Saturday, June 03, 2006

Seoul-Washington Forum

A Seoul-Washington Forum was held at the beginning of May at the Brookings Institute. The website has put up the papers, which make for an interesting read, from this event. The issues covered are the US-ROK Alliance, the Six-party Talks, military self-reliance in the ROK, and US-ROK economic cooperation.

So far I have only summarised the papers from session one. There are three other sessions and two luncheon addresses (one for each day) by James Kelly and Christopher Hill respectively. Your options from here are to: a) read session one' s summary below and then wait and see if I get around to summarising the rest of the papers; b) forget about waiting and go and read them yourself; or c) just don't bother at all about any of it.

Michael Green, "The Case for the US-ROK Alliance"

This paper distinguishes between 'objective realities' of the US-ROK alliance and 'constructed realities' of the alliance. The three main areas of dispute in the alliance within the objective versus constructed realities framework are: a) divergence over North Korea; b) divergence over Japan and China; and c) divergence over command relationships and leadership in alliance. The objective realities assess the accomplishments of the alliance to date and views the state of the alliance from the perspective that all alliances undergo change to suit evolving circumstances and that there may be rough as well as good times in any alliance. From this perspective the US-ROK alliance is similar to most alliances and possibly better than some.

However, the constructed objective considers how the alliance is portrayed in media or by politicians and how it is subsequently viewed by the public. Obviously the constructed reality of the alliance is quite different to the objective reality. In the case of the US-ROK alliance you have South Korean politicians getting short-term political gain from bad-mouthing the alliance, you have the American politicians complaining about South Korean recalcitrance and you have the North Koreans over-emphasising the threat of the US to peace and security on the peninsula.

In the conclusion he states:
Reviewing the major sources of tension in the U.S.-ROK alliance relationship today, one is struck at how many of the problems are ideational or constructed in nature. The areas of divergence are not the result of a differentiation in the objective material security threats we each face. Rather, it is how those common threats are interpreted in each side's changing domestic political cultures, and particularly on the ROK side. The task for those in leadership is to articulate a future vision for the alliance based on a realistic assessment of the threats we face and an agenda that draws on our common values as democracies and our peoples' respective aspirations.
His recommends some practical steps that the US might take in order to de-emphasis some of the constructed realities. These suggestions sounded quite practical to me and his assertion that US should stay well clear of any Japan-Korea diplomatic disputes, whether it be Yasukuni Shrine or Dokdo, were right on the mark. And coming in at only nine pages, this is a concise article that is easy to read.

Park Kun Young, "A Future of US-Korea Alliance: Toward a Mature Allied Partnership for Peace in Northeast Asia and Beyond"

From the outset I didn't like this article. The purpose of the US-Korea alliance is poorly defined from the beginning. It follows that an essay giving policy prescriptions for an alliance, whose purpose is unclear, will lack focus or meaning. In the introduction it states that,
the U.S.-Korea alliance has been a great success in terms of preventing a war on Korean peninsula and promoting economic development and democracy in Korea.
The paper then says it will give policy recommendations that will allow the US-ROK alliance to lead peace in Northeast Asia and beyond. Preventing war and promoting economic development and democracy are not the same thing as leading regional and global peace.

Although I am willing to be wrong, my understanding is the US-ROK alliance is a KASA i.e: Korea-America Security Alliance. Even though it could be argued that, providing a secure environment should allow for economic and political development, the US-ROK alliance does not expressly include economic or democratic growth as an objective. The alliance is a military one. It seems like the author is aligning the US-ROK alliance with 'the relationship between the US and South Korea'. This is not the case. And I certainly don't think that the US-ROK alliance has aims to 'lead peace' beyond Northeast Asia.

The first prescription is to stabilize and strengthen the political relationship. The author argues that the blame for the current poor relationship rests with US and lists grievance going back as early as 1904, well before the alliance was even in existence. What I especially don't like here is the argument that the US should rush to rectify its image and better understand the root causes of anti-American sentiment in Korea if it hopes to have a positive relationship in Korea. I am not a huge fan of America but I think calling on America to placate public opinion in Korea is not what should be done here. Surely burden lies on the South Korean politicians to educate the South Korean public on why the alliance is good for their country. If nobody, neither the politicians nor the public sees any value in the alliance with America then it is time to cut the ties; not for America to do some PR.

The second prescription is to address ambiguity in the Mutual Defense Treaty. Not knowing much about it, I have little comment. Except to say that this prescription, like the first one, appears to blame the US without analysing what steps South Korea should also be taking.

The third suggestion is to expand the alliance into a multilateral regional peace arrangement. It seems odd to suggest this when the entire article has shown how difficult it is to have an agreement between two countries, let alone a whole bunch. The general ill-feeling between major regional powers in Northeast Asia, the fact that US already has an alliance with Japan and is unlikely to get one with China also negates the validity of this policy recommendation.

Bruce Cumings, "Ending the ROK-US Alliance?"

Although the topic was supposed to be about the possibly of ending the alliance, the article chooses to focus on why ending the alliance is almost inconceivable. This article gives a full account of issues in the US-ROK alliance focusing on events during the past decade. As most people know, Mr. Cumings tends not to favour US policy toward North Korea and South Korea. And this article is no exception. The US is portrayed as being mostly arrogant and ignorant in its policy toward both South and North Korea. Not surprisingly he sees the US as the main reason for the current strained relationship in the alliance. This article is similar in argument to the previous article in that it aims to demonstrate that strained relations are mostly the fault of the US' unilateral policy and attitude toward the North. Exacerbating this is the fact that the US policy is in contradiction to South Korea's own view on how North Korea should be handled. The divergent policies are fanning the rise of anti-Americanism in South Korea, which in turn i s weakening the alliance. Mr. Cumings' article however is better writtenargumentarguement is much more compelling than the previous paper.

Moon Chung-In, "Re-thinking the Future of the ROK-US Alliance"

This article tries to emphasise the continuing validity of the alliance. He points out that sentiment against US foreign policy should not mean that South Korea does not appreciate and respect the US. As he states:
But it should be reminded that as in the U.S., South Korea is a pluralistic society and its people share diverse perceptions of the United States. Banmi (anti-American) is only one aspect of South Korea's national psyche, as there are, in fact, a variety of Korean positions toward the United States, ranging from chinmi (pro-American) and sungmi (worship America) to hyommi (loathing America). Those who attempted to tear down the MacArthur statue represent only a tiny segment of the Korean population. A great majority of Koreans still remember the U.S. role as a savior and remain grateful.
He argues that the success/failure of the alliance should not be based on the recent protests in South Korea but judged on the achievements of the alliance. From this perspective, as the first article summarized also argued, the alliance is, and continues to be, a success. He also recognizes challenges to the future of that alliance including China and the dynamic nature of Asian politics and the rapid evolution of socio-economic circumstances in Asia. He also notes the command relationship and disputes over cost sharing, public perceptions in Korea of the US, and the divergent threat perception of North Korea. He concludes that any alliance should be seen as an instrument for enhancing national interest and the core problem would be if one or both nation can't see that value in the existing alliance.

Currently reading:

"Hell" by Yasutaka Tsutsui