The United States' planned withdrawal of troops from Asia, which President George W. Bush announced on August 16, need not harm peace and stability in the region and particularly in Korea. But a key condition for a smooth redeployment of US troops is close consultations by America with its allies, something it has not done well up to now.
South Korea and Japan need to have their views taken into serious account if this now inevitable withdrawal is to succeed. By contrast, unilaterally announcing the withdrawal - and then unilaterally implementing it - may harm the very purpose that the remaining US troops in Asia are intended to serve: assuring deterrence, stability, and nonproliferation in Korea and Asia.
The withdrawal plan is causing countless worries. In Japan, there are concerns that it will make the country America's frontline command post in Asia, possibly beyond the scope of its bilateral security treaty with the US. One result is that China feels nervous about the implications of any expansion of the American-Japanese military partnership.
But the impact of America's planned troop withdrawals is felt most keenly in South Korea. In June, the Bush administration revealed its plan to withdraw some 12,500 of the 37,000 US soldiers stationed in South Korea by the end of 2005. These include 3,600 troops from the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, who are already earmarked for redeployment in Iraq.
The US Defense Department justifies this change as part of the so-called "Global Posture Review" that it has been carrying out to provide more flexibility and mobility in deploying troops to more urgently needed places around the world. But the unilateral nature of the announcement, and the abrupt timing of the plan, has incited alarm in South Korea, and perhaps in Japan, that withdrawal could pose serious risks to the vital role that US forces have performed in deterring another war in Korea.
South Koreans genuinely fear that the plan may weaken deterrence by sending North Korea - which is demanding a US military withdrawal while refusing to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions - the message that intransigence pays. Indeed, it should not be forgotten that North Korea maintains an army of 1.1 million troops.
Moreover, the manner in which the Bush administration unveiled its withdrawal plan has weakened the credibility of the US-Korean alliance. America's unilateral announcement has fuelled rumors to the effect that withdrawal must have something to do with the rising tide of anti-Americanism in South Korea, and especially with the country's reluctance and delay in dispatching an additional 3,600 of its own soldiers to Iraq.
The Bush administration tries to rebut these charges by saying that the plan will not weaken the deterrence capabilities of American forces, for America's far more powerful air and naval presence in the area will be maintained. Moreover, the US plans to strengthen South Korea's own forces by supplying some $11 billion worth of high-technology equipment over the next five years.
Militarily, this argument does make sense. Politically and psychologically, however, the method, let alone the timing and implementation of the withdrawals, raises many questions about the ongoing viability of the US-Korean security alliance, for the alliance now seems adrift, without a common purpose and with little direction from either side.
Yet the Bush administration insists: "The US views South Korea as a strong and steadfast ally. We are committed to South Korea's security and to our alliance and partnership with Seoul." If Washington is serious about these words, it should transform this commitment into a long-term and comprehensive alliance that can survive the current estrangement - and continue even after Korean unification - by making a joint declaration with South Korea's government at the highest level.
In order to allay misgivings and restore trust in the alliance, it is necessary for the US and South Korea to reaffirm their common interests and values in pursuing deterrence, nonproliferation, stability, and democracy on the Korean peninsula and across Asia. Once they resolve to continue their alliance with these purposes in mind, it should be possible for responsible officials to work out guiding principles for concrete security cooperation. Specific negotiations on withdrawing American troops from Korea or on redeploying them from the DMZ to south of Seoul must be carried out according to these principles.
In so doing, America must treat South Korea as a full partner with its own voice in making decisions that affect its security interests. As an American ally for 51 years, and as East Asia's third-largest economy, South Korea is entitled to be fully consulted on such decisions.
Despite anti-American sentiments among some South Koreans, a majority of the country's people wants American forces to remain as a stabilizing force. Securing a peaceful and nuclear-free Korean peninsula, a place where the interests of China, Japan, Russia, and America directly intersect, is one of the most important security goals anywhere on the planet. For this reason, America and South Korea must restore a strategic vision for the future.