Two and a half cheers for Obama on South Korea

Two and a half cheers for Obama on South Korea

Washington is demonstrating strong support for its South Korean ally after the tragic murder by North Korea of 46 ROK sailors. Secretaries Gates and Clinton are visiting Seoul in the first ever U.S.-ROK "2 plus 2" meeting (a reference to the regular meetings between the Secretaries of State and Defense and their Japanese counterparts). The leaders issued a joint statement calling for the "complete and verifiable" denuclearization of North Korea and they finalized details for major joint exercises to be conducted next week.

The exercises will include up to 8,000 sailors, airmen, and marines. The massive USS George Washington carrier strike group will be involved, as will F-22s (by far the most capable aircraft ever made — I am sure the South Koreans and Japanese wish we had produced more of them) and air and missile defense assets, including Aegis-equipped destroyers, and other anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

All of this is welcome. Less promising is an unnecessary concession to China. The first exercises, which include the George Washington, are not being held anywhere near the site where the South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, was sunk by the North. Administration officials protest that they never said the carrier would exercise in the Yellow Sea, so there is no concession at all. But that is beside the point. The Chinese clearly did not want a massive show of force near their coastline. The answer should have been "too bad."

This concession is a mistake for two reasons. First, the Chinese have made the crisis worse by protecting the North Koreans from tough responses to their war-like behavior. Second, the Chinese are increasingly trying to change the rules of maritime behavior. The U.S. Navy is well within its rights to exercise in the Yellow Sea. China’s resistance comes at the same time that it is trying to restrict lawful U.S. operations in other parts of its Exclusive Economic Zone. We certainly need not always be tough on the Chinese (leave them alone on climate change, for example — they need to grow). But when China acts irresponsibly, our instinct should not be to reassure them. To the contrary, we should demonstrate that there are costs for irresponsible behavior, including allied exercises right off their coast. If Beijing wants such exercises to stop it should control its North Korean ally.

In addition, Washington should not talk about "a return to the Six Party Talks." After the murder of South Korean sailors, a return to talks seems rather disconsonant. North Korea has pretty well demonstrated its lack of interest in any talks that do not involve the other parties offering one-sided concessions to it and recognizing it as a nuclear state. Rather, South Korea, the United States, and Japan should talk about a vision for a unified Korea under ROK rule. China should be invited to join such talks, but the allies should set the agenda.

Because a unified Korea under South Korean rule is a long-term goal, the allies should discuss measures to deter North Korean provocations, ways in which South Korea and Japan can improve ties and operate more closely together, and contingency planning for a North Korean collapse.

In short, the visit by secretaries Gates and Clinton to South Korea is an important and deft alliance management move. But there is no reason to placate a China that should be controlling its dangerous ally.