November 13, 2003 | WebMemo on Asia
Later this week, Donald Rumsfeld will travel to Japan and South Korea on his first visit to Northeast Asia as Defense Secretary. Although his meetings in Tokyo and Seoul with his counterparts are part of annual defense consultative talks, his trip will be highly significant given the importance of the agenda:
In Tokyo, Secretary Rumsfeld's message to Defense Agency Chief Shigeru Ishiba will largely be one of appreciation to an important treaty ally for cooperation not only in the region, but also in Iraq and the global War on Terrorism. Japan has actively implemented export controls and fully supports the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), critical efforts in curbing North Korea's dangerous behavior. Japan is also cooperating with the United States on Missile Defense.
In addition to the $500 million contributed to Afghanistan, Japan has pledged $5 billion towards the reconstruction of Iraq and is considering the dispatch of non-combatant Self Defense Forces. A challenging issue that will be the focus of discussion is how to end North Korea's nuclear programs. But it is clear that the status of the U.S.-Japan security alliance has never been better, and that bilateral cooperation is evolving into a true global partnership.
On November 17, Secretary Rumsfeld will arrive in Seoul for the annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM). This meeting will be a critical one, coming on the heels of meetings one week earlier in Washington, in which the two allies exchanged views on South Korea's contribution to Iraq. South Korea has already sent 675 medics and engineers to Iraq earlier this year, and has offered to send an additional 3,000 non-combatant troops, while the United States has expressed a need for 5,000 combat troops for stabilization efforts.
Although the decision to commit such a large number of combatants to Iraq is not an easy political one for the Roh Moo Hyun government given domestic opposition, doing so will be a an important step for the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance. Much as the U.S.-Japan alliance is slowly evolving into a full partnership, the U.S.-ROK alliance must also work towards such a goal. More importantly, the issue of troop deployment to Iraq should not be allowed to cause a setback to this critically important bilateral relationship.
Another issue that has caused unease between the two allies has been the reconfiguration of the U.S. forces currently in South Korea. While the ROK Ministry of Defense and the Pentagon largely agree on the need for adjustment of the U.S. forces in Korea, one of Secretary Rumsfeld's tasks in Seoul will be to reassure the Korean people that altering the current troop presence on the peninsula is less important than the capability it projects. It is clear that the United States remains fully committed to the defense and security of Korea, demonstrated not only by the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty still in force, but also by the $11 billion force improvement program recently committed by the United States, and to be implemented over the next four years.
Secretary Rumsfeld's message emphasizing the critical importance of full cooperation between the allies will be his most important task in Seoul. An alliance that shows no daylight between the United States and South Korea will be the basis upon which a resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue can be founded. Heading in to a possible second round of Six-Party talks in December, the United States and South Korea must fuse their goals and priorities to prevent North Korea from capitalizing on any perceived weaknesses in the alliance.
Both South Korea and Japan's future security will depend on protection not only from traditional and local threats such as North Korea, but also from new threats such as WMD proliferation and global terrorism. Ensuring such security will require contributing to peace and stability beyond the region by participating in international peacekeeping and stabilization operations. As critically important treaty allies of the United States, both South Korea and Japan should find ways to balance these needs amidst the challenges of fiscal constraints and domestic political opposition. Secretary Rumsfeld's trip to Asia will contribute to this goal by reaffirming U.S. commitment in the region.