Analysts said forging a clear idea of the direction the alliance should take was crucial, particularly when the U.S. steps up a realignment of its troops after its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and deepens its strategic engagement in Asia amid China’s growing assertiveness.
Apart from the alliance’s long-standing goal of deterring North Korea ― and defeating it if deterrence fails ― experts called on the allies to create a shared vision for unification, which the Park Geun-hye government has said would bring huge economic benefits for Korea and its neighbors.
“How would the alliance deal with the process of reunification and the post-reunification era? This is the key question that should be addressed to create a long-term vision,” said Park Won-gon, a security expert at Handong Global University.
“These are very sensitive issues for all parties concerned ― Korea, the U.S. as well as China. We never know what will happen on the peninsula tomorrow and this is why the vision and strategic goals should be forged to prevent any misunderstandings and effectively respond to contingencies.”
Seoul and Washington have been in talks to flesh out their defense vision in line with the fluid security situation vis-a-vis North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities, and possible changes in the regional security balance caused by the rise of China.
During the allies’ annual Security Consultative Meeting last year in Seoul, Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel agreed to complete their research on the allies’ defense vision by the end of this year.
|Korean soldiers participate in a joint drill with U.S. troops. (Yonhap)|
“The allies have been closely consulting on the defense vision since late last year after the SCM through working- and senior-level channels,” a military source told The Korea Herald.
“The two sides are expected to report the results of their consultations when the allies’ defense chiefs gather for the SCM talks later this year. Details cannot be divulged at this point in time as talks are ongoing.”
Over the last six decades, the alliance has served as a principal pillar of peninsular defense and contributed to promoting stability in Northeast Asia.
This security role should continue, experts say, but they pointed out that there should be a clear vision for the post-reunification era, particularly when the Sino-U.S. rivalry intensifies. China apparently suspects that the Korea-U.S. alliance could be utilized to counter its rise.
“German reunification proceeded without much trouble as ... the U.S., Britain, France and Russia forged a consensus on it. Likewise, the process of peninsular reunification requires consensus among neighboring states,” said Nam Chang-hee, political science professor at Inha University.
“In particular, the Seoul government should take caution and think seriously about the elements (of the alliance) that would possibly threaten China’s security interests.”
Nam stressed that Seoul and Washington needed sufficient consultations on the roles of their militaries in the process of reunification, which may involve American troops advancing into the North for stability operations and other purposes.
“For stable Korea-U.S. relations and to address China’s concerns about a unified Korea, Seoul and Washington should think about limiting U.S. troops’ operations across the inter-Korean border or allowing South Korean troops to lead civilian affairs operations in the North,” said Nam.
After North Korea’s military threat disappears, the alliance could be reorganized to promote regional peace and stability, and help counter transnational threats such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
The alliance could also encourage the establishment of a multilateral security cooperation mechanism, which has not existed in Asia due largely to U.S.-led bilateral security relationships in the region and deepening conflicts over territorial and historical issues.
For the alliance to promote security cooperation with regional players including China, it is also crucial to limit the deployment of long-range strategic military assets in U.S. bases in South Korea as those weapons could be perceived as targeting potential U.S. adversaries ― China or Russia ― and make South Korea appear to serve as a staging area for its ally.
“The most crucial goals for the U.S. military deployment to Northeast Asia are to counter North Korean threats and keep China in check, as everybody knows,” said Park of Handong Global University.
“Particularly, U.S. strategic bases in Osan and other areas (with its power projection assets) could be viewed as staging bases against China.”
Despite the alliance’s efforts to improve its capabilities to embrace broader security tasks, it faces major crises, including budget constraints, troop cuts and North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear capabilities, which have been fostered by the unpredictable Kim Jong-un regime.
“Defending the Republic of Korea and being prepared to support a (hopefully peaceful) unification should be two key goals. And the alliance needs to start assessing how much military capability will be required to achieve these goals,” said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the U.S.-based think tank the RAND Corporation.
“My guess is that will be more capability than the US or ROK are planning for (at the moment). If so, it will be difficult to get the allies to admit, under tight budgets, that they are under-investing in military capabilities.”
Grappling with its financial woes, the U.S. plans to slash its ground forces and scale down some of its defense projects. Seoul also has difficulty securing its defense budget amid popular calls for enhanced welfare programs and plans to curtail troop levels in response to demographic changes caused by Korea’s low birthrate.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)