Korea: the US role

WHEN Secretary of State George Shultz paid a visit here recently, US security agents introduced a sniffer dog to check for bombs in some of the rooms Mr. Shultz would be using. As some incensed South Koreans tell it, the incident touched off a minor diplomatic incident. Newspapers chronicled the saga of ``Shultz's dog.'' The affair still rankles.

``Don't the Americans think we are capable of handling security in our own country?'' snorted one high government official. ``We're tired of being treated as a colony of the United States.''

This outburst over what does not seem an issue of major consequence symbolizes the searing nationalism that lurks just beneath the surface here. It is a resentment that has increased among top government officials as the US has clearly sought to distance itself from the military-dominated authoritarian regime of President Chun Doo Hwan.

Said one government official: ``We Koreans are very nationalistic. We don't want to be told what to do by the American press. We don't want to be told what to do by the State Department.''

For Washington, it is a difficult dilemma. If it criticizes the regime for its lack of movement on political reform, it antagonizes a strongly anti-communist ally. If it does not go on record as opposing some of the government's practices, it draws criticism from the political opposition. Specifically, it alienates the students who have been demonstrating against the government, and who charge that the US has sided with dictatorship and against democracy.

American ability to influence events in South Korea might seem substantial. Some 40,000 American combat troops are stationed here. Meanwhile, 40 percent of South Korea's exports go to the US.

But though South Korea is heavily dependent on the US for security and trade, the actual leverage of the US is limited. Reagan administration officials in Washington have been publicly asserting the need for political reform, stressing the need for progress on human rights.

This is useful. But Washington probably has more ability to head off negative developments here, such as ill-treatment of political opponents, than it does to nudge the government toward more positive developments, such as constitutional reform. The US should also probably be looking ahead to revision of its military command structure - and even the number and deployment of US troops in South Korea.

At present, a four-star American general has operational control over both US and Korean troops. Although this does not appear to be a major issue with the South Koreans, their generals look to the day when a South Korean would exercise this operational control. Such a shift might also benefit the US politically. If military forces were ever used for internal riot control, critics would argue that under the present system the US bore responsibility. This criticism was made during 1980 when government troops put down disturbances in Kwang Ju with major loss of civilian life. The US argues that when troops are used for internal control they are withdrawn from the joint command and are thus not under US control. But the issue remains a touchy one.

With the steady improvement of the South Korean military, there should also probably be a review of US troop strength and deployment here. The US commitment to South Korea could perhaps be demonstrated in other ways. However, many Koreans suspect that their country is valuable to the US as a base for regional military operations. They believe they can negotiate lucrative agreements under which the US would pay handsomely for basing rights as an alternative to its bases in the Philippines.

Such issues as these loom as difficult ones in a US-South Korean relationship which is basically sound, but which is buffeted by nationalism and politics.

Last of four columns on South Korea.

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