Fine-Tuning in U.S. Policy Can Avert Wrenching Break With Korea

<i> Rep. Stephen J. Solarz is chairman of the Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. </i>

As the Reagan years draw to a close and we prepare for the next Administration, the time has come for a review of American policy toward the Korean peninsula. Indeed, the easing of restrictions on contact with North Korea announced by the State Department several weeks ago suggests that a reexamination of U.S. policy toward Pyongyang is already well under way.

The dramatic progress toward democracy that South Korea has achieved in the past year-and-a-half suggests that our policy toward Seoul deserves a fresh look as well. Clearly the old mentor-pupil relationship between Washington and South Korea is no longer appropriate. A prudent accommodation by Washington of growing nationalist sensibilities in Seoul now can avoid a much-more wrenching break between our two countries in the future.

One indication of the need for change is the disturbing growth of anti-American sentiment in South Korea beyond a small group of radical students, where it has festered for a number of years. Ironically, this new anti-Americanism has been facilitated by the growth of democracy, since it is now far easier to voice such sentiments than when the government tightly controlled political expression.

At the same time, we must avoid exaggerating the extent of anti-Americanism in Korean society. The overwhelming majority of Koreans remain friendly and sympathetic to the United States, for they recognize the important contribution we make to the preservation of peace and the promotion of prosperity in their country.


We now need to adjust our relations with Seoul in ways that will remove gratuitous frictions that only exacerbate these anti-American tendencies. If not dealt with appropriately and expeditiously, these manifestations of hostility toward the United States may create a real backlash here in America that could poison the relationship between our two countries. And a breakdown in this relationship would not only increase the prospects for another war but could have unfortunate economic consequences for both countries as well.

There are a number of steps we could constructively take to head off such a breach. Discussions are already under way, for instance, that could result in shifting command of the United Nations forces in South Korea to a South Korean general. For 38 years, ever since the U.N. Security Council dispatched an international force to the Korean peninsula to defend South Korea from the aggression of its northern sister state, an American general has directed all U.N. troops in Korea. Today there are approximately 600,000 South Korean troops under U.N. command, compared to 43,000 American troops. Given this disparity, it is easy to understand why South Koreans resent having a foreigner in seemingly perpetual command of their armed forces. It should be possible to adjust the command relationships in ways that are responsive to Korean sensitivities without diminishing the credibility of the American defense commitment.

We also should press ahead in the current talks with South Korea about relocating U.S. Army headquarters out of Seoul into a less-populated part of the country. For many South Koreans, the presence in the midst of some of Seoul’s priciest real estate of the headquarters complex, complete with an extensive golf course for the use of American troops, is a running political and nationalistic sore. Given the opportunity to reclaim this land, Seoul should be willing to pick up much of the cost associated with the move.

In order to head off South Korea’s nascent anti-nuclear movement before it grows to significant proportions, the United States could also remove any nuclear weapons that it may have in the country. Senior U.S. military officials privately concede that they can imagine no conceivable scenario in which they would use nuclear weapons in Korea. It stands to reason, then, that since these weapons perform no useful purpose, their removal would not diminish our defense posture. Yet it would enhance our political position.


Some of the student radicals, echoing pronouncements from Pyongyang, have gone a step further and called for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula. But such a step under existing circumstances would be ill-advised and ill-timed.

The Korean peninsula remains a potential flash point for the kind of confrontation that could lead to a global conflict. Today there are nearly 1.5 million men under arms on both sides of the 38th parallel. In the north, a militant communist ideology and a demonstrated willingness to employ brutal terrorist tactics provide the ingredients for continued instability.

So long as North Korea enjoys significant advantages in manpower and materiel, it would be a mistake to pull out American forces, particularly in the absence of any real progress toward the diminution of tensions on the peninsula.

It bears noting, moreover, that the vast majority of the South Korean people find reassuring the tangible commitment to their security our troops offer. They rightly recognize that a premature U.S. withdrawal could significantly diminish South Korea’s capability to deter another act of aggression, such as Pyongyang unleashed in 1950, thereby bringing on the very war they wish to avoid.


In view of the deeply rooted desire for reunification shared by virtually all Koreans, it is also essential that the United States continually reaffirm its commitment to the peaceful rejoining of the two Koreas. We must ensure that the Korean people see America’s presence and American policies not as a portent of perpetual division, but as the surest means of preventing another war and establishing the conditions under which ultimate reunification can peacefully take place.

The relationship between the United States and South Korea has contributed to peace on the Korean peninsula and stability in the region for a third of a century. It is in our interests to maintain and even enhance it. But changes have taken place on the peninsula, and especially in South Korea, that ought to be reflected in our foreign policy. We do not need dramatic policy shifts, just the fine-tuning that will carry Korean-American relations on a smooth course into the 21st Century.