THE RISING EAST
Relations with Koreas crumbling
By Richard Halloran
U.S. relations with South Korea continued to slide downhill with Seoul's publication of a strange "white paper" on defense.
North Korea asserted that it has actually produced nuclear weapons and, by refusing to continue negotiations, showed that it has no intention of giving up its nuclear ambitions.
In the first case, South Korea's Ministry of National Defense alleged that, in the event of hostilities with North Korea, the United States would deploy 690,000 troops, 2,000 warplanes and 160 warships to the defense of South Korea.
That statement was absurd on the face of it. The 690,000 troops would require sending the entire U.S. Army and the entire U.S. Marine Corps to Korea, leaving all other missions to the National Guard and Reserves. The 2,000 warplanes would be more than three times the aircraft assigned to the Pacific Air Forces. The 160 ships would be about half of the U.S. Navy.
This claim, which was presumptuous, not to say bizarre, implied that the government of President Roh Moo Hyun could not deal with the implications of the U.S. decision to reduce its forces in Korea and to revise the mission of those that remain. The primary task of the U.S. forces will be to prepare for contingencies anywhere, not just to help defend South Korea.
The South Korean paper indicated that Roh's Defense Ministry sought to assure South Koreans that the United States would not abandon them. Ironically, that effort came atop rampant anti-Americanism in Seoul, an increasing tendency among young South Koreans to appease North Korea, and a growing South Korean preference for ties with China rather than the United States.
As an Australian scholar and student of Northeast Asia put it, South Korean "relations with the U.S. are delicately poised between affirmation and severance."
An e-mail message to the Defense Ministry in Seoul seeking clarification was not answered by the time of this writing, which may have been because of a national holiday in South Korea. Even so, the Defense Ministry has not denied press reports that have been floating around for more than a week.
The ministry's English-language Web site announcing the release of its white paper did not mention the dispatch of U.S. forces but focused on a change in terms. Instead of calling North Korea "the main enemy," the report noted North Korea's "conventional military power, weapons of mass destruction, and forward deployment of military forces."
The headquarters of U.S. Forces in Korea professed to be unaware of the white paper despite articles in the South Korean press, the Associated Press, and on Chinese and Vietnamese TV news. "I have no information regarding this ROK document," said an officer speaking for the command. "However, as a matter of policy, we do not discuss the contents or details of operational plans."
North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, were included in the "axis of evil" by President Bush shortly after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.
By claiming that they have produced nuclear weapons, the North Koreans evidently sought to confirm what they had hinted at many times in the past. They also said they would not continue the six-party talks intended to dissuade them from going nuclear. In those negotiations, the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia have held three previous meetings in Beijing.
Pyongyang claimed that North Korea has "manufactured nukes for self-defense to cope with the Bush administration's evermore undisguised policy to isolate and stifle the DPRK." The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is the official name of North Korea. The United States has long contended that North Korea has nuclear weapons.
On negotiations, the North Koreans said: "We are compelled to suspend our participation in the talks for an indefinite period till we have recognized that there is justification for us to attend the talks and there are ample conditions and atmosphere to expect positive results from the talks."
Whether that was a bargaining ploy remained to be seen.
Before its nuclear announcement, Pyongyang proclaimed: "If the U.S. imperialists ignite flames of war, we will first of all strike all bases of U.S. imperialist aggressors and turn them into a sea of fire." That thundering, too, repeated earlier belligerence.
Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia.