America’s Asia policyAs the North Korean WMD crisis continues to make headlines, it is time to look at how US policy in Asia affects Korean security.
One very positive aspect of American policy which is often unappreciated in Korea has been the reinforcement of the US-Japan military relationship and the modernization of Japan’s legislative arsenal to deal with emergencies. Thanks to this process, started under president Clinton, Japan is in a better position to support the US military. This is vital for the ROK. It strengthens deterrence by enhancing US power in Asia while, should deterrence fails, it will facilitate the US counter-attack.
Another aspect of US policy that matters to Korea is policy towards China. Korea wants good Sino-American relations. Sino-American tensions can easily spill over and affect negatively the Korean peninsula. Many of President Bush’s advisers came into office with a hostile attitude towards China, based on an overestimate of its potential power. However, the reality of US policy towards China has been one of moderation. The American business community wants good relations with China, thus it may have moderated some of the hawkish tendencies of Bush’s team. Moreover, none of Bush’s advisers had the same emotional commitment to a hard-line against China as many had towards Iraq. Thus, during the EP-3 incident the US demonstrated great restrain in the face of an accident caused by the Chinese pilot and the ensuing detention of Americans as quasi prisoners of war. The 9-11 attacks further contributed to weaken the ardor of China hawks since it lead the US to focus even more on the Middle East.
On the matter which is of most concerns to Koreans, namely North Korea, the United States and China seem to have found ways if not to work together. How this relationship will evolve is difficult to predict, but on balance it appears relatively good given the complex reality of Sino-American relations.
Perhaps most importantly for Korea, there is US policy towards North Korea. On this issue, American policy seems confused. On the one hand, the instincts of the administration are fairly aggressive. North Korea is viewed as a regional threat, as well as a global danger because of its WMD proliferation. On the other hand, it is difficult for the US to implement a regime change option. The US would need the active cooperation of Japan and, more importantly, South Korea. Though there is much hostility in Japan towards North Korea, regime change is probably not an option that is favored in Tokyo. The risk of war would be great, and the endgame, a unified Korea, is not a Japanese strategic priority. On the South Korean side, there is clearly no desire for a conflict, and many South Koreans are not particularly concerned by the DPRK’s WMDs. In addition, with so many US forces stuck in Iraq, and a not insignificant commitment to the continuing war in Afghanistan, the US is not in a favorable position to engage in policies that could lead to war on the peninsula.
At this point, the US administration seems to have focused on dealing with the DPRK’s proliferation threat, seeking cut off money flows to North Korea and stopping WMD and missile exports. How successful this policy will be remains to be determined. If the US forges a large coalition, including China, it might succeed, at least partially. This, however, would not in itself solve the DPRK nuclear crisis. Moreover, as long as China and South Korea are committed to providing some aid to North Korea, the regime might survive even if its foreign currency earnings diminish.
Finally, there is the issue of the future of the USFK presence in Korea. There has been much focus in Korea on the redeployment of US Army units south of the Han. These, however, are changes that are not of great strategic import. The more significant, and worrying, trend has been the concept developed by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to reduce the US ground presence overseas. Though how and when these measures will be implemented is far from clear, this could hurt Korean security. The presence of large US ground forces in Korea is a demonstration of American commitment to Korea, and a deterrent against war, that cannot be matched by any alternative.
American policy towards Asia, especially North Korea, is evolving, partly as a result of events in the region. South Korea’s interest at this point is to develop a realistic policy towards North Korea and to try to convince the US to follow it.