Friday, April 17, 2009

Payback is a glitch

Okay, South Korea is approaching one of those epiphanies where it should become clear that the old, established way of doing things may no longer be reliable and it is time to take a new path — even trailblaze that path if necessary.

South Korea joined then-President George W. Bush's coalition of the willing in Iraq for two reasons: First, then-President Roh Moohyun needed to show the US that South Korea was a true partner in the alliance (especially amidst claims he was anti-American), and secondly, it was a chance for South Korea to secure valuable oil contracts in the region where its troops would be operating.

Both of these things had to be important, because Roh was running completely against the grain of his own party and even the generally pro-US opposition (now the ruling party) wasn't inclined to get too involved in Bush's ill-conceived war.

[above: Oil field in Kurdistan. Very, very messy.]

It seemed that reason #2 was paying off. In exchange for promises to provide $2.1 billion in infrastructure development in Kurdistan, South Korea's Korea National Oil Corporation and SK Energy secured nearly two billion barrels of oil.

Echos of the Madagascar deal: promises of development in exchange for security of a needed commodity.

But as with Madagascar, the deal may be going south. South to Baghdad, in fact, which is caught up in a feud over the autonomous Kurdistan region — which had been virtually free of Saddam Hussein's influence since the end of the Gulf War in 1991.

It seems Baghdad doesn't like the Kurdistan leaders in Arbil making contracts to give away oil that belongs, according to the new constitution, to the whole country. And they are telling KNOC and SKE that if they want to bid on other contracts, they will have to rip up the earlier one with Arbil.

My dad used to say this to me (in relation to medical school and what-not): If it were easy, everybody would do it. Seoul should ponder this question: Why haven't other countries been making these grand deals with Madagascar or Kurdistan? The answer may lie in a distrust of China or other countries among Iraqis or Malagasies that does not exist toward Korea, but the key may be that these grand plans are inherently risky. Risky because, well, not all the people of Madagascar support the government and Kurdistan doesn't exactly have full rights to the oil they claim to be selling.

And so maybe South Korea needs to take a good, long look at the problem and find that new path I've been mentioning. Instead of a few billion dollars for Kurdistan infrastructure, how about a few billion for alternative energy R&D. This is the wave of the future. Chasing down oil contracts is so 20th century. If Korea-based researchers (and this can include the growing number of non-Korean scholars populating Korea's tech institutes) can crack open the barriers to solar energy collection and storage, water desalinization, hydrogen power, small-scale nuclear energy, etc., etc., the world will beat a path to Taejŏn.


  1. "First, then-President Roh Moohyun needed to show the US that South Korea was a true partner in the alliance (especially amidst claims he was anti-American), "And why did Roh Moohyun need to demonstrate military fidelity to the US? Was it because the US had threatened to reduce its troop presence?

  2. Sonagi, are you asking seriously or rhetorically?

    Part of the impression was Roh's own fault, much of it was due to the press and the chinbo "progressive" groups themselves, but a lot of it was the result of Rumsfeld and other right-wing folks in Washington lashing out at the orgy of anti-US sentiment that erupted around the world in response to the Iraq War, including US allies.

    The US did in fact reduce the size of USFK substantially, and there was fear (including by the people who later supported Lee in 2007) that more of that was coming.

  3. I was asking seriously because at the time there was a presumtion that the Korean government must have gotten some political concessions from the US in exchange for Korea's joining the alliance of the coerced and the bribed. Lucrative oil contracts alone wouldn't have motivated Roh to make a decision that would enfuriate his strongest supporters.

  4. Sonagi, the presumptions you are speaking of are the speculations of a K-blog commentariat that tends toward the mindless bashing of Korea, while eschewing a nuanced analysis of what's going on.

    This is one reason why I have so many critics in the K-blogs: Rarely is the "What the hell is wrong with these people?" emotional response correct, and I'm well hated because I not only refuse to validate it, I point out where it's faulty.

    In this case, the problem is that the K-blog commentariat tends to look at Roh Moohyun as a caricature of anti-Americanism, an analysis which is very far off the mark.

    Make no mistake, I'm a harsh critic of RMH, but I approach him with a recognition that he is much more multifaceted than the K-blog commentariat would have you believe.

    For a taste of this, take a look at this post of mine, and then look at the comments section in the Marmot's Hole post that referenced it. Actually, that comment section is sort of tame, but you can still grasp a sense that the usual suspects just can't get their head around the idea.

    RMH has made it clear on numerous occasions that he he feels a strong ROK-US relationship is essential for South Korea's prosperity and security, though his reasons are not completely self-serving as just that. He has said as much that South Korea has moved in a better direction by following America's lead.

    I must admit that in 2002 I was dismayed that he won, though I didn't care much for his opponent either. I was really worried that a tilt too far to the mindless left would be embolden and enable the "true believers" who secretly believe in Pyongyang's rhetoric. I never felt that way with Kim Daejung, who I was happy to see get elected (and I still think he was a good president).

    But then I went to an American Chamber of Commerce speech shortly before RMH's inaugural and my mind was put at ease. He didn't just say the right things, you could tell he believed them.

    But RMH's problem is, much like Bush's, that he is a ham-handed public speaker who lacks foreign policy experience. He had good ideas but he didn't know why some of them shouldn't be tried and why the others needed to be couched very, very carefully.

    His "balancer" idea was completely misunderstood, but it was also probably misguided. He was not trying to wrest South Korea free from US influence but rather utilize to the region's advantage the fact that the ROK was one of the few major regional player not to have invaded any of the others (possibly Taiwan and Mongolia also fit this description).

    It was almost like his critics were willfully misinterpreting what he was saying. Similarly, even though I vehemently disagreed with most of Bush's policies, I could see the logic and reason behind them, and I give him a bit more credit than others on my side of the political spectrum.

    RMH's support of the US's efforts may have been sold to a cynical public by a discussion of oil contracts, but as you say, that couldn't have been the primary motivating factor for a move that was so disastrously unpopular with his side of the aisle.

    He (or his people) read the writing on the wall and saw that Rumsfeld and others in Washington, who were witinessing citizens of a democratic South Korea exercising their democratic rights, were questioning whether Seoul was in their camp at all. RMH had to show that, unequivocally, yes we are.

    The Zaitun troops were Exhibit A that RMH believed in the ROK-US alliance that he has consistently said is necessary for the ROK's security. The problem with it was that he dragged his feet so long on the deployment, hoping that somewhere along the line the public would either become convinced or would tired of protesting against the pending deployment.

    It was helpful from the US side that South Korea's large force was able to deploy to a relatively stable place. Nevertheless, it did free up US troops to go elsewhere, so the idea that they were a wasted or token presence is hogwash.

    The foot-dragging also pissed off Rumsfeld, and the troop reductions went forward. South Korea needed (and still needs) to show their dedication to the alliance and, to a lesser extent, to the principles behind US hegemony in the region (though that requisite was, I believe, more important during the Bush years, especially the Rumsfeld era).

    Lee Myŏngbak gets this as well, and he understands there's a lot of misunderstanding to patch over. Toward that end, joining the PSI is probably a very good idea, as is assisting the US in patrolling the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast. Probably extending that to the sea lanes between the Pacific and Indian oceans is probably also essential.

    I've made no secret that I firmly believe that the Pax Americana is what keeps Korean (and its neighbors) safe and stable, allowing them to prosper. Though it's less direct, the US also benefits tremendously from this. (This is a point on which Richardson of OFK and I clearly overlap in our views.)

    But not everyone is convinced of this, so it's helpful to show that the ROK is a partner not just on the Korean peninsula. People have forgotten about South Korea's strong support of the US during the highly unpopular Vietnam War; it's a thing that has to be replenished from time to time.

    And if South Koreans are nervous about a resurgent Japanese right wing pushing to de-pacify the Japanese constitution and project its military, then South Korea needs to consider picking up some of the slack that Japan would take up, and where they find Japan is going anyway (like, reasonably, the Gulf of Aden), then Korea should seek to partner up with Japan as much as possible. Not only because South Korea needs to get used to moving forward with Japan for mutual interests, but also because the two need to show collectively that they are pulling their weight in what is, essentially, the same alliance with the US.

    Boy, that went on longer than I'd planned. Back to the whole idea of Americans reacting to anti-US sentiment: For as much as the K-blog commentariat tends to complain about Koreans reacting emotionally, a reaction of "fine, we'll just go home then" to the left's latest demonstration du jour is the quintessential emotional reaction.

  5. I should consider turning the previous comment into a post by itself, though I should probably wait to see what, if any, criticisms I get.

  6. Sonagi, the presumptions you are speaking of are the speculations of a K-blog commentariat that tends toward the mindless bashing of Korea, while eschewing a nuanced analysis of what's going on. No, I did not get these presumptions from the K-blogosphere but from other sources. I do not have links off-hand but recall that it was NOT on a K-blog where I read that Bush had threatened to withdraw troops if the ROK did not send at least a token force to Iraq.

    Even if Roh really supported the ROK-US alliance, he sent those troops in defiance of strong public opposition. It is reasonable to think that Roh, taking a political hit for his decision, would at least try to leverage something from Washington.


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