Page 1 of 3 South Korea reels as US backpedals
By Peter Lee
BR> As United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of
Defense Robert Gates this week met in Seoul with their Republic of Korea (ROK)
counterparts Yu Myung-hwan and Kim Tae-young in an historic "2+2" summit, the Cheonan
sinking in March, the defining crisis that was supposed to highlight the
relevance and effectiveness of their relationship, instead cast an ugly shadow
over the event.
The United States failed to organize a vigorous international backlash against
North Korea for its apparent sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan,
and has now exhibited disconcerting second thoughts about its own response.
In an atmosphere of open Chinese opposition and discrete
Russian reservations, the United Nations Security Council failed to condemn the
Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Instead, the president of the UN
Security Council issued a letter that deplored the sinking but did not identify
North Korea as the culprit, let alone stipulate any sanctions.
It now appears that the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN) will come up with nothing stronger than the Security Council statement,
and South Korea has indicated it may abandon the effort to extract any kind of
meaningful condemnation from the regional grouping.
Joint US-ROK naval exercises, designed to build on UN condemnation with a
massive show of united force and resolve, have instead turned into an
Initial plans for the exercises targeted the Yellow Sea between China and the
Korean Peninsula and promised the intimidating presence of the aircraft carrier USS
George Washington. The reports aroused a barrage of official criticism
and popular anger inside China. In response, the expected location began to
drift eastward, first toward the south of the peninsula and now into the oceans
between the east coast of Korea and Japan.
The most recent report is that the US will, with Solomonic wisdom, split the
difference in a dual-sea exercise, with the George Washington and three
destroyers in the east and a face-saving smaller exercise in the west.
China, which as recently as two weeks ago looked to be facing an intransigent
united front of the US, South Korea and Japan, received an unexpected gift
thanks to this American muddling: an alliance showing distinct signs of dismay,
demoralization and division.
South Korea, which for a time expected to ride the Cheonan crisis to a
heightened global profile and recognition as the key US security partner in
Asia - and be in a position to leverage Western support in the event of a North
Korean security crisis triggered by Kim Jong-il's death - instead found itself
shunted to the side as the two superpowers, China and the United States, once
again dispose of the affairs of the Korean Peninsula between them.
On July 20, in a piece entitled, This Country Needs True Independence, a Chosun
Ilbo columnist glumly observed:
Seoul has had little say in the
negotiations between Washington and Beijing.
The 1950-53 Korean War was in fact a war between the US and China. The South
relied on the US from the moment of the invasion, and the North soon depended
on China. The commander of the Chinese forces is said to have told Kim Il-sung,
"This is a war between me and MacArthur." Observing the centenary of the
country's colonization by Japan and the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, we
boast that our country has become the 15th largest economy in the world, but
where security is concerned things are little different than they were 100 or
60 years ago.
The North is unable to exist without China, and the South too seems to rely on
the US to prevent a war. In a sense, they are protected by America and China.
South Korean resentment against the United States spilled
over on the issue of geographic nomenclature.
South Korea, China and Japan routinely spar over the names of contested island
chains - "Diaoyu" vs "Senkaku" Islands, "Dokdo" vs "Takeshima" Island etc.
Korean historians also give Japanese nationalists conniptions by pointing out
that logical origin of "Japan" aka "Origin of the Sun" should be traced to the
east-facing perspective of the Koreans who observed (and probably colonized)
the Japanese islands over a thousand years ago.
South Korea has been agitating, with little success, for the replacement of the
terms "Yellow Sea" and "Sea of Japan" with the perhaps excessively
Korea-centric "East Sea" and "West Sea", respectively, in international usage.
Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell bore the brunt of ROK wrath for locating
the peripatetic naval exercises in the "Sea of Japan". The US hurriedly
Seoul and Washington have agreed to use a "neutral"
expression in regards to the body of water between Korea and Japan in a joint
statement to be adopted during a high level meeting this Wednesday.
According to diplomatic sources on Sunday, the statement details plans for
Korea-US joint military drills in the East and West Seas and will describe the
venues as the "waters off the east and west coast of the Korean Peninsula". 
In the end, the Department of Defense (DoD) news release announcing Operation
Invincible Spirit read::
"This is the first in a series of ROK-US
combined naval exercises that will occur in both the East and West Seas,” the
two defense ministers said in their joint statement. 
remains to be seen whether the adjustment in description - and the face-saving
participation of four state-of-the-art F22 Raptor fighters in the exercise -
will be enough to compensate for the apparent downgrading of the exercise.
US-ROK ties will survive the disappointment.
Perhaps a bigger headache for the United States is the perception that it
knuckled under in the face of vehement Chinese objections to Yellow Sea
If the Barack Obama administration had a modulated policy combining recognition
of core Chinese interests and pushback against Chinese opportunism in East
Asia, concessions on the timing and content of the joint US-ROK drills might
have been viewed as a welcome sign that the mechanisms facilitating
communication, accommodation and mutual interest were working smoothly.
However, in the context of an Obama administration foreign policy that appears
to frame Asian affairs as a zero-sum game of global norms and US leadership vs
Chinese irresponsible national particularism, it is difficult to view the saga
of the wandering naval exercise as anything other than a defeat.
And China has acquired the understanding that the United States can be made to
back down through a combination of vocal opposition and pressure on its allies.
Per the Wall Street Journal:
The concern of some analysts is that
refraining from sending the George Washington to the Yellow Sea will
make it harder for the navy to operate in waters near China as freely as in
years past, and turn every potential deployment into a subject of bilateral
debate. Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum, a Hawaii-based arm of the
Washington think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told
The Wall Street Journal the navy needs to assert its presence in the Yellow Sea
by at least making a port call at Incheon, on the west coast of South Korea.
"We are setting a bad precedent and allowing China to expand its definition of
core interests, making it more difficult and controversial next time we go to
[the] Yellow Sea," he said. 
Bonnie Glaser of the Center
for Strategic and International Studies, told Korea Times:
... the US
will seek to avoid leaving an impression that it has caved into Chinese
pressure. "If Beijing were to conclude that the exercise was modified because
of its pressure, that could lead China to believe that it can intimidate the US
into not operating its ships close to China's shores. Such a judgment could
lead to future miscalculations." 
Several explanations have
been floated for China's newfound assertiveness on the issue of US naval
activity near its shores.
On one level, China clearly wants to assert its growing military clout and
challenge the US naval presence in its nearshore waters.
China does not appreciate the intensive monitoring of its new submarine base on
Hainan and the mapping of the nearby sea bottom by the USNS Impeccable.
The US Navy desires the capability to bottle up the Chinese boats in the South
China Sea to protect its carriers in the case of a hot war over Taiwan, and
negate the effectiveness of China's sub-based nuclear deterrent.
However, China's new-found sensitivity over the Yellow Sea - where US ships
including, reportedly, the George Washington have previously operated -
probably has more to do with the US decision to back South Korea's President
Lee Myung-bak as the primary Western interlocutor with the DPRK while
effectively excluding China from active involvement in the affairs of the
The Obama administration had expressed its dissatisfaction with the ritualized
extortion of denuclearization negotiations conducted within the framework of
the six-party talks, which gave a central role to China.
Last year, Gates pungently stated that he was "tired of buying the same horse
In effect, the United States apparently decided it would let North Korea stew
in its own juice and follow the lead of South Korea's Lee Myung-bak - who held
no brief for the "Sunshine" policy of his predecessors or the six-party talks
or Chinese interference - in managing the DPRK issue.
The United States further raised Chinese suspicions by promoting the ROK as the
virtual successor to Japan's role as keystone of the US security architecture
in East Asia. While Japan's Democratic Party of Japan-led government
antagonized the Obama administration with attempts to renegotiate the fate of
the Futenma Marine air base on Okinawa, President Lee aggressively wooed the
He was rewarded with an enhanced international profile for the ROK as first
Asian site of a Group of 20 (G-20) summit (coming up in November) and 2011 host
of the Obama administration's most cherished foreign policy initiative - the
Nuclear Security Conference.
The US also made the decision to back South Korea to the hilt on the Cheonan
If, as is presumably the case, North Korea engineered the outrage, it cleverly
and effectively exposed a faulty assumption behind America's Korean policy:
that, when push came to shove, China would give decisive weight to its booming
economic relationship with South Korea and side with Seoul against Pyongyang.