Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement

By Selig S. Harrison | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 24
Korea, Japan, and the United States

ONE OF THE key issues in the debate over the future of the American military presence in Korea is what impact a U.S. withdrawal would have on the relations between China and a unified Korea. The case for a postunification U.S. military presence frequently includes a warning that China would move into the “vacuum” resulting from a U.S. withdrawal by concluding a military alliance with Korea, complete with a nuclear umbrella, linked with preferential status for Korea in trade and investment relations. The rationale for such an alliance, it is argued, would be the perception of a common threat to both countries from Japan. But this warning rests on a line of analysis that distorts the historical record of Sino-Korean relations, ignores the emergence of Korean nationalism during the past half century, and underrates the strength of the divisive factors that are already beginning to emerge in Sino-Korean relations.

Warnings of a Sino-Korean military alliance reflect a Sino-centered historical perspective in which it is assumed that China has exercised hegemony over Korea for most of its history and would only be reasserting a traditional pattern of relations. It is true that China had tributary relations with successive Korean dynasties from the sixth century until the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. In Chinese eyes, these were relations between an elder brother and a younger brother. Then as now, China perceived Korea as a buffer state critical to Chinese security. It assumed that its seniority would guarantee military cooperation in time of crisis. From the Korean vantage point, however, the ceremonial obeisance rendered to China by Korean kings only signified their cultural respect for China as the center of what was then the civilized world. It was precisely because China carefully refrained from interfering with Korean political autonomy that this obeisance was acceptable and that Korea did intermittently cooperate with China militarily to defend what it perceived as Korean interests.

In the contemporary context, Korean cultural respect for China and the power of the Confucian legacy reinforce the powerful economic factors that draw Korea to Beijing and could well make Korean relations with China closer than those with any other power. But the historical,

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