The Washington Times

When you mention a U.S. military alliance facing trouble deciding where to go from here and divided over such questions as what threats it faces and how to deal with them, the case that probably comes to mind is the NATO alliance and the bitter transatlantic division over what to do about Iraq. Would that our difficulties were as confined as that. Across a different ocean, our 50-year-old military alliance with South Korea is also facing trouble, this time over the question of what to do about North Korea’s apparent determination to acquire nuclear weapons.

The alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea has long served both parties very well. South Korea has become prosperous and democratic under the U.S. security umbrella. The U.S.-South Korea alliance and the alliance between the United States and Japan together form the backbone of U.S. security strategy in Northeast Asia.

The U.S.-South Korea alliance was conceived and long operated as a defensive alliance aimed at defending South Korea against another attack from the north, and therefore deterring such an attack. The alliance has performed that function well, and continues to do so, with strong military cooperation between the two nations. The alliance was not really geared, however, to face a challenge of the sort now rising on the Korean peninsula, namely, the coordination of U.S. and South Korean policy on dealing with the nuclear ambitions of Kim Jong-Il.

The signs of strain are readily apparent. As I write, I am in the middle of a conference here on the subject jointly sponsored by the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, which is the South Korean Foreign Ministry’s think tank, and the American Enterprise Institute.

Anti-Americanism is on the rise in North Korea, as elsewhere. The two alliance partners seem to be in profound disagreement over the threat posed by a nuclear North. The perspective of a South Korea dealing with an erratic but impoverished next-door neighbor is different from that of the United States thinking about global security issues, especially the nexus of nuclear weapons [which Mr. Kim’s government threatens not only to build and to deploy on its own missiles but also to sell] and terrorist groups.

Perhaps a wise man can guide us. Conference ground rules prevent me from naming the speaker, but not from sharing this South Korean’s insights.

Some people think of the Korean conflict as a relic of the Cold War. It isn’t. The Cold War context is gone, but the U.S.-South Korea alliance was very much a Cold War creation. The alliance has yet to find a post-Cold War rationale. Meanwhile, the South Korean perception of North Korea has changed: In the eyes of the South, a first impression of the belligerency of the North has given way to the impression of the poverty and attendant weakness of the North. There is no more fear of a 1950-style massive attack; the feeling is that the North simply isn’t up to it.

A new generation is now growing up with little memory of the sharp dislocations -war and poverty – that used to characterize South Korea. The impression now is of a general condition of stability and progress. The South Korean intelligentsia is also catching up on the anti-Americanism present throughout the rest of the world, following in the current global fashion. For the first time, South Korea has developed a genuine left-wing politics. Liberalization has opened up space for an activist left, but left and right have not yet managed to agree on rules of equilibrium: Everybody is playing for an always elusive total victory.

And, while South Korean interests in many areas overlap with those of the United States, in some they don’t. On the question of North Korean nukes, what looks to the United States like a global security issue looks to South Koreans like a matter of homeland defense and security. And they don’t really see North Korean nukes as aimed primarily at them.

It’s a meticulous but unreassuring description. Where we go from here is indeed a murky question.

But in a sense, that is in the nature of the problem North Korea poses. The broader question is whether the United States and South Korea go on together. For now, there is still volition to work together. But, just as the end of the Cold War meant that NATO had to reinvent itself as a vehicle for broadening European stability and for reaching out beyond the defense of its own territory, so, too, the U.S.-South Korea alliance needs to move beyond its origins in territorial defense.

The brutal fact is that from the U.S. point of view, the alliance with South Korea can’t stand in the way of an effective response to North Korea’s nuclear programs. But what such an effective response might be is still very much a work in progress. Reaching a joint answer to that question is still a possibility. But it is by no means a sure thing.