The current geopolitical status quo in northeast Asia could be described as a highly fragile one. Major strategic shifts in the last decade have shaped events which lead to a rethinking of American defense policy and military presence in the region beyond that of current plans to restructure and downsize the U. S. posture in South Korea.
The past several years have witnessed significant breakthroughs in attempts towards the reunification of the two Koreas, which in turn have led to growing domestic pressure in both South Korea and the United States to substantially reduce American forces in South Korea, even the possibility of entirely withdrawing them. Such a reduction of the U. S. presence might in turn compel Japan to rethink its own security relationship with the U. S. , as it might move towards a more nationalistic, and possibly militaristic, direction – less dependent on the U. S. and less solicitous of U. S. interests.
Yet the looming threat of a nuclear-armed and ready North Korea and the meteoric rise of emerging regional powerhouse China could still alter the regional strategic dynamic, which might prompt South Korea and Japan, even Taiwan wary of China, to consider building up their own nuclear capabilities. The U. S. -ROK Alliance Observers might disagree on the level of anti-Americanism in South Korea yet it is clear that misconceptions of the US role there abounds (Allen, 2003).
On the part of South Korea, economic priorities make it necessary to avoid a sudden disruption of the alliance as the U.S. -ROK Mutual Security Treaty creates a climate of stability favorable for foreign trade and investment and for preferential treatment by U. S. -controlled international financial institutions. The U. S. force presence also provides an economic subsidy to South Korea as it enables Seoul to maintain a much more formidable defense posture than it could afford on its own. The favorable economic impact of the alliance however, is offset by constraints it imposes on the scope and speed of South Korea’s efforts towards accommodation with North Korea, initiated in the June 2000 North-South summit.
There have been attempts by the United States to slow down and even obstruct the reconciliation effort, Washington arguing against South Korea’s food aid and other economic assistance to Pyongyang as undermining the six-nation diplomatic effort to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. By 2002, Bush’s attack on North Korea, Iraq and Iran as an “Axis of Evil” in his State of the Union address was followed by increasingly explicit indications of his administration’s goal no longer to pursue normalized relations with North Korea but rather, to promote the ruling regime’s collapse.
South Korean President Roh however has pursued his North Korea policy undeterred, though he yielded to US pressure for a new base in Pyontaek, facing China, and sent South Korean troops to Iraq. This divergence between South Korean policy towards the North and the hard-line Bush approach has increased steadily since late 2002, when the United States accused North Korea of cheating that culminated in the abrogation of the Agreed Framework.
At present, South Korea’s priority objective appears to be geared towards stabilizing and liberalizing the existing “changing regime” aimed at confederation and eventual reunification. The U. S. policy in contrast is “regime change. ” While South Korea might consider their alliance with the U. S. as military rather than political in character, the U. S. as a “good” ally should also respect South Korean sovereignty in defining its own national priorities and decision on how to best defuse the tension with the North.