Amer­i­cans just don’t get it

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Oh Young-jin Oh Young-jin (fools­[email protected], fools­[email protected] ko­re­atimes.co.kr) is dig­i­tal man­ag­ing edi­tor of The Korea Times.

I am quite sure that I am not the only Korean who sees a re­cent visit by a trio of se­nior Amer­i­can of­fi­cials as one big sales pitch.

It is rather odd, be­cause there was a time when even one se­nior of­fi­cial from Wash­ing­ton would weigh on Kore­ans’ col­lec­tive heart as if their ex­is­ten­tial present and fu­ture were at stake. It re­mains to be seen whether it re­flects a real change of time, a fatal il­lu­sion or a com­bi­na­tion of both.

First, David R. Stil­well, U.S. as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state for East Asian and Pa­cific Af­fairs, just left af­ter meet­ing For­eign Min­is­ter Kang Kyung-wha and Kim Hyun-chong, sec­ond deputy chief at Cheong Wa Dae’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Of­fice.

Stil­well came and went with­out much fan­fare. But three pres­i­dents be­fore, his pre­de­ces­sor James Kelly as­sumed such heft as to serve as guest of honor for an im­por­tant lunch hosted by the late Pres­i­dent Roh Moo-hyun dur­ing his first Wash­ing­ton visit.

Re­ac­tion to Stil­well’s visit cap­tures as much change in the Korea-U.S. re­la­tion­ship as that be­tween him and Kelly. Stil­well tried ob­vi­ously with a du­bi­ous de­gree of suc­cess to per­suade Seoul to get Korea back into the mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence-shar­ing pact — or the Gen­eral Se­cu­rity of Mil­i­tary In­for­ma­tion Agree­ment (GSOMIA) — with Ja­pan.

Kim has re­port­edly led ef­forts to put GSOMIA on ice af­ter Wash­ing­ton re­jected Seoul’s plea to press Ja­pan to roll back its trade sanc­tions on Korea.

Whether the Moon govern­ment switches GSOMIA back on or not be­fore the dead­line in two weeks, it would be cor­rect to see Seoul’s de­ci­sion not as an aber­ra­tion made by a re­bel­lious pres­i­den­tial aide but the be­gin­ning of a process by which Korea will as­sert its say in the bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship.

Al­ready, some Wash­ing­ton pun­dits have warned that Korea’s GSOMIA stance may mark, in hind­sight, the start of the un­rav­el­ing of the two coun­tries’ al­liance.

An­other vis­i­tor was U.S. Un­der-Sec­re­tary of State for Eco­nomic Growth, En­ergy Se­cu­rity and the En­vi­ron­ment Keith Krach. He vis­ited Seoul to par­tic­i­pate in the two coun­tries’ Se­nior Eco­nomic Di­a­logue. Krach pushed Korea to align with its Indo-Pa­cific Strat­egy (IPS), a U.S. strate­gic ini­tia­tive to con­tain China eco­nom­i­cally and mil­i­tar­ily.

On the eco­nomic front, the IPS aims to coun­ter­vail China’s glob­ally minded Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI). Mil­i­tar­ily, it is in­tended to bring the Mid­dle King­dom’s wary neigh­bors to­gether to keep its ex­pan­sion in check.

A joint state­ment from the di­a­logue ex­posed the dif­fer­ences be­tween the IPS and Korea’s New South­ern Pol­icy (NSP) that doesn’t take China as a ri­val or op­po­nent, when it said: “… both sides have put for­ward co­op­er­a­tive ef­forts un­der the NSP of the ROK and the IPS of the United States in line with the prin­ci­ples of open­ness, in­clu­sive­ness, trans­parency, and re­spect for in­ter­na­tional law.”

For Korea, present and fu­ture, an­tag­o­niz­ing China for its size, prox­im­ity and growth po­ten­tial can­not be but a hard bar­gain. Good luck on an­other tough sell.

James DeHart, chief Amer­i­can ne­go­tia­tor in de­fense cost-shar­ing talks with South Korea, also vis­ited, meet­ing lead­ers of the Na­tional As­sem­bly, among oth­ers. His visit came amid U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s call for big­ger con­tri­bu­tions by al­lies for U.S. peace-mak­ing mil­i­tary ef­forts.

The U.S. has re­port­edly asked Korea to in­crease by about six times what it pays the U.S. for its troops here — per­haps to the range of $6 bil­lion. Ru­mors have it that the U.S. is ty­ing the threat of its mil­i­tary pullout to the pay­ment in­creases in an ap­par­ent pres­sure tac­tic.

Pre­vi­ously, all these were lumped to­gether as the case of the “U.S. be­ing the U.S.” for its su­per­power sta­tus, the role of world policeman, a global foun­tain of new ideas and the lo­co­mo­tive of growth for other na­tions. Now the U.S. in­creas­ingly re­sem­bles an ordinary coun­try or “one of us” — or, to bor­row a Trumpian metaphor, an old land­lord ea­ger to get ten­ants to cough up ex­tra bucks any­way he can.

Nic­colo Machi­avelli would add un­tir­ing youth as a key char­ac­ter­is­tic for any great leader if he were given a chance to re­vise his best-seller “The Prince.” That is what the U.S. is miss­ing now. The U.S. has al­ready lost the most cher­ished el­e­ment that makes a leader by the Machi­avel­lian stan­dard — an abil­ity to strike fear into the hearts of those ruled.

Re­mem­ber the U.S. de­ci­sion to abort re­tal­ia­tory mil­i­tary ac­tion against Iran for its provoca­tive ac­tion of shoot­ing down a drone or the pullout from Syria in a ma­jor act of be­trayal that has left its ally against ISIS — the Kurds — at the mercy of their arch-foe, Turk­ish au­to­crat Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan.

Again, the U.S. has failed to come up with a de­ci­sive act — as seen in the Plaza Ac­cord — to sub­due China in a pro­tracted trade war that is likely to end in a truce with­out a clear win­ner. Wash­ing­ton re­fused to step into the Korea-Ja­pan feud, say­ing it is a mat­ter be­tween the two. And it called Euro­peans in­grates, with its leader so­cial­iz­ing with the ilk of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin.

Friends of the U.S. like Korea have fol­lowed its lead be­cause it was more af­ford­able and re­li­able than go­ing it alone. Deal­ing with Wash­ing­ton is get­ting more ex­pen­sive and less re­li­able, be­sides be­ing tricky. Then, China is ex­pected to take ad­van­tage of po­ten­tial schisms in the U.S.led global or­der and stage a charm of­fen­sive to make it an al­ter­na­tive.

The U.S. would be bet­ter off for once if it took the sit­u­a­tion from its friends’ point of view be­fore be­com­ing an ex.

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