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Changes afoot

Jan 31,2017
Immediately after his inauguration, U.S. President Donald Trump is creating a framework of policies to satisfy the voters who voted for him. That is why a series of unreasonable measures such as the U.S. decisions to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, to leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border were announced.

During the campaign, Trump argued that the U.S. forces’ overseas deployments are “free security offering” to allies and threatened the host countries to pay higher expenses or else the troops would be withdrawn. That approaches as a reality to Korea. But we are not entirely sure that our government, of which the president is impeached, is making proper preparations. If Washington forces Seoul to pay more for the U.S. troops, how would the government cope with the Korean people’s opposition? Is it making preparations for a possible pullout or reduction of U.S. troops?

Does it have any plans to counter the many uncertainties?

The foreign policy of the Trump administration reminds us of Richard Nixon in the 1970s. After taking office in January 1969, Nixon came up with the “Nixon Doctrine,” which said Asian countries must cope with their own civil wars and outside invasions — except for nuclear threats from other superpowers — because the United States would no longer make military interventions like it did in the Vietnam War.

The policy was made because U.S. foreign policy failed to win domestic political support during the Vietnam War. Conscription, high military spending and casualties all fueled criticisms. Nixon took a step back in terms of military policy to bring about a consensus in domestic politics. It is the same situation in the Trump era: domestic politics is shaking foreign policy.

The Nixon doctrine dealt a serious blow to South Korea. In 1971, the U.S. 7th Division withdrew from the Korean Peninsula, practically halving U.S. ground forces in the country. It was a crisis for South Korea. In 1974, First Lady Yuk Young-soo was killed during an attempted assassination of then-President Park Chung Hee. In the same year, the first North Korean underground tunnel for infiltration was discovered in the South.

On April 17, 1975, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge took control of its capital city of Phnom Penh. On April 30 of the same year, Saigon, capital of South Vietnam, fell to North Vietnamese forces. At the time, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung visited China and asked for support for a communist reunification of the Korean Peninsula. That request was rejected by the Chinese leadership ahead of the establishment of a diplomatic relationship with the United States in 1972, but that was not the end of the crisis in South Korea. In 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter declared that all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula. (He was forced to backtrack later.) The situation is largely similar to today.

Hong Seong-min, head of the Seoul-based think tank Security Policy Networks, who researched military operations at the time, explained that President Park Chung Hee’s choice was self-defense. In order to buy time for counterattacks, he established barriers and encampments near the border and strengthened the capabilities of general outposts (GOPs).

In order to stop enemy planes’ from attacking Busan, Pohang Iron and Steel Company, a petrochemical complex in Ulsan, and Gori nuclear plant, which was in test-operations at the time, he established an anti-air base in Seongju, North Gyeongsang. That is the Seongju artillery unit, once selected as the best site to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system last year.

After the military devised a plan to defend the Gyeongbu Expressway, completed in July that year, Park himself conducted a meticulous operation to check on specific action plans by conducting a drill with special forces at the Chupungryeong and Geum River areas. If he were a president who ran the country from his residence inside the Blue House, it would have been impossible to resolve the crisis.

James Mattis, the new defense secretary, will visit South Korea and Japan from Feb. 1 to 4, shortly after the Lunar New Year holidays. It is significant that the defense secretary chose Seoul as his first destination after taking office.

The Voice of America said the visit was to reaffirm the U.S. pledge to defend its allies and strengthen the trilateral alliance of Korea-Japan-United States.

As his trip is most likely intended to deliver Trump’s new message, we have to pay special attention to how any new plans can deal with the North’s nuclear and missile threats. Taking into account Trump’s characteristics, there is a high possibility that Washington’s Korean Peninsula policy will radically change.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 27, Page 24