Thursday, March 10, 2005

HONOLULU — South Korea is fast approaching a critical decision as to whether to try to revive its troubled alliance with the United States or dissolve their joint security treaty, expel American forces from the peninsula and seek an alliance with China.

At a gathering of South Korean and American scholars and officials, all experienced in U.S.-South Korea matters, there was general agreement that the future of the alliance was open to question, but disagreement on whether it was on the verge of dissolving. Some said it was ready to wither and die, while others contended that the alliance had weathered equally serious storms.

Adm. Thomas Fargo, former commander of U.S. forces in Asia and the Pacific, agreed before the conference that South Korea would need to make a decision regarding the alliance soon. In an interview just before he retired, Adm. Fargo said: “Of course, we watch these things, just as we watched Japan some years ago go through a similar debate. The way it turned out is what you see today.”

He was referring to the increasingly strong alliance between Tokyo and Washington.

The Japanese, he said, “decided it was clearly in their interest to have that kind of relationship with us. My instinct is that is the way this [debate in Korea] will come out, too.”

Others are not so sure.

A year ago, Lee Chung-min, a scholar at Yonsei University in Seoul, articulated the issue: “The question for South Korea in the beginning of the 21st century is whether it should strive to prolong, strengthen and modernize its maritime alliance with the United States or strive to seek ‘strategic accommodation’ with its traditional, pre-20th-century patron, China.”

South Korea, he said, must take “a long and hard look at its core security options and attendant consequences for at least the next two or three decades.”

In the conference here, a Korean scholar, who could not be identified under the rules of the meeting in order to encourage candor, posed the same question: “Who constitutes South Korea’s natural ally — a democratic America or an Asian China?”

In arguing that the alliance was in danger of collapsing, speakers variously pointed to large anti-American demonstrations, the anti-American rhetoric of President Roh Moo-hyun and comments by South Korean leaders that their country might not fight alongside Americans to repel a North Korean attack.

Similarly, when the United States asked South Korea to send 12,500 troops to Iraq to support the counterinsurgency there, President Roh grudgingly sent 3,500. Several speakers said Mr. Roh ignored the advice of South Korea’s military leaders on this and other issues.

Other speakers mentioned polls showing that South Koreans consider the United States to be more of a threat than North Korea, contentions that the division of Korea into North and South was the fault of Washington and a rash of articles in the Korean press critical of American policies.

One Korean participant offered perhaps the most incisive assessment of his country’s attitude: “South Koreans fight over what they hate, not over what they stand for.”

That seems to be particularly true of the younger generation in South Korea, which was portrayed at the conference as anti-government, anti-business, anti-status quo and especially anti-American.

The main positive sentiment among young Koreans appeared to be pro-North Korea and to advocate policies that would accommodate Pyongyang. Young Koreans also were said to be pro-China, but with reservations, because of ancient Chinese claims to parts of Korean territory.

One American participant suggested that the United States should disengage itself from the Korean Peninsula because of North Korean refusal to give up nuclear ambitions and South Korean anti-Americanism. Seoul and Pyongyang then could settle their disputes between themselves.

No South Korean government official or scholar objected. The Americans, however, were divided. Some contended that withdrawal was a “nutty” idea that would encourage North Korea to subvert South Korea and cause political turmoil as Asians saw the United States abandoning them.

Other American participants thought it was a good idea. One said there was “no reason to keep American forces in Korea,” while South Korea is able to defend itself and those troops are needed elsewhere. Suggesting that the Americans in South Korea are being held hostage, he concluded: “Let my people go.”

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