By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
SEOUL -- At a packed news conference last week, a formidable coalition of retired South Korean military officers and former defense ministers issued a dire warning. They declared the half-century-old military alliance between South Korea and the United States in danger of falling apart, resting the blame squarely at the feet of President Roh Moo Hyun.
They pointed to Roh's determination -- expressed in comments to the local press earlier this month -- to regain wartime command of South Korea's military as early as possible. South Korea ceded that authority to the United States during the Korean War, and has since vested such power in a series of American generals who have headed the joint command here.
The system, in part, has ensured the intervention of U.S. troops still stationed in the South in the event that communist North Korea launches another invasion. But with a wave of ethnic Korean nationalism sweeping over the South, and with the North now viewed in kinder terms here, Roh has fostered public support for doing away with that system. He has called reclaiming full command from the United States the "core of a self-reliant national defense," adding that South Koreans who believed their military wasn't yet up to the task lacked "self-respect."
Roh's populist rhetoric aside, what has really scared the gaggle of retired generals are indications that the Pentagon may be just as eager to see the switch. The transfer of wartime command had been envisioned for sometime around 2012, but an earlier transfer, some U.S. officials now argue, would let the Pentagon focus more on the current crises in the Middle East and allow more administrative cuts in South Korea.
On Sunday, South Korean officials said U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had proposed that South Korea assume wartime command of its troops from the United States as early as 2009.
U.S. officials have said any agreement would be unrelated to South Korea's new political landscape and instead reflect the country's vastly improved military preparedness. But the developments nevertheless have left the impression among many pro-American South Koreans that Washington has simply grown tired of Seoul's embrace of the belligerent North, as well as the deep-seated anti-Americanism within some circles of South Korea's ruling Uri Party.
Some are hoping that Roh's visit to Washington next month for talks with President Bush may help smooth over cracks in the alliance. But most observers believe the mounting friction is unlikely to change before 2008, when Roh will leave office and U.S. voters will choose Bush's successor.
"President Roh is effectively saying that South Korea really doesn't need America the way we have all these years, and I can't blame the Americans for saying, 'Fine, have it your way,' " said Song Young Sun, a legislator with the opposition Grand National Party. "He wants to move South Korea away from the United States and closer to North Korea. And what we are saying is that this is just not a safe or smart thing to do."
It has fanned a be-careful-what-you-wish-for mentality among some South Koreans, who now fear that their national security may be put in jeopardy if the transfer of wartime command comes too soon. Although such a deal is likely to yield only a small new reduction of U.S. troops stationed here, opponents say it would loosen the strings that bind the U.S.-South Korean alliance and could even pave the way for an eventual American pullout.
It was only 12 years ago that the United States relinquished peacetime troop command. And the U.S. military is already scheduled to reduce its troop levels from about 30,000 to 25,000 by 2008.
The most important issue dividing Seoul and Washington these days is how to handle North Korea -- a nation analysts say could now harbor as many as half a dozen nuclear devices. For the past 10 months, Pyongyang has refused to return to six-party talks aimed at its nuclear disarmament.
The Bush administration has sought to pressure North Koreans back to negotiations, cracking down on Pyongyang's suspected counterfeiting and money-laundering operations by persuading international financial institutions not to do business with the country.
That policy has been directly at odds with South Korea's approach of broad economic engagement. Hoping to bring the North out of its communist shell, the South has poured billions of dollars into tourism and industrial projects just across the border.
Roh administration officials have repeatedly suggested that the threat posed by North Korea has been exaggerated. U.S. officials say the difference in threat perception may be one reason Seoul and Washington are now mired in a series of squabbles over the realignment of U.S. forces in South Korea, including delays in the creation of a new bombing range as well as toughened environmental oversight by South Korean regulators.
These days, the Roh administration has begun to view a more assertive Japan -- Washington's closest ally in Asia -- as posing more of a long-term threat to Seoul's national security than North Korea.
"If you can't agree on who the enemy is, it raises some pretty fundamental questions about the reasons for your alliance," said a U.S. official familiar with South Korean policy who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Roh administration officials also concede that there are problems in the relationship, but say the foundation of the alliance remains intact.
"I cannot say the relationship is perfectly good," said a ranking South Korean official who also spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue. "The question is how to handle North Korea."
In Washington, a senior State Department official portrayed the U.S.-South Korea relationship as generally healthy.
While saying that Roh has a "tendency to frame issues, including important alliance matters, in a narrow nationalist perspective," the official noted that the United States and South Korea are both seeking a handover in wartime command and that changes are being implemented through bilateral agreements.
South Korea's military "is extremely capable now, so it makes sense for us to start playing a supporting role," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Most analysts agree that South Korea and the United States still have more to gain together than apart, but that improvements in their relationship are unlikely to happen soon.
"We won't see a major improvement in the alliance until the current leadership changes," said Lee Jung Hoon, professor of international relations at Seoul's Yonsei University. "After that, the challenge will be about mending fences."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.