THOUGHTS ON US SOUTH KOREAN RELATIONS

 

There is an inherent friction in the US South Korean alliance.  I call this an alliance because even though we may not have signed government to government agreements, the role of the US as the governing authority through the UNC of the UN armistice gives us a de-facto alliance.  The friction arises due to a lack of clarity on the shared ends of these two alliance partners, both during armistice and during war.  This presents opportunities for those outside of the alliance to exploit its seams, those areas of dispute or lack of coherence of purpose.  (Attack the enemies alliances, then his plans, then his army)  A central goal for future planning and action, if we view this alliance as important to us, is to find and strengthen mutual commitments to shared political ends.  This requires an increased US emphasis on diplomatic, economic, and informational efforts both between the US and ROK governments as well as between the US and ROK alliance and other regional forums.  Apart from such efforts, the inherent friction will be successfully exploited by other regional players.

 

Those political ends are most secure which are broadly shared.  Even so, just because they are broadly shared does not, in and of itself, make them secure.  The legitimacy of these ends must be continuously reinforced by word and deed.  Our alliance common ends are shared commitments to free market democratic principles and basic human rights.  We must strengthen our shared commitment to these common ends by understanding the domestic, pol-mil realities in South Korea which pit these ends against another shared goal – stability.  South Korea’s rise as an economic power is a testament to the effect of this countries embrace of free market, democratic principles.  The increase in the average per household annual income has been dramatic both in its size as well as in its rather even distribution across the population.

 

This economic freedom has brought the means to enable greater political freedom.  Yet there remains the danger that political reform, which is relatively recent in South Korea, will regress.  Two factors are important considerations here; the military and the political establishment.

 

With the war still part of the collective consciousness of much of the population, as well as the events and aftermath of 12/12, there remains a sense of anxiety about loss of stability as well as loss of legitimacy of political institutions.  The tendency is to enhance them both through means which have a great potential for blowback.  One such means is strict control of information, as well as the use of propaganda on the domestic population.  This is especially dangerous in today’s world where, as Secretary Rumsfeld has said, a lie can be half way around the world before the truth gets its boots on.  The converse is also true -  the truth can be half way around the world before a lie gets its boots on.

 

The alliance must work together to maximize both stability and legitimacy.  The means to do so are to increase and strengthen commitments to political transparency, civilian control of the military, the rule of law, economic growth the benefits of which are widely shared, and democracy.  To the degree these commitments are internally threatened, our alliance looses traction on fundamental shared ends, which makes it all the more difficult to reach consensus on alignment and cooperation on unique national ends.

 

The Free Trade Agreement between the US and South Korea is an important effort on the economic front to strengthen our political alliance.  It has been floundering in the US, however, because of a lack of understanding and/or appreciation in the Congress as to its importance in protecting our alliance and the importance of the alliance to regional goals.

 

In the informational arena, our government has done a poor job, either by design or neglect, in educating both the Congress and their constituencies on the critical nature of the strength of our alliance both to deter as well as, if deterrence fails, win the war, and the importance of our alliance in our ability to achieve regional goals.

 

Diplomatically, we appear to have delegated our responsibility in ensuring the strength of the alliance to the military.  Although mil-to-mil efforts at maintaining a strong alliance are crucial, an overemphasis here runs the risk of a South Korean emphasis on stability to the detriment of progressive democratic development.  All of these efforts must be coordinated to ensure maximum effort both on our alliance’s as well as on our regional uniquely national goals.