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     Apr 8, 2005

Christian ties may bind US troops to South Korea
By David Scofield

All that remains of the 50-year South Korea-US security alliance - a friendship forged in blood, as the leaders of the United States forces used to say - is the high fences and cinder-block buildings that mark America's bases in South Korea. Speeches and statements underscoring South Korea's rising prominence and the extolling benefits of a "balanced" foreign policy, independent of and not beholden to allies, rejecting US-dictated policy that may not always be congruent with the country's best interests, have been pouring forth from President Roh Moo-Hyun and his ministers of late. The implications for the alliance and the "Cold War camp" - the US-Korea-Japan trilateral arrangement - is obvious; the spirit of the alliance is dead, even if the physical trappings remain.

Fundamental changes to the US-ROK (Republic of Korea) security alliance have increased since Roh was elected, but things really got complicated last November when Roh, on a stopover in Los Angeles, declared that he understood the logic behind North Korea's quest to become a nuclear power - its fear of US hostility and possible attack. At the time the US was trying to hold five parties together in response to North Korea's illicit nuclear-weapons projects - the six-party talks comprise both Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States. Then in February, the month in which many believed North Korea would finally return to the talks, Pyongyang declared that it would not attend until certain conditions were met and the US ceased hostile behavior and recanted hostile language - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called North Korea an "outpost of tyranny". The North said it was no longer trying to become a nuclear power but had already attained that goal and was now adding to its arsenal.

South Korea responded carefully, with an official statement downplaying the North's admission, countering that Pyongyang was just stamping its feet and demanding attention, a tantrum designed to attract greater concessions from the US. While North Korea declared it possessed nuclear arms, South Korea dropped references to the North as the "main enemy" in its latest National Defense White Paper, a move that led US Republican Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois to suggest "our colleagues, particularly China and South Korea, may have to reconsider the degree to which they shower assistance on a regime that has added nuclear blackmail to its arsenal of threats".

South Korea's response was furious, with Unification Minister Chung Dong Young challenging Hyde: "It is inappropriate and unacceptable for an ally to be subject to such careless and simplistic remarks by a senior US legislator ... the South's humanitarian-aid and reconciliation projects are judged according to Korean national [independent] interests." Days earlier at an Air Force Academy graduation speech, President Roh stated, "Unlike 100 years ago, we have enough power for self-defense."

Hallelujah, many would argue. Advisers in the US State Department and Department of Defense have been questioning the utility of permanently posting 37,000 troops and their equipment to the peninsula, at a cost of about US$3 billion a year, for more than decade. Longtime observers, such as Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute, have been calling for a review of forces in South Korea with a view not only to rearranging troops and personnel, currently under way with base consolidations south of Seoul and the planned withdrawal of 12,500 troops, but also initiating what many believe should have been started more than a decade ago - the complete withdrawal of all US forces on the peninsula.

So with Roh and his senior cabinet members giving signals that the foreign policies of the US and South Korea have become irreversibly divergent (in reality, South Korean foreign policy pretty well begins and ends with North Korea), why are the Americans still there? Why isn't there a real push for complete withdrawal?

Many would argue that to withdraw any troops while North Korea's nuclear program remains unresolved would be tantamount to rewarding Pyongyang for bad behavior. The North Koreans have after all demanded US withdrawal since the armistice ending the Korean War in 1953. But withdrawal may actually increase the pressure on Pyongyang as it puts the ball, even for those who believe it their mission to support the North, squarely back in Pyongyang leader Kim Jong-il's court. The purported threat of US invasion from the South is regularly expressed by the North as justification for the nuclear-weapons program and the positioning of more than 70% of its forces near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Removing the US "threat" would seem to nullify that argument.

Then there's the regional-containment argument: US bases in South Korea are a necessary forward deployment designed to counter China's increased ability to project power, a favorite argument among many Koreans. But President Roh has made it clear that he does not want - and will not allow - the US to launch regional operations from South Korea. So any action taken against China, in defense of Taiwan for example, from bases in South Korea would be met with severe resistance - hardly ideal. Further, fixed bases in an era of increased global competence in guiding missiles and other armaments "over the horizon" makes these bases a liability.

So why the inertia in moving troops out when South Korea's leaders seem to opening the exit door wide? The thickest knot to cut may be the US-South Korean Christian alliance.

While Korean political leaders are definitely "Rohing" in a different direction, there remain enduring ties between the US and South Korea's ubiquitous Christian groups, including the 700,000-member Yoido Full Gospel (YFG) in southern Seoul. In sharp contrast to most other segments of Korean society, YFG and other churches have organized "pro-America" rallies, events that mostly elderly parishioners take to the heart of downtown, waving US flags in oddly staged demonstrations of pro-Americanism.

Beyond cars, ships and electronics, South Korea is a formidable exporter of missionaries. Twelve thousand go forth into the world every year, second only to the United States. And it is Korean Christians who are most active in helping move North Korean refugees through treacherous territory in China into third countries and freedom. Those North Koreans who make it out tell of seeking shelter in "buildings with a cross" and asking Koreans they meet "if they know the word of Jesus". And of course, it was the lobbying of evangelical Christians such as US Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, and the activities of the National Association of Evangelicals and the Korean-American Christian Church Coalition (KCC) in Los Angeles, that helped ensure the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act in the United States. That law helps those who help North Korean refugees and asylum seekers - and those who help them flee.

At least 26% (though some maintain that the percentage is closer to 50) of South Koreans are Christian - the vast majority of them Protestant. The freedom of South Korea's Christians stands in stark contrast to the regional norm. United Nations and Freedom House reports regularly document the persecution and intimidation of the estimated 70 million Christians in China. Meanwhile North Korea is reported to have created a special circle of hell for those anti-state agents found to be in contact with Christians, or be Christian themselves. In 2000, Korean-American pastor Kim Dong Shik was abducted near the North Korea border by agents of Pyongyang for his work helping refugees to safety. His condition is not known.

With the Cold War over, South Korea may again be on the front lines of another war - a new front line in Christendom's regional struggle - this time on the Korean Peninsula.

David Scofield, former lecturer at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies,Kyung Hee University, is currently conducting post-graduate research at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.

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(Mar 15, '05)

Seoul rows against US tide (Nov 24, '04)


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