Sunday, April 20, 2008

U.S., South Korea restore Cold War alliance a Russian Op Ed

A Russian perspective on South Korea's new president Lee Myung-bak's trip to Camp David.


Opinion & analysis


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti foreign news commentator Ivan Zakharchenko) - U.S. President George Bush will meet with South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-bak, in Camp David on Saturday, to discuss options for restoring the traditionally close-knit military ties between the two countries, which have weakened somewhat in the past decade.

Lee Myung-bak's predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, while actively supporting the United States on the global political stage, emphasized a rapprochement with North Korea in regional politics. Lee Myung-bak has reversed that policy, much to the annoyance of Pyongyang.

According to official information published by the South Korean media, the two leaders will also discuss the ratification of the free trade agreement, the situation on the Korean Peninsula, including nuclear issues, global climate change and energy problems, international issues and building a security system in Northeast Asia.

The latter issue, emphasized by many South Korean media, is of special interest.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap quoted Lee Myung-bak as saying in a recent speech at the U.S. Korean Society, that the two countries should build a wider alliance firmly anchored in shared values, mutual trust, and joint efforts to promote peace around the globe.

The most burning of security problems in Northeast Asia is the standoff between the U.S. and North Korea, which produced and tested nuclear weapons in 2006 - most probably in a bid to avoid the fate of Iraq. Disarming North Korea has been the focus of protracted and punctuated six party talks in Beijing involving both Koreas, Russia, the U.S., China and Japan, ever since 2003.

At last year's round, the Six set up a Working Group, headed by Russia, on a Northeast Asia Peace and Security Mechanism. It was expected to grow into a strong political mechanism for upholding regional peace and security.

Bush and Lee Myung-bak may recall that idea, but will most probably focus on a different one.

The South Korean weekly Sisa In said recently that the U.S. and South Korea were expected to outline a "roadmap", to use a popular term, for developing their bilateral relations, with the Pan Asia Pacific Security Union (PAPSU), a planned U.S.-led alliance, as its cornerstone. The first step toward building this union on Russia's far-eastern border is to include South Korea and Japan in PAPSU, and the current South Korea-USA Summit Talk is the beginning of this first step.

Although the South Korean government said it would take into consideration the interests of other neighbors, Russia and China included, the new union will be directed against the military cooperation within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the weekly said.

In fact they may even be thinking of restoring the Washington-Tokyo-Seoul military alliance, an important military bloc during the Cold War. As if to underline the importance South Korea attaches to relations with Tokyo, Lee Myung-bak's first foreign trip as president will also include a visit to Japan, where he will fly from the U.S.

According to Sisa In's information, the U.S. is planning a three party summit meeting in May or June, which will probably seal the establishment of its triple alliance with South Korea and Japan.

Before 2003, the three nations used the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) to work out a common position on North Korea at the level of foreign ministers. Now that interaction has been elevated to the level of heads-of-state, the weekly remarked.

The second step will be to include Australia, New Zealand, and some South East Asian countries in PAPSU. The plan to establish PAPSU clearly shows the U.S. government's intention to build a multilateral security alliance in the Asia-Pacific region. As for Russia, only the possibility of its participation in PAPSU as an observer, along with Thailand, has been discussed so far.

The formation of a triple alliance will automatically mean Japan's and South Korea's joining the U.S.-led missile defense project in Northeast Asia, although South Koran military chiefs have previously been skeptical about the idea.

The next stage of the new roadmap will involve supplying next-generation U.S. weapons and military hardware to South Korea, primarily F-35 fighters to replace the old F-16s, and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles. Secondly, the U.S. will provide assistance in extending the range of South Korean missiles.

South Korea is currently implementing a program to develop missiles that could reach Pyongyang or the North Korean nuclear center at Yongbyong (within 186 miles), but that range could be extended to 280 miles, if Seoul acceded to the U.S. missile-defense system in the region, Sisa In wrote.

Lee Myung-bak and George Bush will probably touch upon the reduction of the U.S. forces in South Korea to 25,000 servicemen in 2009, but the U.S. still wants to keep 28,500 troops there, according to the weekly.

North Korea is demanding a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the south of the Korean Peninsula and signing a peace treaty to replace the truce that has been in place since the end the 1950-1953 war. The U.S. still refuses to sign a peace agreement with North Korea, and some observers suggest it simply does not want to lose the pretext for its military presence in South Korea, and consequently its influence in the region.

Although Lee Myung-bak told CNN earlier this week that he did not believe that the inter-Korean relationship has "deteriorated" since he assumed office, Pyongyang has certainly become more wary since he abandoned the previous administration's "sunshine" policy toward North Korea. This could certainly jeopardize the six-party efforts to persuade North Korea to lay down its nuclear weapons, and thwart George Bush's attempt to achieve progress at the talks before he leaves office.

The U.S. has recently taken several steps that observers see as concessions to North Korea. Its insistence that Pyongyang must fully disclose its nuclear weapons and fissile materials and the extent of its program has certainly grown milder. However, the tensions now developing between Seoul and Pyongyang could prevent the latter from truly abandoning its nuclear program.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.