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.

The Coming OpCon Debate

Rumors in Washington are building that the South Korean government will soon ask President Obama to delay the dissolution of Combined Forces Command, a/k/a OPCON in 2012.

The Stars and Stripes has a rather unbalanced piece on the preposterous idea of South Korea assuming the lead command role in its own defense, which this piece by Doug Bandow more than balances.

I think that on the one hand, most conventional thinkers on both sides of the Pacific still see America’s contribution to an alliance in terms of boots on the ground, but I think it’s politically outdated and a recipe for defeat for us to default to those terms. North Korea is clearly aware that it can’t match us conventionally, and is assuredly looking for unconventional and deniable ways to attack Americans — military and otherwise — in South Korea. This means that a war in Korea this time isn’t going to start with T-34′s rolling down the Western Corridor. It will start with truck bombs, subway bombings, gas attacks by sleeper agents using materials obtained locally, and God-knows-what horrible device transported into South Korea by tunnel. Having observed on a daily basis the easygoing vulnerability of our installations in South Korea, this could mean hundreds of American casualties on day one. I shudder at the thought of the South Korean casualties.

Such a turn of events remains unlikely as long as Kim Jong Il knows that the answer would be “thirty seconds over Pyongyang.” That’s why the alliance matters. Frankly, I see a U.S. Army presence in South Korea as doing little to deter North Korea’s likely strategy, but tying down at lot of manpower that’s needed elsewhere and endangering a lot of American lives for no clear military purpose. While I support the idea of a “lighter footprint” abroad generally, and default to empowering local forces before supporting U.S. troop commitments abroad, don’t mistake this for isolationism, which is usually just post-hoc escapism to justify surrender because war is, you know, hard, even when vital U.S. interests are on the line. In places like Afghanistan and Iraq, where we’re in combat against Al Qaeda, having an army on the ground combats a direct threat to the United States and its freedoms, and therefore serves our vital interests. That’s not the case, however, when (a) the host nation is physically and financially capable of raising a sufficient army, even if it chooses to spend its money on other things, and (b) there are other, more efficient and effective ways for America to contribute to the allied nation’s defense.

To that end, I think our commitment to South Korea should be modernized (and downsized) to match modern military and political realities. Our strongest “hard power” contributions to South Korea’s defense are air and naval power, logistics, intelligence, training, and communications — all of them relatively flexible and capable of being calibrated to meet whatever threat or crisis South Korea may face, in the context of America’s own hierarchy of interests at that moment. We can also make strong “soft” power contributions with financial and diplomatic pressure on North Korea, broadcasting and other forms of subversion, and giving South Korea strong financial and logistical support for the pacification of North Korea.

That’s why I think Bandow also goes too far when he suggests that even if North Korea has committed an act of war by sinking the Cheonan, that we pick this moment to unilaterally abrogate the alliance. I’m all for averting a second Korean War, but what Bandow proposes would signal weakness to North Korea at a time when it represents an indirect (proliferation) threat to the United States as well.

Just for the Paulbots: Why the U.S. Army Should Leave South Korea

Even an imbecile like Ron Paul accidentally happens on the truth now and then. And while the election of Lee Myung Bak has reduced the degree to which South Korea actively undermines U.S. policy toward North Korea, the continued existence of Kaesong and Kumgang up to this moment refutes any suggestion that South Korea has really joined it, either, or restored South Korea as a bona fide U.S. ally on a global or regional scale, or tapped into South Korea’s considerable tax revenue to modernize its own Army and relieve U.S. taxpayers of the cost of defending one of the world’s richest nations from one of the world’s poorest. Instead, South Korea seems to have decided that dependence is cheaper than — and therefore, superior to — independence, and that it can sleep under America’s blanket without contributing anything to America’s own security.

I’m not blind to the fact that for the moment, South Korea’s anti-Americanism seems dormant, until it isn’t, and that either the soldiers in Hongdae are on their best behavior or the Korean press is more occupied with its other xenophobic obsession: hippie Canadian English teachers who goes to bars and hit on Korean girls. Fine, but does anyone expect that trend to continue through the next election season?

Go here to read the rest.

Rand: South Korea Still a Military Parasite

Years ago, I quoted extensively from a Rand report on then-President Roh Moo Hyun’s plans to cut the ROK military budget and settle into a cozy military and economic parasitism on the country Roh’s supporters loved to hate. But now that Roh is a fading bad memory, the alliance stands on firm ground again, right? Wrong:

The ROK has become one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with a strong economy. Yet despite this economic strength, the ROK still depends in major ways on the United States for its deterrence and defense. In recent years, U.S. leaders have urged the ROK to bear more of its military costs. For example, during his visit to Seoul for the Oct. 22 ROK-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “We encourage the Republic of Korea’s political leaders to make an investment in defense appropriate to Korea’s emerging role as a contributor to global security and commensurate with the threat you face on the peninsula.”

Many U.S. leaders wonder why the ROK is not taking more responsibility for its own defense. Why is it that the ROK spends only 2.8 percent of its GDP on defense, despite the threat they face on the peninsula, while the United States spends roughly 4.5 percent of its GDP on defense?

For almost 60 years now, the United States has subsidized the ROK economy by not forcing the ROK to pay for a fuller share of its defense requirements. While this approach may have made sense until the ROK developed a vibrant economy, Americans are increasingly feeling that the ROK government is taking advantage of the United States. If ROK national security is adequate to allow the ROK Defense Reform Plan 2020 budget to be significantly reduced, then wouldn’t the United States also be justified in reducing its military commitments to the ROK?

You tell ‘em. Read the rest here. A major worry raised in the report is that the ROK Army simply doesn’t have the manpower to occupy North Korea when it collapses, which doesn’t rumble like such a distant thunder these days. This threatens to draw the United States into a very, very ill-advised occupation of another failed state that’s deeply inculcated with anti-Americanism.

If South Korea really wants to be ready for unification, the answer probably isn’t raising a massive conventional force. The answer is to raise and train a purpose-made reserve force that’s designed for civil affairs work — restoring essential services, providing humanitarian aid, and doing simple security functions. The ROK Army should save itself for the job of an army — to chase after the last regime dead-enders and stand guard on the southern bank of the Yalu River, while the USFK provides air cover.

Either that, or get ready for the Outer Koguryo Semi-Autonomous Zone.

Equality Begins Where Dependence Ends

South Korea, which spent the better part of the last two decades bitching that it wanted to be treated like America’s equal, has been bitching ever since the Pentagon decided that Korea was just about ready to take over wartime operational control of its own military, you know … for its own defense. Needless to say, and largely as a result of having served in the USFK myself for four years, I’m neither as sympathetic nor as diplomatic as our C.G.:

“We are still responsible to come and help defend this great country,” Army Gen. Walter Sharp said. “And what I’m going to do is to take this year and educate the folks of South Korea as to what these transitions mean.”

Some South Koreans also worry another change the U.S. is making–extending typical troop assignments to up to three years and allowing more personnel to bring their families with them–will lead to a reduction in the roughly 28,000 U.S. troops currently stationed there. Both changes began several years ago after prolonged negotiations between Seoul and Washington. But they have been opposed by many South Koreans, including conservative politicians and military retirees who say any changes will leave the country vulnerable to attack by North Korea. [WSJ, Evan Ramstad]

I give up. They don’t want us to bring our families, but they don’t want young, single soldiers chasing “their” women in Hongdae, either. (For the record, when I was in Korea, there was also a widely violated general order against sex in the barracks; also, I preferred the more bookish girls in Shin’chon and Suktae, but that’s another story).

Maybe the ROK Defense Ministry would be willing to hire scantily clad greeters to drape each incoming American soldier with a floral lei and present him with a monogrammed bottle of personal lubricant. Which isn’t to say that I’m a fan of putting more American civilians inside Nodong range, either.

If He Has to Deny It, It Must Be True

ransom.JPGWhile we still aren’t sure whether our Blood Allies © paid the Taliban $2 million or $20 million in ransom, or how many American soldiers or Afghan civilians the Taliban used that money to kill, the South Korean government wants you to know that despite its refusal thus far to do more good than harm there, it did not promise the Taliban that it would keep its troops out of Afghanistan:

South Korea did not offer to refrain from redeploying troops to Afghanistan when it engaged in negotiations to secure the release of civilians held hostage by the Taliban in 2007, a senior official told reporters Tuesday.

“We did not make such a promise in 2007,” said a South Korean defense ministry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said he personally checked with other officials who led the South Korean side in the negotiations with the Taliban.

His comment rebuts a statement on Monday by Defense Minister Kim Tae-young, who said he understood that such an offer was made when the negotiations were conducted.

South Korean media have also speculated that a similar pledge was made with the Taliban during the negotiations in 2007. [Yonhap]

If only I could think of some way the South Koreans could put this poisonous rumor to rest, once and for all.

Of course, one commitment the South Koreans could not make is to move the remaining combat brigade of the Second Infantry Division from Korea to Kandahar. Naturally, that brigade has a number of support elements that would have to move as well. I am not seeing the down side of this. We get troops we need for Afghanistan; South Korea doesn’t have to back up its Bloody Ally rhetoric with actual deployments; American taxpayers could save billions on construction, graft, and embezzlement; and as an added bonus, the streets of Hongdae and Itaewon will be placid into the wee hours.

Another South Korean Professor Caught Spying for the North

A South Korean university lecturer accused of spying for North Korea since the early 1990s has been indicted on espionage charges, prosecutors said Thursday. The suspect, identified by the surname Lee, was charged with giving North Korea confidential information, including the locations of key South Korean military facilities and an army operations manual, prosecutors in Suwon, south of Seoul, said in a statement. [MacLeans]

They could have waited a few years and gotten it all from Google Earth. Anyway, if you wonder why South Korea’s extreme left can fill the streets with brainwashed legions of pubescent anti-American zombies, just have a gander at who their teachers are. In terms of political demographics, South Korea and North Korea often seem to be racing toward collapse. This is why South Korea has ceased to function as an ally, and why we should redeploy the Eighth U.S. Army to a place where its presence will serve American interests:

The 37-year-old man, who taught politics at a South Korean university, was arrested on Sept. 11 and indicted Tuesday for violating South Korea’s National Security Law, the statement said. If convicted, he could face the death penalty. [....]

Lee began spying for North Korea in 1992 after meeting North Korean agent Ri Jin Woo while studying at the University of Delhi in India, prosecutors said. He stored “vast amounts of confidential military information” on compact discs, portable drives and laptop computers, which he relayed to Ri during meetings in China, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand and elsewhere, they said.

Lee gathered the information while working as an army officer, an adviser to the presidential National Unification Advisory Council and at the government-run Education Center for Unification, prosecutors said. He also joined North Korea’s Workers’ Party in 1994 after making a secret trip to the North, they said.

I wonder if Lee is the same Blue House advisor — or perhaps, one of those other government employees — who fell under suspicion when the Ilshimhue spy ring was uncovered during the final days of the Roh Administration, and whose string of revelations was truncated by the sacking of the head of the National Intelligence Service, and his replacement by a loyal party hack.

Hat tip to Robert Neff at TMH, who has more on the history of commie professors infiltrating South Korean colleges, but omits Prof. Kang Jeong-Ku, no doubt among many others.

North Korea Closes Largest Unofficial Market

But it can’t be! Victor Cha, Selig Harrison, Keith Luse, Frank Januzzi, and every Peace Studies professor in South Korea can’t all be wrong!

North Korea has shut down its largest unofficial market in a sign that the Communist government was intent on quashing, or at least better controlling, market activities that it had tolerated for years, Seoul-based organizations monitoring the country said last week.

The market, on the outskirts of Pyongyang, was closed sometime in June and vendors were dispersed to two or three smaller nearby markets, according to the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, or NKNet, which says it monitors the North using informants from inside the country. [N.Y. Times]

Wow. That’s some return on a seven billion-dollar investment, and that’s not counting the nuclear weapons it helped a megalomaniac acquire, or the uncounted North Koreans who’ve suffered and died under Kim Jong Il’s unnaturally prolonged misrule.

Don’t feel so smug. All the while South Korea was cutting its defense budget and reinvesting the money in Kim Jong Il, American taxpayers were subsidizing South Korea’s defense. No wonder Americans are still asking why they’re paying to subsidize the armies of both Koreas, including the one that has artillery pointed at our soldiers there.

Kim Dae Jung, Fallen Liberator (1925-2009)

A few days ago, a well-informed reader and commenter on this site informed me that former President Kim Dae Jung would soon pass on, yet the time proved inadequate for me to work out my own internal conflicts about Kim, or “DJ” as many called him. Maybe Kim’s contradictory legacy just isn’t amenable to mutual reconciliation. Much will be said in the coming days — deservedly so — of DJ’s role in democratizing the South. Less will be said of all he did to forestall democratization in the North, a nation that is dying for want of a government that is accountable for its errors, crimes, and atrocities.

The great symbol of DJ’s legacy will be one act that symbolized so much else about his era — the illegal payments he asked ex-spymaster Lim Dong Won to make to Kim Jong Il, which he used to buy himself his Nobel Peace Prize and to accelerate a North Korea policy that not only failed completely to realize its stated objectives, but which probably extended Kim Jong Il’s misrule for a decade and, by extension, probably resulted in tens of thousands of North Korean deaths at the very least. The Sunshine Policy eventually meant turning a blind eye to the suffering of North Koreans in bilateral relations, at the U.N., and at South Korean consulates where refugees would be discouraged and occasionally betrayed. These things will be just one more source of bitterness that will impede the reunification process for decades.

Unlike his successor, Roh Moo Hyun, however, DJ’s legacy contains legitimate accomplishments and redeeming qualities.

For example, I’ve sometimes thought Kim’s election forestalled South Korea’s collapse into chaos in the bitter years of the Asian financial crisis. I still remember how bitter Koreans were in those times. Characteristically, they found a way to turn the bitterness outward toward foreign scapegoats — chiefly, the IMF for insisting on austerity measures as a condition of its financial rescue of the Korean economy, much more than at on the chaebol and government policies that caused the crisis in the first place. As president, Kim had such cred with the unions and the left that protests were (or so I speculate) relatively muted.

I don’t think anyone can dispute that DJ was personally courageous, that he put his life on the line for his beliefs, or that he made a significant contribution to South Korea’s democratization. Certainly he wasn’t the only prominent political figure who pressed for democratization, something that was probably inevitable one way or another given growing U.S. pressure for change. But in the course of fighting for it, DJ suffered more than other politicians of his time. The most dramatic example must be his remarkable hair-breadth survival after being abducted by South Korean agents in Japan, who had already brought him to the middle of the Sea of Japan, drugged him, and tied the weights to his legs. It may have been the bitterness of Park Chung Hee’s hatred of Kim that marked his transition from being a relatively benevolent dictator (compared to Syngman Rhee and Kim Il Sung, he certainly was) to an increasingly isolated and malevolent one. South Korea’s abortive descent into tyranny under Chun Doo Hwan was terminated in part by the massacre at Kwangju, but also by the combined efforts of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan — through outgoing Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and incoming National Security Advisor Richard Allen — to spare Kim from execution on trumped-up charges.

Some (I would not be one of those) would find it ironic that Allen is now one of the leading lights of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

It’s less well-known, however, that DJ’s first close scrape may have been when he was jailed by the North Koreans in 1950 and scheduled to be shot. Then, it was the Incheon landings that saved him — the North Koreans fled before they got around to massacring the prisoners. If this vignette is true, it’s telling that Kim Dae Jung said very little about it in his later years (was the story embellished to give Kim anti-communist cred in the 1960′s, or was Kim’s silence just another case of covering for the North Koreans?). The North Koreans arrested Kim for being a “capitalist;” Kim had taken over the Japanese shipping company for which he’d worked until the end of the occupation in 1945. Like Park Chung Hee, Kim found his own accommodation with the Japanese and began his rise before their departure.

In any event, you would think that a man whose life was saved by the Americans no less than three times might have come to recognize the United States as more of a positive influence, but in his later years, Kim turned positively anti-American. Or maybe you forgot that back in 2006, he constructed this elaborate theory for blaming “neocons” and the military-industrial complex for the North Korean nuclear crisis:

“How North Korea will do with its missiles and nuclear weapons”¦ Those will be just children’s toys in front of the U.S.,” Kim was quoted as saying in the interview. [Kim Dae-Jung] also blamed Japan’s right-wing politicians, including Shinjo Abe, for exploiting North Korean issues to boost their popularity. “Shinjo Abe, certain to become Japan’s new prime minister, eventually garnered more popularity by attacking North Korea,” Kim said.

Kim said America’s military industry has enjoyed windfall gains by selling their weapons to Japan and others throughout North Korea’s nuclear standoff. [Le Monde, via Yonhap, archived here]

It gets worse:

Former President Kim said, “We give the United States everything to give, and yet we don’t hear good things. After mentioning Vietnam, the deployment of Korean troops to Iraq, the transfer of the Yongsan Garrison, the redeployment of the 2nd Infantry Division to rear positions and the KoreUS FTA (sic), he said, “Americans don’t talk about that, and ask why we’ve forgotten their help. [....]

Kim explained, “Refusing dialogue with North Korea, U.S. neocons keep pushing North Korea down a mistaken path while misusing [the North Korea issue], and this is because of China. He added, “Neocons, thinking of China as a hypothetical enemy, is expanding its armaments like missile defense (MD) and re-arming Japan”¦ It’s looking for an excuse to do this, and that’s North Korea. [....]

About Japan, he said, “You have to solve the kidnapping issue as the kidnapping issue, and handle dialogue as dialogue, but Japanese rightwingers are boosting their popularity by attacking North Korea”¦ North Korea should see through the meaning of the hardline policies of U.S. neocons and Japanese rightwing forces and do the opposite, but instead it keeps wrecking the situation by giving them excuses. [Robert Koehler]

DJ’s suggestion that those policies were “hardline” or “neocon” would later be undermined by none other than President Barack Obama, who continued and expanded North Korea’s economic isolation in the face of more North Korean provocations, and North Korea’s refusal to disarm in exchange for significant U.S. concessions.

Nor did Kim ever come to terms with the failure of the Sunshine Policy, its failure to change North Korea, or North Korea’s responsibility for destroying the crumbling facades it built at Kaesong and Kumgang. Toward the end of his life, Kim’s criticism of the current South Korean president grew increasingly shrill and distanced from the reality of North Korea’s refutation of Kim’s own legacy. Most bizarre was the juxtaposition of Kim’s accusations against Lee of “dictatorship” and “strong-arm politics” with his criticism of Lee for failing to censor North Korean defectors who floated anti-Kim Jong Il leaflets across the DMZ to their homeland.