Sav­ing ROK-US al­liance

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Oh Young-jin (fools­die@gmail.com, fools­die5@ko­re­atmes.co.kr) is the dig­i­tal man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of The Korea Times.

CAMP HUMPREYS, Pyeong­taek — The change of com­mand cer­e­mony at Barker Field in U.S. Camp Humphreys Thurs­day, car­ried with it a com­pli­cated set of changes in sen­ti­ment, his­tory and un­cer­tainty about the ROK-U.S. al­liance.

New U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) com­man­der, Gen. Robert Abrams, cap­tured this when he said, “The cur­rent con­di­tions on the Korean Penin­sula are as dy­namic as they have ever been.” Per­haps, the pour­ing rain not only soaked the honor guards and the mil­i­tary band but some­how also con­cealed the full im­pact of what that dy­namism would en­tail.

Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in made no mis­take in shin­ing a light on the sit­u­a­tion when in his ad­dress, read on his be­half, he asked the new com­man­der to en­sure the smooth trans­fer of wartime oper­a­tional con­trol of South Korean forces.

The trans­fer of con­trol or OPCON is a tricky is­sue be­cause it has the pos­si­bil­ity of lead­ing to a re­duc­tion in U.S. troops here or even their com­plete with­drawal.

The trans­fer comes against the back­ground of an ac­cel­er­ated rec­on­cil­ia­tory process be­tween South and North Korea, which in­volves declar­ing an end to the Korean War. If a peace agree­ment is signed, the rea­son for U.S. troops be­ing here would be greatly weak­ened.

Also, U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has re­peat­edly ar­gued that the U.S. has paid for South Korea’s de­fense and that it is time for Seoul to stop be­ing a free­loader.

Trump is ea­ger to cut a de­nu­cle­ariza­tion deal with the North, which, if con­sum­mated, would give him one more rea­son to bring the GIs home and save more money.

So far Trump has opted to use eco­nomic pres­sure to deal with China’s emerg­ing power, while fo­cus­ing on im­prov­ing U.S. mil­i­tary on the nu­clear front and in space. This raises ques­tions about a shift in the strate­gic value the U.S. places on South Korea.

And Kore­ans have had a change of heart.

The cer­e­mony be­ing in Pyeong­taek tes­ti­fies to this.

Most of the U.S. mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties lo­cated in Yongsan, Seoul, and near the front­line with the North have been moved to Camp Humphreys. Kore­ans felt shamed and be­came in­dig­nant about the big U.S. in­stal­la­tion be­ing in the mid­dle of their cap­i­tal on a site where Ja­panese im­pe­rial forces were sta­tioned.

The U.S. Yongsan gar­ri­son was once on Seoul’s perime­ter, but now, when the city has ex­panded, the gar­ri­son has been pushed into the cen­ter.

So boast­ing that it is the big­gest U.S. mil­i­tary fa­cil­ity out­side the U.S. has a dou­ble mean­ing — on the sur­face, it may ap­pear to be a sym­bol of the al­liance but at its core it is a ra­tio­nal­iza­tion process.

Out­side the camp, there is ma­jor dis­agree­ment, with sup­port­ers of the U.S., con­ser­va­tive forces, who are now out of power, crit­i­ciz­ing the cur­rent pro­gres­sive gov­ern­ment for con­spir­ing with North Korea to kick out the Amer­i­cans and sell out the na­tion.

Al­though the de­gree of dis­agree­ment varies, the bat­tle be­tween both camps can be seen in protests in down­town Seoul ev­ery week, if not more of­ten. In his speech, Gen. Abrams ac­cented the power of the al­liance, us­ing Ae­sop’s bun­dle of sticks fable, and vowed to main­tain the “fight tonight” ca­pa­bil­ity.

His pre­de­ces­sor, Gen. Vin­cent Brooks, used the Chi­nese id­iom of cross­ing the river in the same boat to stress the ca­ma­raderie of the two al­lies.

Both gen­er­als used the al­liance’s motto — Let’s go to­gether.

Like mem­bers of the honor guards and band mem­bers, the gen­er­als were so soaked that wa­ter was drip­ping from their jack­ets and hats.

Spar­tan as the cer­e­mony might be, their pledges sounded re­as­sur­ing against the con­stant din of trou­ble from the out­side be­cause they rep­re­sented the core value of the seven-decade al­liance and dis­played a will­ing­ness to con­tinue this tra­di­tion.

The venue of the cer­e­mony, Barker Field, is named af­ter a U.S. Army pri­vate killed on Pork Chop Hill in Yeon­cheon, Gyeonggi Prov­ince, to­ward the end of the shoot­ing war in June 1953 just be­fore the Korean truce.

Some may feel tempted to say that the two gen­er­als are stand­ing in the way of the ap­proach­ing peace. But we have seen false signs of peace be­fore and the strong al­liance has helped main­tain peace on the penin­sula since the 1950-1953 Korean War.

It is pru­dent to pre­pare for the worst — a con­flict — while hop­ing for the best — fast and last­ing peace. For this rea­son, keep­ing the al­liance strong is not only a vi­able op­tion but a pri­or­ity.

Al­though it may sound ironic, the strong al­liance — for all its flaws and faults — can be the key to bring­ing ad­just­ments that en­able it to bet­ter serve the in­ter­ests of Korea and the U.S.

Oh Young-jin

TIMES COL­UMN

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