- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2003

This year, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the formal establishment of the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) Alliance, it is appropriate to reflect on the history of this special bond, especially in light of recent uncertainty on both sides of the Pacific. But it is also important to consider the future, when the alliance may prove crucial for regional security and world peace.

The U.S.-ROK alliance was borne of crisis. On June 25, 1950, North Korean military forces, hoping to unify the peninsula under communism, crossed the 38th Parallel in a surprise attack. Within days, President Truman committed American forces to the defense of South Korea, and the United Nations Security Council called upon its member states to do likewise. In all, 22 nations supported the U.N. resolution opposing North Korea’s aggression. Of those nations, the United States paid the heaviest price: 36,940 Americans killed in action in the Korean War, and 92,134 wounded.

In the spring of 1953, with little progress in negotiations for an armistice agreement, South Korean President Syngman Rhee asked President Eisenhower to approve a defense treaty between the two countries, similar to existing U.S. treaties with the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. The U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), signed Oct. 1, 1953, began an alliance — built on the desire for peace, freedom and security — that stands today as a pillar of U.S. security strategy in East Asia and a guarantee of security for South Korea.

Today, 35 million people live within the range and threat of North Korean artillery. And 37,000 American soldiers continue to serve as a bulwark against that danger. Moreover, they support South Korea’s enormous economic vitality. The American presence reduces security expenses for the Republic of Korea and promotes the stable security environment necessary to lure foreign investors and trade partners.

South Korea, which contributes 35 percent of the costs of stationing American soldiers there, has done its part for the alliance by joining the United States in numerous military operations, including both Gulf wars, the war on terror and peacekeeping operations in Somalia.

Recently, some on both sides of the Pacific have come to doubt the relevance of continuing the relationship. But Korea’s unique geopolitical location, the dynamics of regional powers and other unforeseen threats require continued U.S.-ROK cooperation. Indeed, when President Bush visited Korea in February 2002, he signed an accord to strengthen the alliance into a “global partnership” that includes cooperation to confront global threats, such as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

This new vision strengthens a relationship that consistently has proven it can weather periods of tension.

In early 1971, Washington withdrew the 7th Infantry Division from Korea, reducing the American military presence from 62,000 troops to 42,000. Combined with President Nixon’s efforts at rapprochement with China, and the withdrawal of American forces in Vietnam, South Korea was shaken by fears of abandonment and insecurity.

South Korea responded by taking more responsibility for its own defense. It restructured its military, jump-started a domestic defense industry and began to acquire modern weapons. The “Koreanization” of South Korea’s defense served to strengthen security its position vis a vis North Korea.

In 1977, when President Carter sought to withdraw the 2nd Infantry from Korea, the two governments responded by combining operational command to achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness.

In recent weeks, the United States has announced plans to move most of its troops away from the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. Some argue recent threats from North Korea make this an inappropriate time for change. But the North Korean threat has existed for 50 years and will for the foreseeable future — which means there may never be a “good” time to adjust the alliance. On the other hand, recent nationalistic outbursts by South Koreans suggest some adjustment may now be in order.

And again, tension could bring renewed strength. Already, it has spurred moves toward self-reliance in South Korea. The South Korean government increased its defense budget for next year by 28 percent to $18.6 billion. And, in a May 14 summit with South Korean President Roh, President Bush agreed to ask Congress for $11 billion over four years to upgrade the joint command.

These are not the signs of an alliance fraying at the edges. These are the indications of two countries that work to overcome the tensions of the moment and strengthen the promise of the future. It’s been that way for 50 years. May it continue for another 50, and beyond.

Malcolm Wallop, the Chung Ju-Yung Fellow for Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, represented Wyoming for three terms in the U.S. Senate, where he served on the Armed Services Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence.

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