Well, I guess we can assume who Secretary of State Rice was talking about here, and it ain’t Japan:
She said she intended to reaffirm “our reciprocal obligations” on her trip but also said “every country in the region must share the burdens as well as the benefits of our common security.”
Unfortunately, I feel compelled to tell Madame Secretary that Seoul doesn’t share the same interests in the region as the United States, and hence doesn’t share the burdens unless under extreme U.S. duress. To be more precise, its primary concern is promoting and maintaining intra-Korean ties, NOT preventing North Korea from developing or proliferating nuclear weapons. Which is fine, really—each nation has its own interests. For all I know, Seoul might be right here, as far as knowing what’s best for South Korea.
Rice needs to wake up, however, to the fact that American security commitments to South Korea are almost entirely one-way, especially as they pertain to North Korea. Seoul expects Washington to not only butt out of intra-Korean affairs, but also to pay off the North Koreans to keep the fiction of intra-Korean reconciliation and unification alive. But in the event that something goes terribly wrong, it wants a blank check of U.S. military support, up to and including concrete pledges to turn Pyongyang into a glowing sheet of glass.
And the United States gets in return… virtually nothing. Does it get South Korean understanding of U.S. security concerns in the region, including the North Korean nuke threat? Nope—Seoul only cares about the nuke issue only in so far as how it impacts the Sunshine Policy and, more distantly, how it might encourage Japanese rearmament. Does it get an ally in U.S. political initiatives in East Asia? Nope—as articulated in President Roh’s “balancer” speech, Seoul wants to play neutral in disputes between other regional states (all the while expecting U.S. support should it become a party to a dispute with another regional state). It sure as hell doesn’t support closer U.S.-Japan military ties, a linchpin of U.S. security policy in the region. Do we get a strategically useful advanced base with which to project power in the region? Well, kinda, if you count South Korean “understanding” of the U.S. desire for USFK “strategic flexibility.” But Seoul is likely to veto that flexibility in situations it considers detrimental to Korean security, i.e., Taiwan or just about any other regional dispute in which we might actually want to use USFK.
What the United States gets in return are 3,000 Korean troops doing nothing in the safest area of Iraq (and if they were getting shot at, they’d have been home ages ago) and a fairly good customer for U.S. weapon sales. Both of which are nice, of course, but are they worth the commitments of blood and treasure to an ally who, likewise, doesn’t feel what it gets from the United States worth the burden of compromising its interests in North Korea unless its having its arm twisted to the point of breaking?
Meanwhile, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Christopher Hill is upping the pressure on Seoul to reconsider its “intra-Korean economic cooperation” with Pyongyang. In particular, he expressed his inability to understand the logic behind the tours to the Kumgangsan Mountains, a project he felt designed with the sole purpose of pumping money to the North Korean authorities.