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Preparing for Future Threats and Regional Challenges: The ROK-U.S. Military Alliance in 2008-09
Published May 25, 2011
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President Lee Myung-bak won a landslide victory in 2007. His popularity before the election was obvious, and it came as a surprise to almost no one that he won by the largest margin since democratic elections first began to be held in South Korea in 1987 (Onishi 2007). Many analysts agree that the struggling economy and other issues that many Koreans believed the Roh Moo-hyun government had not addressed very well were key in helping conservatives once again return to power. But another key issue was Lee’s strong stance on national defense and the relationship with what remains an unpredictable and belligerent neighbor to the north—the DPRK. Indeed, as distinguished North Korean analyst Nicholas Eberstadt (2007) stated following the election of 2007:

"South Koreans winced as their government repeatedly abstained from U.N. votes criticizing North Korea for human rights abuses. They grumbled as they saw their tax-funded “economic cooperation” projects with the North devolve into an economic lifeline for a still-hostile government in Pyongyang. And they worried as the undisguised rift with Washington over “the North Korean threat” created unmistakable strains in the vital U.S.-South Korean alliance."

Lee’s presidency shows a shift to the center-right in the ROK electorate (Steinberg 2008).

Since Lee Myung-bak assumed the presidency of South Korea, he has encountered many challenges. Indeed, Lee has been accused by many on the left for being too hard on North Korea and for bringing difficulties back into the North-South relationship (though in reality this was almost entirely a one- way relationship during Roh’s administration when it came to compromise and transparency—almost exclusively on the part of South Korea).1 But these criticisms have not gained nearly as much attention as those mounted against Lee for his desire to move forward on the free trade agreement with the United States, which will give U.S. beef imports what some critics (unfairly in my view) have called unsafe inroads into the South Korean food market. Indeed, the beef issue (to the surprise of many Americans) became a prominent issue in South Korea and led to candlelight vigils, protests in the street, and what amounted to a legitimate crisis for the Lee Myung-bak government (Junn 2008).

Although the beef issue may have been an emotional one for many Koreans, it seems there was more to it than meets the eye. Indeed, many analysts have said this was in reality a move by the left designed to subvert the new government of Lee Myung-bak. As Victor Cha (2008), a professor at Georgetown University, recently wrote:

"While the trigger for Korea’s self-paralyzing demonstrations were concerns about beef, it is increasingly apparent that the ideological Left in Korea, pushed out of power after over one decade in the seat of the presidency and in control of the National Legislature—and with no major election scheduled for another four years—have taken their politics to the streets in an effort to subvert the first conservative government Korean government in a decade."

Cha further cut to the crux of the matter when he wrote, “This is not about lofty notions of a new Korean nationalism, but about the primitive struggle for political power long a part of politics on the peninsula.” According to press reports (Kang I. 2008), several civic groups and left-of-center activists actually planned many of the rallies with the specific intent of bringing down Lee’s government.

While the beef issue has been the center of most of the attention in South Korea in recent months, in my view it took away from other important issues that must be addressed. As this issue has begun to die down, the very real challenges and issues that face Lee’s government and the ROK-U.S. alliance can now become the center of more focus by policymakers and analysts in the United States and South Korea. Perhaps most important, Lee has now stated that his policy toward North Korea is to seek eventual unification under a liberal democracy. This is a significant break from the policy of his predecessors in the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations who sought “peaceful coexistence” with North Korea but paid little attention to what would be an expensive and problematic post-unification situation (Kim S. 2008).

This new policy points to the important issues that will be addressed in this paper. For South Korea to be able to work toward unification under a liberal, democratic government, the government in Seoul must be able to develop its military capabilities in order to match the continuing North Korean threat posed by its conventional and unconventional forces. South Korea has a difficult task. The government (along with its key military ally, the United States) must plan for a force-on-force conflict with North Korea and maintain capabilities that effectively deter the DPRK; at the same time, South Korean government officials must prepare for a possible collapse of the threat that they are deterring and plan for the huge challenges that will exist if either one of these scenarios occurs. To do so, South Korea must be able to actually either pay for the additional capabilities needed or ensure that a strong alliance exists with the United States, which can supplement the gaps until fiscal or military readiness challenges, or both, are met.

This leads to the question of wartime operational control (OPCON) and the scheduled dismantlement of Combined Forces Command (CFC) in 2012. Can it be done? Finally, several other issues need to be addressed in the near term as South Korea looks at its military alliance with the United States. Not the least of these issues is the cost of maintaining U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula (and cost sharing) and the upcoming move of U.S. troops out of Seoul and bases in the Uijongbu-Tongducheon corridor. I will address all of these issues in this paper and make some suggestions for planning and policy that will be important as the ROK-U.S. military alliance continues to evolve and improve to meet the challenges for security and stability on the Korean peninsula in coming years.

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