group could seek from the government for the huge THAAD-related losses, or should it be just content with having its leader avoided a jail term?
Further illustrating a faltering alliance, South Korea unilaterally terminated its GSOMIA (general sharing of military information agreement) with Japan in August against express American wishes for its automatic extension, as the two neighboring countries escalated retaliatory measures in their perennial dispute over Japanese colonial atrocities on Koreans. Afterwards, Seoul waited two long months until it received agreement on its appointment of a new ambassador to Washington.
A little circus happened at the residence of the US ambassador in Seoul last Friday when 17 members of a radical youth group climbed over the wall in full view of Korean National Police troops and a hoard of media people. They staged a demonstration on the open floor of the Korean-style residence for 70 minutes. Fortunately, Ambassador Harry Harris and his family were not home at that time.
In weekend anti-government rallies at the Gwanghwamun Square and along the Sejongno and Taepyeongno streets, tens of thousands of demonstrators waved the national flag Taegeukki and many of them also displayed the Stars and Stripes to denounce what they believed anti-American posture of the present power holders, including President Moon.
Moon was a protégé of former president Roh Moo-hyun, a self-professed anti-American activist who upon taking office in 2003 offered a “balancer’s role” between the US and China in the East Asian geopolitical environment. Moon has the same dream as Roh but he now is in a much harder situation as China has risen to G2 status over the intervening years and North Korea has possessed nuclear bombs and long-range missiles.
Analysts attribute South Korea’s diminishing role in the current process for the denuclearization of the North to its obviously thinning ties with the US. While Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in are least anxious about stronger military alliance, with the US president preoccupied with money and the South Korean leader with his “North politics,” we find no player in this region envisioning close Korea-US ties.
“Nation above alliance” was the famous rhetoric of Roh Moo-hyun. His “nation” of course meant North and South Korea put together as the same “minjok” that can also be translated as race. Moon and his leftist aides continue to observe the dictum as their political philosophy while the other half of our minjok in the North turns increasingly audacious with its nuclear and rocket arsenal.
Amidst the Cho Kuk affair which rocked the nation (the South) for over two months since President Moon named the former civil affairs secretary as the minister of justice, many speculated about what was binding the two so strongly together to have the head of state risk so much in support of the self-professed socialist ideologue. I believe it was because they shared the same ideological vision of the Republic of Korea.
Some pointed to their proposed plan to have Seoul and Pyongyang jointly host the 2032 Summer Olympics as most clearly depicting what Moon and Cho had in mind. The Olympic dream reveals the leftist ambition to perpetuate their grip on power through the coming decade. Pyongyang shows no interest yet and there is little likelihood that it will. American support was important when Korea made a successful bid for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but not quite so for 2032.
Major pending issues that need to be tackled by Korea and the US during the tenure of the Moon administration include: the sharing of the cost for the stationing of the 28,500-man US Forces in Korea, transfer from the US to Korea of the wartime operational control of the allied forces, and completing the return of all US bases scattered in the country to Korean control.
Each requires tough negotiation. Donald Trump’s representatives need to consider two factors; one part of Korea, including those in power, have already disregarded the alliance with the US as a key element for the existence of the country, but they too are aware that ties with the US are still the strongest leverage in dealing with China and North Korea. Seoul’s strategy on the above subjects will fluctuate between these two propositions.
“You may leave us but not right now” will be the basic attitude of Seoul’s negotiators. They are watching President Trump’s Syrian pullout but they do not imagine an outright USFK withdrawal from Korea as Washington’s option. The sprawling US military facility in the Osan-Pyeongtaek area where all USFK assets are being concentrated has been established under the US plan to use it as the base of a global mobile force. Even Donald Trump will not be able to scrap it.
Korea and the US share complementary interests. President Moon needs to remind himself that maintaining a viable alliance with the US helps strengthen his role on the world stage.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He retired as managing editor of The Korea Times. -- Ed.