Saturday, June 11, 2005

Can This Alliance Be Saved?

South Korea is moving perceptibly into China’s orbit. The question is whether this trend is reversible. Don’t expect the brief summit meeting yesterday between South Korea’s President Roh Moon-hyun and U.S. President George W. Bush to change much, no matter what kind of public face they put on things.

This development may come as a shock to many Americans who think that the alliance was cemented in blood because of the common defense against the North Korean invasion in 1950. Remnants of the 1950s system remain in place. Some 32,000 American troops are still stationed in the South under terms of the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty.

But the political tectonic plates in Northeast Asia are clearly shifting, perhaps for the first time since the beginning of the Cold War. The rift that is opening and rapidly widening runs through the Sea of Japan with China and the two Koreas on one side of the divide; Japan, the U.S. and possibly Taiwan on the other.

The six-party talks aimed at disarming North Korea of nuclear weapons seem to be accelerating this trend, and by clinging to them, the Bush administration may be pushing this development along. Seoul’s position in the talks is much closer to Beijing’s than it is to Washington’s. Neither China nor South Korea wants to push Pyongyang too hard.

Seoul considers the government of North Korea to be a legitimate, possibly even a trustworthy, partner for normal inter-state interactions in the political, economic and other fields. Washington can’t decide whether the regime in Pyongyang is even worthy of parlay on any level.

Washington’s priorities vacillate between nuclear disarmament or regime change. No such ambiguity affects South Korea. The government is firmly against forcible regime change or any warlike action, such as a quarantine or blockade. At times it has taken on the color of being North Korea’s protector.

All sides claim to be against North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons, but in truth both China and South Korea are relatively unconcerned about the prospect. South Koreans, or at least their leaders, can’t bring themselves to believe that their brother Koreans would drop an atomic bomb on them. The Chinese don’t believe the North Koreans would be stupid enough to drop a bomb on them.

The Chinese were probably behind Seoul’s decision earlier this year to scrap a joint South Korean-American contingency plan (Op-Plan 5029) to move troops across the DMZ in the event Kim Jong Il’s regime falls. The last thing Beijing would want is to see American troops moving towards Pyongyang. (Remember what happened the last time.)

Historically, the Korean Kingdom fitted comfortably in China’s orbit. It was a model tributary state for 500 years, stretching from the late Ming to the end of the Qing Dynasty (1911). The Koreans paid their annual tribute even more regularly than the other tributary states, such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand.

This contrasts strongly with the Japanese occupation (1910-1945). Rather than the more benevolent, Confucian “big brother, little brother” relationship, Japan adopted a harsh, nineteenth-century type of Western-style colonialism that sought to crush the Korean identity, so that even today the occupation roils relations between the two countries.

South Koreans continue to pick at that scab. It lies beneath the complaints that Seoul voices about how Japanese portray the occupation in school history texts. Even now there is a political witch hunt underway in South Korea outing of prominent figures who collaborated with the Japanese when they were young, often in small ways, such as serving in the police.

U.S.- South Korean relations are also strained by the fact that the political elite in both countries dislikes and distrusts each other. By 2007 South Korea will have been ruled for ten years by left-of center presidents, first Kim Dae Jung and his successor Roh Moon-hyun. The cornerstone of their foreign/domestic policy is rapprochement with North Korea.

Things got off on a wrong foot when Kim Dae Jung flew to Washington in March 2001 at the very start of the Bush administration. Landing in Washington Kim was happy to hear former Secretary of State Colin Powell say, “we plan to engage North Korea.” The next day Bush effectively retracted this position at a joint press conference, with Kim standing at his side.

China wants to see North Korea gradually reform its economy following its own example (see post below), leading to its eventual re-unification as a neutral state. What it fears is a sudden collapse and North Korea’s incorporation into a South Korean state that is still an ally of the U.S. At the moment things are moving Beijing’s way.

14 Comments:

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Thanks for the important insight on this issue, which most casual observers of Asia, such as myself, would never have considered possible(the imperceptible shift of South Korea toward China, etc). Pretty much a wake up call for vigilance on geopolitical shifts in the region...good eye.

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