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Sunday, May 6, 2001

Hot spot needs the 'virtual alliance'

Staff writer
U.S.-KOREA-JAPAN RELATIONS: Building Toward a "Virtual Alliance," edited by Ralph Cossa. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1999, 207 pp., paper.
ALIGNMENT DESPITE ANTAGONISM: The U.S.-Korea-Japan Security Triangle, by Victor D. Cha. Stanford University Press, 1999, 373 pp., $49.50 (cloth), $19.95 (paper).

Northeast Asia is unique. Only in this corner of the planet do the world's four great powers meet. It is the Koreans' curse that their peninsula is the focus of international competition. Europeans and Americans are relative newcomers to a struggle for control that has endured for hundreds of years. As Korea's former Foreign Minister Ro Myung Gong notes in "U.S.-Korea-Japan Relations: Building Toward a 'Virtual Alliance,' " 19th-century British policy planners regarded Korea as the Gibraltar of Northeast Asia. That mind-set drove governments throughout the 20th century and looks set to continue through the next.

The contest for power is most evident at the 38th parallel, the Cold War relic that divides the two Koreas. That border is considered by many to be the most dangerous spot on Earth.

There is yet another unique feature of the Northeast Asian political dynamic: the odd relations among three principal players, Japan, the United States and South Korea. While the three are allies, there is no formal relationship between Japan and South Korea. In fact, their relations seem to be colored more by animosity than cooperation. Yet the three governments are allies, and their future depends on their ability to overcome the past and create a "virtual alliance."

The contributors to "Building Toward a 'Virtual Alliance' " come from the three countries, and they agree that regional peace and security depend on close strategic cooperation. Editor Ralph Cossa points out that the "three-way relationship not only will have a profound impact on the broader geopolitical environment, but will help to define the nature of the U.S.-Japan-China relationship and other regional triangles and broader multilateral configurations." Former Japanese Ambassador Hisahiko Okazaki concurs, echoing those British planners of a century ago when he points out that "stability on the Korean Peninsula has always been Japan's paramount security concern."

The problem is guaranteeing that stability. The policies and priorities of the three governments have differed. History and geography have virtually ensured mutual suspicion. For many Koreans, the status quo is unacceptable; they believe, and rightly so, that they shouldn't have to bear the entire weight of the Cold War, an abstraction made real by their divided country and families. Yet there is fear that unification would be too great a shock. Its potential ripple effects -- Korean neutrality, a U.S. withdrawal, an "unbound Japan" -- could transform the world as we know it.

The contributors to "Building Toward a 'Virtual Alliance' " do not fear the future. They believe that stability can be maintained through the delicate reunification process. Engagement with North Korea, as demonstrated in South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine Policy," is the way forward.

That view is currently being contested in Washington. Hardliners complain that Kim and his allies and supporters are giving too much away and getting too little in return. In Taek Hyun, an associate professor of political science and international relations at Seoul University, explains why that view is mistaken.

According to him, South Korea's engagement policy is based on reciprocity, but the South Korean government interprets "reciprocity" in a flexible way. "President Kim defines reciprocity as 'to give first and take later.' "

President Kim's strategy is a modest view of unification. Hyun lets Lim Dong Won, former senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs and national security, elaborate. "If we can prevent war on the Korean Peninsula, help the North open up its closed society and realize free inter-Korean visits and trade, that is de facto unification." In other words, the immediate goal "is peaceful coexistence rather than immediate unification."

The key to success, in the contributors' eyes, is close coordination -- a "virtual alliance" -- and a continuing U.S. commitment to the region. (The links are more complex than they seem. On the one hand, South Korea's defense relies on U.S. forces based in Japan and the support provided for by the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. Moreover, Koreans look to the U.S. to act as a constraint on Japan. Woosang Kim, associate professor of political science at Sookmyung University in Seoul, explains that "whether Japan becomes a normal state, or whether it demilitarizes, is directly related to the U.S.' willingness to remain involved in regional security issues. As long as the U.S. maintains its engagement policy through its strong alliance ties with Japan, Japan is not likely to change its current policy drastically.")

While the latter has been a constant concern of Asian strategists, the trilateral relationship has been less studied -- primarily because the Japan-South Korea leg has been so weak and so hobbled by history. One consequence has been stunted coordination: Informal military dialogue began only in August 1994, when defense officials, military officers and diplomats of the three countries held their first trilateral meeting.

"Alignment Despite Antagonism," by Victor Cha, a professor of political science at Georgetown University, is an invaluable guide to the tangled relationship. The paperback edition has just been released, and the timing could not be better, with the Bush administration sending out mixed signals on policy and historical tensions resurfacing in the form of the history-textbook dispute.

The recent troubles should not be surprising. "The 'normal' state of relations between Japan and Korea is characterized by friction," writes Cha. "Variations from this baseline are a function of the United States' defense commitment to the region. In particular, when there exists weak (or what is perceived to be wavering ) American resolve, overarching security concerns compel Japan and Korea to exhibit significantly less contention and greater cooperation over bilateral issues. However, when there exists an asymmetry in the two states of fear of being 'abandoned' by the U.S., Japan-Korea relations return to their 'normal' state of contentious interaction."

But bad blood can't explain the entire relationship. Cha charts its twists and turns in incredible detail -- and a number of times relations have improved. How can we explain that?

According to Cha, "although U.S. policy has always been to promote better relations between its two key East Asian allies, this has historically obtained only when the United States, for reasons related to domestic politics and the cost of overextension, shows ambivalence in its commitments to the region. In this sense Japan-Korea cooperation is something of an unintended consequence of U.S. disinterest."

Consider two examples. When President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, he moved to cut U.S. troop levels in South Korea, envisaging a complete withdrawal by 1982. Alliance supporters in all three countries were alarmed. Tokyo was an especially outspoken critic, warning that it would upset the regional balance of power and force a complete rethink of Japanese strategic planning. Cha believes that Japanese reaction was a -- if not the -- critical factor in forcing reassessment of the plan.

This was remarkable in two respects. First, rarely have the Japanese been so forthright on security issues. Second, there were good reasons for Japan to keep quiet: A domestic political scandal tied the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to the repressive regime in Seoul. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda was unflinching.

The flip side of the dynamic was soon visible. When President Ronald Reagan came to office, his muscular rhetoric put fears of a U.S. withdrawal to rest. And, predictably, tensions returned to the fore. Cha points to the kidnapping of Kim Dae Jung, and his death sentence, to confirm his thesis. He attributes Seoul's willingness to go ahead with capital punishment, despite its awareness of Japanese sensitivities (Kim had been kidnapped in Tokyo) and the intensity of Japanese protests, to the newfound sense of security felt in both capitals. Reduced anxieties about U.S. disengagement allowed the two governments to bicker as usual.

Cha concludes that the two countries can overcome their "natural state" and work together. Korea may be "a dagger aimed at the heart of Japan," but it has been a channel through which governments have exerted pressure on Japan, not the source of the trouble.

The U.S. can help the coordination process, both by acting as a facilitator and by ensuring, if the time should ever come, that its withdrawal from the region is gradual, so that the governments in Tokyo and Seoul can consolidate their relationship. The contributors to "Building Toward a 'Virtual Alliance' " favor strengthening that axis, but they nevertheless hope that full-fledged U.S. withdrawal never comes.

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