Strengthening the US-South Korea Alliance: For What?

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently returned from the Republic of Korea, where he reaffirmed America’s commitment to South Korea’s defense. Days later the ROK’s capital of Seoul erupted as tens of thousands of demonstrators protested their government’s decision to allow the sale of American beef. Far from bringing harmony to the U.S.-South Korean relationship, President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who ended a decade of leftist rule, has inadvertently highlighted the alliance’s essential failings.

Why is Washington keeping nearly 29,000 troops in the South? It’s time to bring them home.

Although a leading exporter, the ROK long has had a protectionist bent. At some political cost, former president Roh Moo-hyun negotiated a free trade agreement with America, which was subsequently approved by the South Korean National Assembly. However, the accord stalled in the U.S. after the Democrats won control of Congress, and will be on life support if Sen. Barack Obama wins the presidency.

Washington is reluctant to implement a pact which opens both nations’ markets even though it was expected to boost commerce by $20 billion or more. Moreover, the U.S. is falling behind its commercial competitors. The South now trades far more with China than with the U.S. Beijing’s economic role in South Korea seems only likely to grow: the ROK is geographically close to the People’s Republic of China and is a far better financial investment than North Korea, which, though a longtime ally to Beijing, remains an economic wreck.

In fact, President Lee visited Beijing in May, where he and Chinese President Hu Jintao announced their intention “to upgrade ties from a partnership of comprehensive cooperation to a future-oriented strategic partnership.” One of their discussion topics was a free trade agreement – which, if negotiated, would be quickly ratified by the PRC, in sharp contrast to the U.S.

Now the beef controversy threatens to throw U.S.-ROK economic relations into reverse. Seoul banned American beef imports five years ago in the midst of the scare over mad cow disease. In April the Lee administration agreed to lift the prohibition, triggering a torrent of public criticism. More than four-fifths of South Koreans opposed their government’s decision. So Seoul suspended the new agreement, as agriculture minister Chung Woon-chun announced: “In response to public safety concerns over U.S. beef, the government has asked the U.S. to stop exports of beef from cattle older than 30 months.”

President Bush agreed to the South’s demand, but so restricting American beef imports will be a near impossible sell on Capitol Hill, which insists on reopening South Korea’s market, once one of the largest for American beef exporters. Thus, the Korean reversal likely will sink what little chance remains for ratifying the FTA.

The controversy, coming so soon after Secretary Gates’ trip and promise to “enhance” U.S. military capabilities on the peninsula, also could tarnish the spirit of renewed security cooperation between the two governments. America’s relationship with the Roh government was frosty at best; now its successor is tossing overboard one of Washington’s most important trade objectives. Moreover, the Lee government likely will be more hesitant to yield to U.S. pressure on other issues in the future.

Ironically, however, by challenging the bilateral relationship, the beef contretemps has had a positive effect. There is little scientific basis to the popular fears over imported U.S. beef (which, of course, South Koreans would not have to purchase or eat). The beef has been certified safe by the World Organization for Animal Health. No one in America has eaten contaminated beef, let alone died of the disease. Controls over the U.S. beef supply chain were improved after the disease was discovered, satisfying most of the world.

Although some South Koreans nevertheless worry about eating tainted beef, the populist firestorm unleashed by President Lee’s decision over beef imports reflects much wider discontent in South Korea. Much of it is directed at President Lee, whose authoritarian management style, a carryover from his time as a leading business executive, has offended the public. The opposition, successively routed in the December presidential and April legislative elections, hopes to use the controversy to rebound. President’s Lee’s approval ratings have fallen below those of even U.S. President George W. Bush.

Some South Koreans are angry that the Lee government appeared to cave, imposing fewer restrictions on American beef imports than did Japan and Taiwan, which barred older meat. Little public health purpose is served by the restriction (younger cattle are thought to be less susceptible to the disease), but President Lee was seen as yielding to Washington’s pressure.

But the issue is not just South Korean pride. More important, Lee made concessions to America. It is hard to imagine tens of thousands of demonstrators turning out to protest the importation of beef from Argentina, Australia, or New Zealand. Critics accuse Lee of becoming what his predecessor rejected: “A Korean leader kowtowing to the Americans.”

One South Korean leaflet declared: “This is a new border for our country. From here starts the U.S. state of South Korea.” Protesters also have compared President Lee to the notorious traitor Lee Wan-yong, the court minister who helped turn imperial Korea into a Japanese colony a century ago. Choi Jin of Seoul’s Institute of Presidential Leadership argues that Lee has exhibited too little nationalism, in contrast to President Roh’s hyper-nationalism.

Although the U.S. saved the ROK from North Korean aggression in 1950 and protected the South throughout the Cold War, allowing it to concentrate on economic growth, U.S. support for various dictatorships soured America’s reputation with younger South Koreans. Many have a bizarrely romantic view of the North, claiming to fear Washington more than Pyongyang.

Other South Koreans resent their nation’s continued dependence on America, and the inevitable costs of hosting nearly 29,000 foreign military personnel. But as much as they lament the price the ROK pays for Washington’s defense guarantee, they lobby against any change, evincing an attitude of angry acquiescence. For instance, as an opposition lawyer, Roh Moo-hyun advocated sending the U.S. troops home. Yet his government opposed U.S. proposals to draw down force levels. Still, it sought to adjust the Status of Forces Agreement that governed treatment of U.S. personnel.

Thus, the beef dispute is really a proxy for the mutual defense treaty’s obsolescence. During Gates’ visit, the two governments promised to develop the alliance “into a 21st Century Strategic Alliance and agreed to exert a joint effort for the creative development of the ROK-U.S. relationship.” But what can this mean? The alliance has lost any purpose.

The point is not that the South Koreans have dissed America over beef and therefore the U.S. should leave. Rather, the circumstances in which the alliance was originally created have disappeared. The mutual defense treaty was a means to protect South Korea and allow it to become self-sufficient. American policy succeeded. Preserving the alliance today turns the means into an end, with the U.S. empire-builders attempting to generate new justifications for a security commitment which has fulfilled its ends.

South Korea no longer needs to be defended by Washington. The South has a vast economic lead over Pyongyang and could devote more than the North’s entire GDP to the military if it desired to do so. It’s hard to imagine any other country attacking the ROK. Japanese aggression is in the past, Russia is far more interested in Europe and the Caucasus, and China has been historically cautious. Today’s revived People’s Republic of China so far has been assertive, not aggressive, and would have much to lose from attempting to swallow the Korean peninsula.

Nor is it clear why the U,S. should intervene even if another country threatened South Korea. The Korea peninsula mattered to American security a half century ago because of the Cold War. In contrast, Washington refused to rescue the Korean monarchy from Japan a half century before that because the peninsula then was strategically irrelevant. Today the South is far more important to neighboring states like Japan than to the U.S. That Americans prefer the ROK to be prosperous and free is obvious. That it is worth risking war to guarantee the South Korea’s prosperity and freedom is not.

Some American policymakers hope to use the South as a launching pad against the PRC should the U.S. and China come to blows. However, that would be national suicide on Seoul’s part, even if the allies initially triumphed. Beijing will almost certainly become a global superpower, and would not soon forget such treachery by a neighbor. Washington and South Korea have very different interests and perspectives when it comes to China, so that issue cannot provide a new raison d’ĂȘtre for the alliance.

Another refrain is that America’s military deployments maintain regional stability. Yet whatever stabilizing effects might result from the American presence are counterbalanced by the threat to entangle the U.S. in regional conflicts of minimal concern to Washington.

History also links the ROK and U.S., as do the many family ties between the peoples of the two countries. And the bilateral trading relationship is solid, if not vital. None of these, however, offer a persuasive reason for providing a defense guarantee to a prosperous and populous state well able to defend itself.

Indeed, South Korea’s success comes at a time when America is very busy. The U.S. is overstretched attempting to sustain violent occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq. One obvious way to reduce the burden on American military personnel would be to bring home troops from outmoded garrison duty around the globe.

The ROK has established a reputation for chewing up its presidents. Since the reestablishment of democracy in 1987, all four presidents have left office in disrepute or even disgrace. President Lee is continuing the pattern, only public disillusionment has set in more quickly than usual.

However, the latest domestic political crisis in Seoul serves as a reminder that America no longer benefits from its dominant position on the Korean peninsula. The U.S. has become a target of South as well as North Koreans. The world has changed. So should the U.S.-South Korean alliance.