Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What Israel can learn from South Korea’s experience

[Article I'm mulling today: Newsweek's "The DNA of Abraham's Children"]

What does it mean to have the US as a “close ally,” a nation standing by your side and guaranteeing your security? When you’re under attack, will the Obama administration provide instant military aid, or will it dither diplomatically while your civilians suffer?

Israelis have been told for decades that the US would be by their side, and no Arab nation would dare attack, for fear of American reprisal. [1967 and 1973 are distant memories by now; the question is today, not yesterday.] The US would like to see UN troops, or NATO troops, on-site, rather than have Israelis defend themselves. Israelis have been less than confident in these promises, noting how quickly its neighbors could invade and cause serious harm before any help from the United States would be set in motion. Hence Israel’s insistence on demilitarizing any Palestinian Arab state, hence Israel's stance on the Golan, hence Israel’s stance on keeping soldiers in the Jordan Valley, hence the on-going Israeli emphasis on maintaining a qualitative military edge, and so on. [Whether any of this would effectively safeguard Israel from attack is debatable; my point is only that Israel has not wanted to rely on external safeguards.]

South Korea, on the other hand, has relied on the United States for on-site military assistance. Per the US State Department’s website: “Under the 1953 U.S.-R.O.K. Mutual Defense Treaty, the United States agreed to help the Republic of Korea defend itself against external aggression. In support of this commitment, the United States has maintained military personnel in Korea, including the Army's Second Infantry Division and several Air Force tactical squadrons. To coordinate operations between these units and the over 680,000-strong Korean armed forces, a Combined Forces Command (CFC) was established in 1978. The head of the CFC also serves as Commander of the United Nations Command (UNC) and U.S. Forces Korea (USFK). The current CFC commander is General Walter “Skip” Sharp.” Although the same article notes that the US presence will be scaled back and shifted south in the coming decade, currently, US troops are there to defend South Korea from attack, and even to coordinate South Korean forces.

So what will happen now? After the apparent sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan by North Korea last year, and initial American denunciations, the US did nothing. Now the North has overtly shelled the South - what aid will the US provide? Will the Obama administration provide its typical analytic, slow and measured response, long on press releases and statements but short on action, which has won it such contempt in previous crises like the BP oil spill? Or will it move swiftly and decisively to demonstrate, with more than press releases, what the US does for the allies who depend upon it?

To be sure, there are many good reasons for the US to hold off on instant military action on the Korean peninsula. Aside from North Korea’s nuclear capability, there is the matter of China, and the uncertainty in South Korea’s own government and population about where they want this to go. But there are many such justifications for delay in the Middle East as well – Iran, nuclear concerns, internal Israeli dissonance and so on. And where North Korea has few friends to stall American action, the Arab nations are a bloc that controls international institutions as well as the western oil-based economy. So a delay in action in the Koreas certainly signals that there would be delay in action in the Middle East.

You can bet Israel is watching.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. A few things struck me about this.

    1) The press was pretty clear that North Korea was the villain here. Compare with the presentation when the Lebanese army shot dead an Israeli soldier in cold blood a while ago, which implied Israel was equally responsible for what happened.

    2) This was the first item on BBC TV news last night. Compare with the more or less total failure to report on the rockets that are still being fired on south Israel from Gaza.

    3) There are nearly 30,000 US troops in South Korea, ready to fight and if necessary die to defend it. There is not and has never been one single US soldier in Israel. Yet we are constantly told that Israel exercises a disproportionate and even malevolent influence on US foreign policy. If I were Walt and Mearsheimer, I'd be looking into the strength of the South Korean lobby.

    That said, I would query your point about North Korea not having any friends; Russia and especially China would not be too pleased with a robust US response to North Korea.

    (Posted anonymously because I don't like to advertize my Zionism any more - sad but true.)

  3. Anonymous-
    1) Indeed.
    2) Ditto.
    3) I did mention China, but I'm not sure where Russia is on them at this point.