Archive for An Alliance?

Gates: Roh Moo Hyun was “anti-American” and “a little crazy,” and Lee Myung Bak wanted to bomb the crap out of Kim Jong Il.

This must be the most controversial understatement of the year, so far:

Reading a new memoir by former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, South Koreans may be quite surprised by his characterization of the country’s late President Roh Moo-hyun as “a little crazy.”

I estimate that approximately 63.8% of them won’t be in complete shock about that.

Gates recalls a November 2007 meeting in Seoul with the liberal-minded president, whose diplomatic and security policy is still being debated. He calls Roh “anti-American and probably a little crazy.”

Roh was quoted as telling Gates that “the biggest security threats in Asia were the United States and Japan.” [Yonhap]

He said that to the U.S. SecDef’s face, and the SecDef thinks he’s a little crazy? If anything, Gates was too kind. I’m tempted to make the case that Roh’s policies were detached from reality, but I did enough of that when Roh was alive, and besides which, there’s someone willing to argue that about every politician.

Instead, evaluate Gates’s description on its literal, medical merits. If you must, pick some less pejorative adjective, like “unbalanced.” A retrospective examination of Roh’s public statements while in office, which clearly foretold his cause of death, could have been grounds to commit him to an institution for his own safety. Not only did Roh seem to lack the will to govern, I often sensed (correctly, as it turned out) that his suicidal ideations didn’t have an exclusively political character.

I worried more that Roh was projecting those ideations onto his entire country.

Gates also confirms that Lee Myung Bak had intended to carry out a “disproportional” response using “both aircraft and artillery” after North Korea’s attacks of 2010, but that the Obama Administration forced Lee to call off the strikes.

Obama Administration’s N. Korea policy evolves from the 90s to the 60s.

Not surprisingly, North Korea’s missile test is bringing out a lot of criticism of President Obama’s North Korea policy, but sometimes, that criticism writes itself.  Writing at The Cable, Josh Rogin tells us that just as Kim Jong Un was counting down the launch sequence between drags on a smuggled Marlboro, Wendy Sherman and the State Department’s crack team of Asia experts were relaxing at a cocktail party in honor of — smack your forehead now — the Emperor of Japan, while silently thanking Kim Jong Un for not ruining their holidays:

But several attendees at the Japanese emperor’s birthday celebration told The Cable that the fact so many Asia officials were not at their desks illustrated how surprised the administration was about the timing of the launch.

“Everybody stood down. Nobody thought they were going to do it this week. It was a real head fake by the North Koreans,” another top Asia expert and party attendee said. “DOD, State, and the White House were just stunned by it. They were shocked.”

There were varying explanations as to why the Obama administration was caught off guard. North Korea said Dec. 10 said that “technical issues” were forcing it to push back the launch window. Previously, North Korea had said the launch would come by Dec. 22, and the new window was supposed to end Dec. 29. News reports Dec. 9 and 10 also said the missile was being removed from the launch pad. Those reports turned out to be wrong.

It may be that Sherman and the East Asia Bureau types took too much comfort in Joel Wit’s widely circulated — and spectacularly ill-timed – prediction that snow would delay the launch.  Wit may be the most chronic schlimazel of all North Korea watchers who is still taken seriously by most people, but I think Rogin’s post was a little too unkind to him.  Satellite imagery is subject to different interpretations, and I’ve probably made my own share of wrong guesses.  It’s when Wit stubbornly ignores the evidence that is there that he really invites mockery.  Among other treats, Wit insists that North Korea really does abide by its agreements, it really is reforming and opening its economy, and really isn’t to blame for this launch (South Korea’s decision to extend the range of its own missile gave the North no choice). Off-hand, I can think of roughly three people in Washington who still believe this since the D.C.’s Finest cleaned out the Occupy camp.  So the next time Wit tugs at your heart strings to advocate unmonitored food aid, just remember:
Based on the North Korean government’s own calculation of daily need, the money spent on yesterday’s launch could buy 5.8 million tons of corn, enough to feed a population of 20 million for 19 months.  [Daily NK]
Some of the criticism is what you’d expect from people with partisan and ideological reasons to oppose this president, but I’ve tried to pick out the more serious and credible examples.  John Bolton, for example, became a fierce critic of the Republican president who appointed him, and isn’t an inflexible critic of his Democratic successor:

John Bolton:  In 2009, the Obama administration’s approach to Pyongyang appeared unexpectedly realistic. The White House initially seemed to abandon the Clinton-Bush obsession with making deals involving tangible economic and political concessions to North Korea in exchange for yet more promises to terminate its nuclear weapons program. Mr. Obama rightly believed that avidly pursuing such negotiations, offering one “compromise” after another, simply reinforced the North’s craving for attention without producing results.  [....]

But Mr. Obama’s reluctance to engage the North, simply abandoning the misguided Clinton-Bush diplomacy, is nothing to write home about. Not making unforced concessions that have the political or economic effect of propping up the regime, which repeatedly promises to give up its nuclear program but never does, avoids one erroneous path but follows another. In fact, administration passivity simply permitted the North to proceed essentially unimpeded.

The problem, in other words, is that our policy hasn’t caught up with the long-overdue consensus that North Korea isn’t going to disarm or cease to be a menace for any price, and won’t allow us to just ignore it.  Talks have failed, deterrence is failing, and trying to wait North Korea out has failed because China keeps it afloat no matter what it does.  North Korea is forcing a confrontation.  We’ll eventually have to face that, but it’s also important to make China pay for the behavior it enables.

Stephen Yates:  China should be named and shamed for its role in enabling North Korea to remain and grow as a threat. North Korea is one of the most sanctioned countries on the planet, but Beijing (with only brief exceptions) has effectively watered down and otherwise dulled the impact of international sanctions on North Korean “stability.”

Beijing no doubt would be horrified by the prospect of an international review of the many ways North Korea’s illicit activities involve Chinese institutions, territory, and personnel, but such a comprehensive audit would be entirely appropriate.

Well, yeah, except that everyone who doesn’t already know what China’s game is, is simply denying the overwhelming evidence of its deliberate bad faith.  It’s a small beginning that Susan Rice, who has taken herself out of the running for Secretary of State, is at least trying to be our U.N. Ambassador by pushing her Chinese counterpart past the limits of polite decorum.  Good luck getting her government to reign Kim Jong Un in unless we do things to make him China’s problem, too.  Like sanctioning the Chinese banks and mining companies that finance Kim Jong Un, and threatening to seed the Tumen River valley with more guns per square meter than Waziristan.

Ed Royce:  ”I’ve been calling for a North Korea policy with energy, creativity and focus. Instead, the Obama Administration’s approach continues to be unimaginative and moribund. We can either take a different approach, or watch as the North Korean threat to the region and the U.S. grows.”

Royce, who had advocated the global pursuit and freezing of North Korean assets by the Treasury Department, beyond the constraints of a moribund U.N. Sanctions Committee, knows that this strategy worked with devastating effect in 2005 and 2006.  To be fair, the administration has dropped a few hints that it’s considering this:

Even if the Security Council fails to pass sanctions, the United States and other nations could impose unilateral measures, as they have with Iran, the senior administration officials said.  [CNN]

But my guess is they’re more serious when they also say they’ll ask the U.N. for a new (unenforced) resolution, send a few ships to do port calls in Chinhae and Incheon, and stop the long-overdue removal of U.S. ground forces from Korea.

Beijing’s biggest fear has always been destabilizing North Korea, and setting off a collapse that could put South Korean forces, and perhaps their American allies, on China’s border.  [N.Y. Times, David E. Sanger and William J. Broad]

Yeah.  It sure is too bad we have no conceivable means of pressuring China whatsoever.  Any ideas?  Nothing?  In that case, what do you suppose McNamara and Rusk would have done?

But the essence of the American strategy, as described Wednesday by administration officials, was to force the Chinese into an uncomfortable choice.

“The kinds of things we would do to enhance the region’s security against a North Korean nuclear missile capability,” one senior administration official said in an interview, “are indistinguishable from the things the Chinese would view as a containment strategy” aimed at Beijing.

They would include increased patrols in waters the Chinese are trying to claim as part of their exclusive zone, along with military exercises with allies in the region. “It’s the right approach, but whether it works is another matter,” said Christopher R. Hill, who was the chief negotiator with North Korea during President George W. Bush’s second term, and is now dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, on Wednesday. “The approach of thickening up the antimissile effort is something that would get China’s attention.”

Notwithstanding the poor credibility of the Times’s source, I agree that there are some good ideas here, including a regional anti-missile shield, an East Asian analogue of NATO, and an open effort to contain a China whose belligerent territorial claims have scared the bejeezus out of Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and have even given rise to a budding alliance with Vietnam.  This much is to our strategic benefit.  It concerns me that we won’t really go through with this, but it concerns me more that we’ll “send American boys 9 or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”  Increased U.S. involvement should focus on command, control, intelligence, and diplomatic relationships, and controlled sales of the best defensive weapons systems.  It should not focus on putting a heavier U.S. footprint in the region.

I’m sure plenty of Japanese and Koreans sleep more soundly knowing that every Saturday, Itaewon and Pyongtaek are filled with Americans — the likely majority of them civilians — shopping for mink blankets and soju kettles.  They might even feel safe enough to vote for imperialist-America-bashing candidates who promise to cut defense spending and send the difference to Kim Jong Un.  Of course, those soldiers didn’t stop North Korea from sinking the Cheonan, shelling Yeongpyeong, or kidnapping God-knows-how-many Japanese.  In fact, they probably gave the Pentagon enough leverage to prevent South Korea from taking out the North Korean units responsible for the 2010 attacks.  I wonder if any North Korean soldiers know enough to thank Kim Il Sung’s eternal spirit that American G.I.’s keep them safe and well-fed.

A Quick Thought on this Psy business

My ten year-old can already tell you that one of my life’s newer objectives is to die an old man without having heard “Kangnam Style” even once. Pop culture has never been my thing, but I sure did get tired of all the forced Kangnam-Style allusions and cliches in just about everything written about Korea during Psy’s 15 minutes.  Anyway, if you’re wondering whether I’m even a little bit surprised that Psy once sang, “Kill those fucking Yankees …. Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law, and fathers …. Kill them all slowly and painfully,” well, no, I’m not surprised.  Not even a little.  In fact, I’m sure there was a whole mob cheering those applause lines when he sang them. Some of the rhetoric in South Korea in those days would have made Hamas blush.  It also enjoyed a significant amount of encouragement from — and exploitation by — South Korea’s ruling party. If you doubt me there, then you haven’t read that last link.

You know who made a lot of good points about this? Someone I disagree with more often than not, The Metropolitician.  I agree with him that Psy’s apology was certainly insincere, and the fact that Psy’s “art” has as much to do with Korean culture as a Samsung knockoff. (I allow that Psy may have been just one more ambitious person who exploited the popularity of anti-Americanism for his own selfish reasons, but that excuses nothing.) Having served as a soldier in Korea at the time when Psy was spewing his hate, I don’t deny my feelings of satisfaction that Psy, unlike me, was capable of making millions of Americans aware of the depth of many South Koreans’ hate. I worry that he may also make South Korea as a whole infamous for hate. Like many other things in life, including South Koreans’ own views of America and its soldiers, this would be unfair.  Psy’s promoters must be awfully thankful that their client shares a peninsula with an even more repulsive individual, who provided a timely distraction.

What Don Rumsfeld Got Right

Writing at Korea Real Time, Evan Ramstad quotes from a memo written by Don Rumsfeld in late 2002, shortly after Roh Moo Hyun was elected President of South Korea on a wave of anti-American rage:

“As you know, the new President-elect [Roh] has stated that he wants to review the relationship,” Mr. Rumsfeld wrote. “Rather than pushing back, I think we ought to accept that as a good idea. If we had recommended it, we could be accused of destabilizing the peninsula, but he recommended it.

Over the next two years, Mr. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon and Mr. Roh’s defense ministry negotiated a substantial drawdown of U.S. troops in South Korea, from about 39,000 to about 28,000. As well, they began the discussions that led to an agreement in 2006 for South Korea’s military to take control of its own troops in wartime. Since the Korean War of the 1950s, U.S. commanders have had wartime control of South Korean troops.

Mr. Rumsfeld so wanted to see a change in the U.S. position in South Korea that, in 2005, he quickly agreed to Mr. Roh’s request for wartime control. “You’re pushing through an open door,” Mr. Rumsfeld told Mr. Roh’s defense minister at the time.

Mr. Roh initially wanted the wartime control transfer to happen in 2009, but later agreed for 2012. Last year, current South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, representing conservative forces who were alarmed by Mr. Roh’s aggressive push to reduce South Korea’s reliance on the U.S. military, forged a new agreement with the U.S. to delay the transfer of wartime control until 2015.

But Mr. Rumsfeld’s desire for change in the U.S.-South Korea alliance was clear in that December 2002 memo.

“We have been there since 1950,” he wrote. “It is time to rearrange the relationship and put the burden on the South Koreans.

The irrational, manipulated anti-Americanism of the bleating herd isn’t directly mentioned here, but it’s the subtext of the whole discussion. A few months later, Rumsfeld was in Korea, telling American soldiers there that the Pentagon was thinking about “making some adjustments” to USFK force levels. Suddenly, the same Roh government that had whipped up and exploited anti-Americanism for its political advantage (and would do so again) began telling the protesters to dial it back. Rumsfeld went forward with the troop cuts anyway, in a move that apparently shocked Roh’s people.

If it were up to me, the Eighth U.S. Army would be commanded by a Staff Sergeant stationed on Cheju-Do. But given the power and influence of the Korea lobby in Washington, Rumsfeld probably did as much as he could. Events have proven Rumsfeld right. The shelling of Yeonpyeong and the sinking of the Cheonan have shown the limits of U.S. deterrence, notwithstanding its financial cost to American taxpayers. In the meantime, South Korea spent about seven billion dollars extending the survival of the North Korean regime and financing its capacity to threaten not only the South Korean people, but Americans who might one day be the victims of weapons proliferated by Kim Jong Il.

Heritage Scholar Calls for Asian Missile Defense Alliance

Bruce Klingner at the Heritage Foundation is proposing an idea whose time has come: a comprehensive, multi-national missile defense system for Asia. Klingner’s argument begins with an explanation of what should be obvious — that diplomacy has failed to disarm North Korea, as China’s own missile arsenal is growing rapidly. The land- and sea-based system Klingner proposes would protect Asian democracies from both North Korea and China, and enhance U.S. national security, as well. Here’s the abstract:

The United States and its allies are at risk of missile attack from a growing number of states and non ­state terrorist organizations. This growing threat is partic ­ularly clear in East Asia, where diplomacy has failed to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them on target, and where China continues the most active nuclear force modernization pro ­gram in the world. To counter these growing threats, the U.S. should work with its allies, including South Korea and Japan, to develop and deploy missile defenses, including ground-based, sea-based, and air-based components.

Read the rest here.

Until recently, only cranks like me could propose things like this, and few would have thought we’d see much interest in this in Asia. As recently as two years ago, Asian nations might have seen good diplomacy with China as a cheaper and equally plausible way to mitigate any security threat from China. Today, all of this is revealed as dangerously wishful by China’s own bullying — its failure to throttle North Korea, its risible claims on the Yellow and South China Seas, and its provocations of skirmishes with Japan. In Washington, there is a sizable Hail Ants crowd that loves to speak admiringly of how Chinese diplomacy, unburdened by the whims of the electorate, takes the long view. I’m really not seeing the evidence for that in recent events. Instead, I see a Chinese political class unburdened of the need for objective analysis, beholden to enforced group-think, and addicted to emotional, bombastic nationalism.

Regular readers know that I’ve long advocated removing U.S. ground forces from Korea, but this is the sort of alliance I could support enthusiastically. Our Asian military alliances are still modeled on the deterrence of Cold War-era threats. They are in dire need of modernization to keep peace in the region until the the political systems of China and North Korea inevitably yield to the demands of the governed and become representative states, living (more or less) at peace with their neighbors. The stand-off capability of U.S. air and naval power will be essential to building a modernized Pacific Area Treaty Organization, and beleaguered Taiwan is the exception that proves just how essential. Its conventional deterrent is declining as it loses is qualitative and quantitative edge, as China’s missile force grows to overwhelming strength, and as U.S. security guarantees to a diplomatically marginalized Taiwan become tenuous. This widening military imbalance raises the risk of Chinese aggression, which is why one day, Taiwan should be invited into this alliance, too.

Doug Bandow Still Wants USFK Out

You’d think that the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong should have a lot of people questioning what deterrent value American ground forces really add in South Korea now, in light of the risk of having them within North Korean artillery range, and the great expense to American taxpayers. So amid the questions about how to respond — and the bad decisions of former presidents have brought us to point where we don’t really have many ways to respond — Doug Bandow reminds us to ask why American soldiers are in South Korea at all.

My view may not be quite as extreme as Bandow’s. I can see reasons to keep an Air Force and Navy presence there, because those provide us with stand-off power-projection capabilities and secure the other end of a logistical pipeline, should we decide to intervene on our own terms. I certainly don’t agree with Bandow that South Korea’s dependence on us is more shocking than North Korea’s many atrocities, or China’s abetting of those. South Korea lets America subsidize its defense for the not-at-all-shocking reasons that it saves South Korea money, and because the Pentagon is willing to pay. But Bandow is correct that South Korea can and should bear the cost of conventional deterrence. Each new North Korean outrage makes it more indefensible that South Korean money is instead going to Kim Jong Il’s regime, through such failed experiments as the Kaesong Industrial Park. What Bandow doesn’t say and may not know is that every Friday night in Hongdae is a disaster-in-waiting for our political position there, the potential trigger for a Chung Dong-Young presidency (you say it can’t happen?). Such a development would do far more harm to South Korea’s freedom and security than the redeployment of the Army from South Korea.

Plan B Watch: Clinton Announces Tightening of N. Korea Sanctions

Well, it’s about damn time:

The Obama administration announced Wednesday that it would impose further economic sanctions against North Korea, throwing legal weight behind a choreographed show of pressure on the North that included an unusual joint visit to the demilitarized zone by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

The measures, announced here by Mrs. Clinton after talks with South Korean officials, focus on counterfeiting, money laundering and other dealings that she said the North Korean government used to generate hard currency to pay off cronies and cling to power. [N.Y. Times]

Clinton announced the sanctions as she visited the DMZ, while accompanied by SecDef Gates, and while displaying her supernatural frost-projection powers against a hapless North Korean border guard. I count at least three priceless expressions in this photo.

clinton-dmz.jpg

The Treasury Department announcement I linked here yesterday now looks to be just the first part of the Obama Administration’s dangerously overdue and initially weak response to the sinking of the Cheonan, using at least some of the legal and financial tools I’ve advocated using for the last several years.

“Today, I’m announcing a series of measures to increase our ability to prevent North Korea’s proliferation, to halt their illicit activities that helped fund their weapons programs and to discourage further provocative actions,” Clinton told a news conference in Seoul after high-level security talks with South Korean officials.

Clinton said Washington’s “new country-specific sanctions” will target the North’s “sale and procurement of arms and related material and the procurement of luxury goods and other illicit activities.”

“Let me stress that these measures are not directed at the people of North Korea who have suffered too long due to the misguided and malign priorities of their government,” she said. “They are directed at the destabilizing illicit and provocative policies pursued by that government.” [Yonhap]

With apologies to KCJ, this is encouraging — a strong opening message that will get the attention of the investors on whose cash North Korea depends. Unfortunately, Clinton offered few details about the sanctions, and via some inside sources, I’ve learned that the administration is still debating just what specific measures it’s going to announce. Until I see what those specific measures are, and how strong and comprehensive they are, I will reserve judgment. Or, as one observer put it:

Nicholas Szechenyi, a northeast Asia policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the key to effective U.S. sanctions is how they are implemented.

“If the U.S. is doing this in isolation, doing this piecemeal, then I don’t think they’ll have much effect,” he said. “But if there’s a unified effort to not only announce these sanctions as an act of solidarity with our South Korean allies but also to apply some pressure on North Korea, then I think over time it might work.”

That sounds exactly right to me. Nick Eberstadt is more skeptical, and maybe he knows something I don’t:

The moves resemble piecemeal steps of the past, they add, and are unlikely to strike where it hurts: the regime’s access to under-the-table international funds.

“If I were in Pyongyang, I would not be trembling in my boots about this,” says Nick Eberstadt, a North Korea specialist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. [Christian Science Monitor]

The real question here is what the sanctions will be designed to achieve:

“The real question, if the talks resume, is so what?” says Mr. Lieberthal. Neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have been successful over two decades at curtailing the North’s nuclear ambitions, he says, adding that the Obama administration “shows no signs of being in the mood to reward North Korea” to prompt its cooperation, a pattern he says the North has become accustomed to.

“So even if the talks resume at some point, would they produce any serious results?” he asks. “I remain very skeptical about that. [Christian Science Monitor]

If the administration is looking for sanctions that are undone as easily as they’re done, this won’t work. Our financial power over North Korea is our power to scare away investors and sever its financial lifelines, including those that originate in China. If we try to spare Chinese entities and only target isolated investors like Orascom and various shady bankers here and there, this won’t work. If the administration nips at North Korea’s illicit financing at its fringes, a U.S.-led sanctions program will fail just as U.N. sanctions always have, because North Korea is very nimble at setting up new banks and companies to evade sanctions, and because Chinese entities will adopt a see-no-evil approach to transactions with North Korea unless it’s made clear to them that their own comingled assets are also at risk.

For what it’s worth, Hillary Clinton and Robert Einhorn will both be traveling to China to seek its cooperation. Wish them luck.

But if the administration goes all-in to hit North Korea’s finances hard before its big succession-focused party conference in September, this could be extremely effective, and might even disrupt Kim Jong Il’s plans to purge his and promote the next generation of apparatchiks to preserve his dynasty for another generation.

A Good Week for Lee Myung-Bak, But What America Gained Isn’t So Clear

On balance, Lee Myung Bak seems to having a pretty good week — at least better than last week’s failure to secure a serious response to the Cheonan incident abroad or even at home. This week, Lee has already won a three-year delay in the dissolution of the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command, a/k/a OpCon transfer. He also secured a commitment by President Obama to push for an FTA that had faced strong opposition from some American labor unions and Max Baucus, the patron saint of cattle ranchers in God’s country (if you must know, it begins at the Rockies and ends where the eastern bank of the Missouri River cedes to the flat, glacial topography beyond).

Lawmakers from Obama’s Democratic party who had campaigned against the deal appear ready to approve it. “The president’s announcement of a concrete plan to move the Korea agreement forward is great news for America’s economy,” said Democratic Senator Max Baucus, head of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. He called it “the most commercially significant trade agreement in more than a decade.”

“But I’ve long held serious concerns about the unscientific barriers Korea has erected against American beef — barriers that must be removed. I intend to work with both the administration and Korea to craft a plan to fully open Korea’s market to safe and delicious American beef,” he said. [AFP]

You tell ‘em, Max.

Readers will recall that I wasn’t initially a big fan of the FTA, either. For one thing, an FTA is supposed to be an inducement to better relations, yes, but also a reward to governments that behave like allies, which Roh Moo Hyun’s certainly did not. I was and am incensed by the idea of rewarding Roh’s anti-American ex-president and his anti-American party with an FTA for their valiant effort to unilaterally moot South Korea’s alliance with the United States, keep North Korea safe for human rights atrocities and proliferation, and demonize the American government and its soldiers. For another, the FTA annex regarding those “outward processing zones” clearly referred to North Korea’s Kaesong Industrial Park, and a stealth FTA for Kim Jong Il was more than I could stand (though not more than I could believe possible in the waning years of the Bush Administration). Today, Kaesong’s decline is sufficiently advanced that its death is pretty much assured, and I’m much less worried about this concern than I was in 2008. And while I won’t call Lee Myung Bak a true ally until he sends a brigade to forcibly repossess the ransom Roh paid to the Taliban, I at least credit him for slowing the rate at which South Korea undermines American economic pressure on North Korea. And if that sounds like faint praise, then it is.

As for delaying the OpCon transfer date, I share Robert’s disappointment and don’t have much to add to his thoughts, except to emphasize that South Korean opcon is fundamentally about a strong South Korea, though it’s also about tailoring U.S. force commitments to suit our own risk-reward calculations and national security priorities. Like Robert, I also hope we got something in return for all of these concessions, because I don’t think extending the opcon transfer will do anything to heal what’s fundamentally unhealthy about the alliance — the wide gap between how the two nations perceive their own interests and values.

If and when the U.S. and ROK governments finally realize that our fundamental problem with North Korea is with the identity and character of those who run the place, we’ll have a much more effective policy together than separately. It is the realization of this truth, the determination to act on it, and the creativity and vision to see how that can best unite the interests of the two nations. A strong alliance between America and South Korea can no more be built on the presence of thousands of American soldiers in Korea than it can on the absence of any significant Korean forces from Afghanistan.

Lee, Bush Commemorate 60th Anniversary of the Korean War

Golly, this was a nice thing of President Lee to say:

As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, I offer our deepest, most sincere gratitude to all the American veterans and their families for what they did. The friendship and bond that we share is reinforced by the strong and robust military alliance, which in turn was the basis for the Republic of Korea’s remarkable twin achievements of the past six decades, namely achieving economic growth and becoming a true liberal democracy. [President Lee Myung-Bak, Atlanta Journal-Constitution]

If only President Lee’s own constituents actually believed this. I was ready to suggest that it’s them President Lee should be addressing until I saw that George W. Bush had emerged as our newest global goodwill ambassador. The former president, who is best known and loved by Koreans everywhere as the man who removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, was in Seoul the other day, also commemorating the anniversary, where he addressed a crowd of 60,000 (!) at a prayer meeting in a stadium:

“While South Korea prospers, the people of North Korea have suffered profoundly,” he said, adding communism had resulted in “dire poverty, mass starvation and brutal suppression”. “In recent years the suffering has been compounded by the leader who wasted North Korea’s precious few resources on personal luxuries and nuclear weapons programmes.” [....]

Bush, a devout Christian, described the 1950-53 conflict as an unforgotten war, saying “an act of unprovoked aggression” had led to an unnatural division in Northeast Asia. “It will never be forgotten by those who served and by those who were saved, and it must not be forgotten by the world,” he said.

The presence of US troops in South Korea showed Washington’s strong commitment to defending its ally, he said, adding the South’s prosperity is “a shining example of the power of freedom and faith”. [AFP]

As all 60,000 of those in attendance thought, as if with one mind: Just as long as our daughters stay out of Hongdae at night. Oddly enough, not all Koreans truly appreciate President Bush for his conciliatory outreach toward Kim Jong Il or his aid for the North Korean people, at least before he was ousted by a cabal of neocon hard-liners in 2009:

“It is just nonsense to bring to the Korean War prayer meeting the former US President Bush, who started the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have him give testimony,” they said in a joint statement.

Funny how these people never seem to hold grudges against those who start wars in Korea. But then, they’re not really anti-war. They’re just on the other side.

And in related news, Foreign Policy Magazine has voted Kim Jong Il the world’s worst dictator this year, easily edging out Robert Mugabe.

Where’s the Outrage?

South Koreans’ unifiction mania may have cooled for the moment, but B.R. Myers tells us that public anger toward North Korea doesn’t approach that directed against America after the 2002 accident, and that plenty have made the decision to disbelieve the evidence that North Korea sank the Cheonan:

It would be unfair to characterize these skeptics as pro-Pyongyang, but there is more sympathy for North Korea here than foreigners commonly realize. As a university student in West Berlin in the 1980s, I had a hard time finding even a Marxist with anything nice to say about East Germany. In South Korea, however, the North’s human rights abuses are routinely shrugged off with reference to its supposedly superior nationalist credentials. One often hears, for example, the mistaken claim that Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, purged his republic of former Japanese collaborators, in alleged contrast to the morally tainted South. [....]

South Korean nationalism is something quite different from the patriotism toward the state that Americans feel. Identification with the Korean race is strong, while that with the Republic of Korea is weak. (Kim Jong-il has a distinct advantage here: his subjects are more likely to equate their state with the race itself.) Thus few South Koreans feel personally affected by the torpedo attack. [....]

This urge to give the North Koreans the benefit of the doubt is in marked contrast to the public fury that erupted after the killings of two South Korean schoolgirls by an American military vehicle in 2002; it was widely claimed that the Yankees murdered them callously. During the street protests against American beef imports in the wake of a mad cow disease scare in 2008, posters of a child-poisoning Uncle Sam were all the rage. It is illuminating to compare those two anti-American frenzies with the small and geriatric protests against Pyongyang that have taken place in Seoul in recent weeks.

If demographics are destiny, accounts like Myers’s suggest that our alliance with South Korea has no long-term future. Like Robert, I don’t think this is the time to speed up our disengagement or appear to abandon South Korea, but it’s as appropriate as ever to proceed with an orderly transition to an independent South Korean defense from which both countries will emerge stronger.

Hat tip to a reader.