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(News Focus) Moon seeks to adjust U.S. alliance, reinforce independent defense capability

All Headlines 00:05 May 10, 2017

By Lee Chi-dong

SEOUL, May 10 (Yonhap) -- The election of Moon Jae-in, a liberal politician, as South Korea's president heralds a new era of its alliance with the United States, as he has campaigned to reduce Seoul's reliance on Washington in its national defense.

Moon has voiced firm support for the alliance as a cornerstone to defend against North Korea's asymmetrical military threats and secure stability in the Northeast Asia.

"I believe the alliance between the two nations is the most important foundation for our diplomacy and national security," Moon said in an interview with the Washington Post days before his election. "South Korea was able to build its national security thanks to the U.S., and the two nations will work together on the North Korean nuclear issue."

Many experts on Korean affairs have confidence that the alliance forged in blood will stay robust under Moon's presidency.

But he wants to adjust or modify the more than 60-year-old partnership to be relevant in the post-Cold War era and reflect South Korea's growth in capacity.

The mantra of his foreign policy is that South Korea will take the lead in handling issues on the Korean Peninsula, not the back seat. He once said South Korea should be able to "say no" to the superpower on a case-by-case basis.

"We will take charge of our defense ourselves by all intents and purposes," Moon, a former special forces soldier, said on the campaign trail.

His government will aim for "competent national security, a strong Republic of Korea (ROK)," according to his campaign pledge book using South Korea's official name.

Moon Jae-in, elected South Korea's new president, speaks to reporters while clad in a military uniform during his visit to an Army firing test site in this file photo. (Yonhap)

The push for a more assertive South Korea is in line with his vision for "balanced diplomacy" with the U.S. and China.

It's deja vu for those who remember Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea's late left-leaning president from 2003 to early 2008. Moon, a long-time friend of Roh, served as his chief of staff.

Pundits say Moon could take some lessons from Roh, known for having changed the dynamics of the alliance, although he even agreed to dispatch troops to Iraq.

"Mr. Moon certainly understands the cost of the kind of tensions we all witnessed between President Roh Moo-hyun and President George W. Bush," said Alan Romberg, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. "And I think that history, plus the more serious situation we face today in terms of the North's advanced (and advancing) capabilities, means that we can't afford to see a repeat of that kind of tension between our two countries."

At issue is how smoothly the allies will weather mutual challenges amid concern about the chemistry between Moon, a former human rights lawyer, and his American counterpart Donald Trump, a businessman.

A harsh critic of South Korea's previous conservative administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, Moon is expected to try to undo much of what they did.

He will push for a review of the contentious deal with the U.S. to deploy its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system here.

Moon has argued that Seoul should have made the decision more prudently and democratically with the National Assembly's approval.

He said he would bargain in person with Trump in their first summit talks, which will set the tone for broader ties between the two sides in the coming years.

The U.S. missile defense system, THAAD, is seen deployed at a former golf course in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, in this file photo. (Yonhap)

Another key alliance issue hanging in the balance is the timing of South Korea regaining the wartime operational control (OPCON) of its armed forces.

South Korea handed over OPCON to the U.S.-led U.N. forces shortly after the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War. Peacetime OCPON was returned in 1994 but American commanders will still take control of South Korean troops in the event of a war.

In 2007, Roh negotiated the transfer of wartime OPCON, which was to take place by 2012. The OPCON transfer was delayed till 2015 under the Lee administration and postponed indefinitely by Park who agreed on a "conditions-based" approach.

Moon is aware of the price of an early OPCON transition.

It requires South Korea to beef up its own defense posture through the development or purchase of more cutting-edge weapons.

Moon's camp announced plans to activate the nation's independent missile defense network, called the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD), and the Kill Chain pre-emptive strike system as early as possible.

He pledged to increase the country's defense budget to around 3 percent of its gross domestic product, tallied at US$1.47 trillion, from the current 2.4 percent.

He will also push for the reform of the country's 625,000-strong military to make it smaller but stronger. He is seeking to cut the mandatory service period for the nation's soldiers from the current 21 months to 18 months and raise their wages via the long-term defense reform program.

Experts in Seoul say there might be money problems in the traditionally value-based alliance especially amid pressure from Trump for Seoul to share more of the financial burden for the U.S. role in regional security. The two sides are scheduled to start talks early next year on splitting the cost of 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea.

Trump recently shocked and angered Koreans by publicly saying he'd like Seoul to pay for the THAAD unit, estimated at $1 billion.

"It reflects Trump's resolve to take the initiative on various pending alliance issues including the defense cost-sharing one," Kim Yong-hyun, a Dongguk University professor, said.

An image, provided by Yonhap News TV, of stand-offs between North Korea and the United States. (Yonhap)

Among other potential points of friction is a possible difference between Moon and Trump on details of how to resolve the North Korea issue.

The Trump administration's North Korea policy is not yet completely settled but it has suggested tougher sanctions on Pyongyang, while Moon is likely to put more emphasis on dialogue with the communist neighbor.

"U.S.-ROK relations are sometimes relatively smooth and sometimes relatively rocky, and we are likely moving from a smooth period to a more rocky period," Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center, pointed out.

Nevertheless, he added, North Korea is expected to continue nuclear and missile testing and it will narrow the expected gap between Seoul and Washington.

Romberg, the Stimson fellow, took note of Moon's statement that he hopes to open talks with Pyongyang in solid alliance ties with Washington.

"I believe that this approach, plus the determination of professionals on both sides, including U.S. National Security Adviser McMaster, will ensure that relations will continue to operate in a constructive and cooperative way," he said.


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