The Outcome of the Gulf War and Korea - U.S. Relations


Paper presented at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, Washington, D.C., March 19, 1991.


               The purpose of this note is to discuss how the outcome of the Gulf War will affect the main issues in U.S.-Korea relations. One of the main issues of immediate concern is the trade relationship between the two countries, which has been somewhat strained in the past six months. The U.S. had been placing great pressure on Korea to open up agriculture and services as well as commodity markets more fully, to protect foreign intellectual property rights more vigorously, and to revalue the won currency in order to reduce Korea's surplus with the United States.

Toward the end of last year, criticism of Korea in the American media was commonplace, centering on the so-called frugality campaign conceived as a means of import restriction. In particular, following the stalemate last December at the Uruguay Round negotiations in Brussels, U.S. officials in Washington assigned some of the blame for the failure of the negotiation in agricultural trade to Korea, along with Japan and the EC.

On the part of Korea, the ongoing process of transition to a democratic society made it extremely difficult for the government to comply fully with the U.S. request in the face of virulent opposition by farmers, politicians, and vested interest groups which, unlike in the past, refuse to bow to government pressure. Experience shows that in a transition period such as Korea is now undergoing, the new and the old inevitably intersect, creating confusion and contradictions, while the perceptions of outside observers lag behind the changing reality of the country in transition, creating an added source of misunderstanding and tension between the countries involved.

However, a series of intergovernmental consultations and negotiations toward the end of last year was largely successful in resolving many of the pending issues, while Korea's trade account with the United States-a principal source of trade friction-moved from a peak surplus of $9.5 billion in 1987 to a deficit position beginning in January this year.

In the past several months, U.S. attention was concentrated on the Gulf crisis with relatively little attention going to trade issues. In the meantime, trade officials in Geneva agreed to resume negotiations in all sectors to save the past four years of multilateral trade talks from ending up as a total failure. Now that the Gulf War has come to an end with a dramatic victory of the allied forces, the U.S. Congress will turn its attention back to trade issues. The prevailing assumption in Asian countries, including Korea, appears to be that United States will exercise greater influence in the resumed multilateral negotiations in the Uruguay Round, assuming that the extention of the "First Track" proviso is approved by the U.S. Congress.

Another impact of the Gulf War on bilateral relations arises from the concern among the American people and the Congress over burden sharing. Korea's modest contribution to the allied forces has been in money, equipment, and manpower: $500 million in aid to the multinational forces, the dispatch of five C-130 planes, 150 noncombat military personnel, and a 154-member medical team. Neverthless, there is a risk here that Korea could be lumped together with Japan and Germany as "shirkers" in the war effort, and pay the consequence of U.S. public backlash. Apart from this matter, Korea will be asked to share a greater burden for its own defense, given the resurgence of U.S. fiscal deficit resulting from the the war.

More optimistically, the outcome of the Gulf War has brought about a heightened expectation among Korean companies that they may be able to play a role either by themselves or together with American companies in the reconstruction of war-torn countires in the Gulf, taking advantage of their wide experience and expertise in construction projects in the Middle East during the past two decades.

The outcome of the Gulf War also has implications with respect to the security situations on the Korean peninsula. At the beginning of the Gulf War, President Bush made it known to the world that what was really at stake in the Gulf War was a new world order "where brutality will go unrewarded, and an aggresion will meet collective resistance." The phrase "collective resistance" conveys special meaning to Koreans because the very first example of such UN action dates back to the Korean War, in which aggression against South Korea by the North was repelled by the collective resistance of 15 free nations under the flag of the UN. The forceful words and deeds of President Bush together with the brilliant winning of the war in six weeks by the allied forces should serve as a somber warning to Kim Ilsung and his heir apparent in the North.

North Korea was reported to have shipped Scud missiles to Iraq and Syria before and during the war from its armory of Soviet origin. It is no wonder that these days South Koreans-as well as North Koreans-are anxious to know whether or not there are Patriot missiles in the South.

South Koreans are fully aware that the Korean peninsula remains a potential flashpoint of regional conflict as long as Pyongyang-one of the few communist regimes left in the world-maintains military ambition and refuses to undertake reforms in the direction of a market economy and pluralist political system, following the example set by its traditional allies: China, the Soviet Union, and the East European countries. South Koreans are hoping that the outcome of the Gulf War may help change the mind and attitude of North Korean leaders and encourage them to adopt more realistic and constructive proposals for peace and reunification.

Needless to say, what will actually happen on the Korean peninsula is closely linked to what will happen in the power relations of the four major powers with the most immediate interest in Korea: the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and Japan. Since the turn of this century, Korea has been at the mercy of the international power politics of these countries. More recently, South Korea has become an economic power in Northeast Asia in its own right. On the political side it now has formal and friendly relations with the Soviet Union, while enjoying a confortable relationship with China, although formal diplomatic ties do not yet exist. This salutary political change for Korea came with the end of the East-West Cold War; hence South Koreans are anxious to see that the four major powers develop and maintain friendly and cooperative relations based on mutual trust and respect. At the same time, South Korea attaches great importance to a continuing U.S.-Korea security alliance in the interest of regional stability, even if the threat from the North diminishes in the post-Gulf War era.

These days, we read media reports that with the end of the Gulf War, the Soviet Union and China-as well as other countries in Asia-are concerned about the possible rise of what they call "hegemonism" on the part of the the Uited States. (China abstained from the resolution of the UN Security Council vote on March 3, and Beijing reportedly is going to increase defense expenditures. Malaysia is now calling for formation of an East Asian Economic Group excluding the United States.) Some political analysts even hold the view that a new world order based on the leadership of a single superpower may be potentially more dangerous than the Cold War order based on the balance of power of the two superpowers.

In this regard, we are reminded of Dr. Henry Kissinger's familiar theory of the balance of power. "A new world order," he said recently, "will see many centers of power, both within regions and between them. . . . In such a world, peace can be maintained in only one of two ways: by domination or by equilibrium. Therefore, we need to rely on a balance of power, globally as well as regionally."

In this light, we note with interest the proposals, be they offical or unofficial, to create a security organization in the Asia-Pacific region and/or Northeat Asia structured along the lines of NATO in Europe that were aired recently in several countries including Canada, Australia, the Soviet Union, and Korea. As for Korea, President Roh has proposed a "consultative conference for Peace in Northeast Asia" with participation by countries that have a major interest in the Korean peninsula, including the Soviet Union. The U.S. reaction to the idea of a collective approach to the regional security in Northeast Asia is not very clear. It should be noted, however, that the United States, concerned about sales abroad of missiles by North Korea and others, is now reportedly seeking the possibility of forming a multilateral framework to control weaponry.

At any rate, how to define the U.S. role in Northeast Asia in the changing context of the world scene today is a matter for widespread discussion among the Asia-Pacific nations in the quest for a new order that would ensure peace and prosperity in the region. Historically, the United States has been playing the role of balancing power in Northeast Asia in its relation to the three major powers surrounding the Korean peninsula as a focal point. There is no doubt that the future of the Korea-U.S. relationship hinges upon the future evolution of such a role for the United States.