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Abhorring a vacuum

Nov 20,2019
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Bae Myung-bok
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Europe stands on “the edge of a precipice,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview with The Economist. “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO,” he said. “If we don’t wake up […] there’s a considerable risk that in the long run we will disappear geopolitically, or at least that we will no longer be in control of our destiny.”

After World War II, NATO supported the security of Europe. Article 5 of the NATO Constitution — that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” — symbolizes the U.S. pledge of security to Europe.

Through NATO, the United States and Europe managed to face the threats of the Soviet Union, enjoy peace and prosperity, and won the Cold War. But things have changed after Donald Trump, who dismisses NATO as an “obsolete alliance,” became the president of the United States. For Trump, who considers allies insignificant and burdensome, NATO is nothing but a relic from the past that costs U.S. defense dollars. Asked if he believes that Article 5 will not work, Macron said, “I don’t know.”

Macron forecast that it will be hard to reverse the path of the United States abandoning of alliances, even if Trump is not re-elected next year. He analyzed that the foreign policy of the United States has changed to make U.S. national interests the top priority, and the power of history will increasingly separate the United States and its allies.

Macron said the America First policy and isolationism is not an exceptional, extraordinary policy of Trump. Therefore, he said, it is time to reconsider relations with the United States and think about a plan to prepare for a time after NATO.

After the Korean War, South Korea was able to rely on its alliance with the United States to defend itself from North Korean threats and pursue economic growth and prosperity. The alliance is still the basis of South Korea’s security. But cracks are being seen ever since Trump started calculating the value of the alliance. There were conflicts surrounding North Korea policy and over Seoul’s decision to terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Tokyo. But the greatest challenge facing the Korea-U.S. alliance is the ongoing negotiation on defense cost sharing for next year.

South Korea relies on the United States to defend its security, but it is a sovereign state. No Korean administration will accept a U.S. demand to suddenly increase the cost by five times. That’s political suicide. Furthermore, a general election takes place in April next year. If Trump is sane, he knows very well that Korea cannot accept that U.S. demand. It seems to be a negotiation strategy to present an unreasonably high amount to eventually settle for a different amount, but Korea is being confused because the U.S. defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff both came to Seoul and exerted blunt pressure. Some, therefore, speculate that Trump made the unacceptable demand to find a justification to withdraw or reduce U.S. troops in Korea. They said Washington was presenting an option that Seoul is destined to reject to ruin the negotiation and cut or withdraw troops by using the disagreement as a justification.

Macron is urging Europe to start serious considerations on how to fill the gap after the United States leaves. His first measure, of course, is self-defense. He urged Europe to build and improve its self-defenses. Second is a diplomatic strategy. He said Europe can secure its influence by working as a mediator between the United States and China. He said the first step can be found by redefining Europe’s relations with Russia.

Ahead of the defense cost-sharing negotiation, which began in Seoul on Monday, a group of 47 ruling and opposition lawmakers announced a statement. They said the U.S. Forces Korea is stationed here not only to serve Korea’s interests but also U.S. interests, so Seoul must not be fooled by Washington’s bluffing that it may withdraw the troops. They urged the government to negotiate with a determination that it will let the U.S. troops go if that is what Washington wants.

Even if Trump makes a decision, he cannot easily withdraw or scale down the troops by a message on Twitter. But the possibility cannot be completely ruled out when we take into account the larger trend of the United States that promotes an America First policy and isolationism. Maybe not now, but it will happen someday.

A carefree attitude to express Seoul’s determination is good, but it needs a real countermeasure for a situation in which the U.S. troops will actually leave. As Macron pointed out, the key will be self-defense and diplomacy, and they must focus on securing a deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

To this end, it is crucial to cooperate with Japan, which is also under great pressure from the United States for an increase in defense cost-sharing. Even if we want to have nuclear weapons, we can hardly do it alone. Only when South Korea and Japan simultaneously push forward plans to become nuclear-armed states by citing the irreversible reality of North Korean nuclear threats will the international community be persuaded.

In order to prepare for a security vacuum from a possible pullout of U.S. forces, South Korea must end its narrow-minded policy toward Japan. The Gsomia issue, of course, should be approached within the same context.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 19, Page 35