|U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a 'Keep America Great' rally at the Monroe Civic Center in Louisiana on Wednesday. The U.S. under Trump's leadership sees its role on the world stage dwindling. /AFP-Yonhap|
By Oh Young-jin
It is rather odd, because there was a time when even one senior official from Washington would weigh on Koreans' collective heart as if their existential present and future were at stake. It remains to be seen whether it reflects a real change of time, a fatal illusion or a combination of both.
First, David R. Stilwell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, just left after meeting Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Kim Hyun-chong, second deputy chief at Cheong Wa Dae's National Security Office.
Stilwell came and went without much fanfare. But three presidents before, his predecessor James Kelly assumed such heft as to serve as guest of honor for an important lunch hosted by the late President Roh Moo-hyun during his first Washington visit.
Reaction to Stilwell's visit captures as much change in the Korea-U.S. relationship as that between him and Kelly. Stilwell tried obviously with a dubious degree of success to persuade Seoul to get Korea back into the military intelligence-sharing pact ― or the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) ― with Japan.
|Protesters rally against U.S. demands for big increases in the payment for maintaining U.S. troops in Korea and reinstatement of the military information-sharing pact with Japan, in front of the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, Wednesday. /AP-Yonhap|
Kim has reportedly led efforts to put GSOMIA on ice after Washington rejected Seoul's plea to press Japan to roll back its trade sanctions on Korea.
Whether the Moon government switches GSOMIA back on or not before the deadline in two weeks, it would be correct to see Seoul's decision not as an aberration made by a rebellious presidential aide but the beginning of a process by which Korea will assert its say in the bilateral relationship.
Already, some Washington pundits have warned that Korea's GSOMIA stance may mark, in hindsight, the start of the unraveling of the two countries' alliance.
Another visitor was U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy Security and the Environment Keith Krach. He visited Seoul to participate in the two countries' Senior Economic Dialogue. Krach pushed Korea to align with its Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), a U.S. strategic initiative to contain China economically and militarily.
On the economic front, the IPS aims to countervail China's globally minded Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Militarily, it is intended to bring the Middle Kingdom's wary neighbors together to keep its expansion in check.
A joint statement from the dialogue exposed the differences between the IPS and Korea's New Southern Policy (NSP) that doesn't take China as a rival or opponent, when it said: "… both sides have put forward cooperative efforts under the NSP of the ROK and the IPS of the United States in line with the principles of openness, inclusiveness, transparency, and respect for international law."
|From left, U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris, U.S. Under-Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and Environment Keith Krach, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and David Stilwell, U.S. assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, during their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, Wednesday. /AP-Yonhap|
For Korea, present and future, antagonizing China for its size, proximity and growth potential cannot be but a hard bargain. Good luck on another tough sell.
James DeHart, chief American negotiator in defense cost-sharing talks with South Korea, also visited, meeting leaders of the National Assembly, among others. His visit came amid U.S. President Donald Trump's call for bigger contributions by allies for U.S. peace-making military efforts.
The U.S. has reportedly asked Korea to increase by about six times what it pays the U.S. for its troops here ― perhaps to the range of $6 billion. Rumors have it that the U.S. is tying the threat of its military pullout to the payment increases in an apparent pressure tactic.
Previously, all these were lumped together as the case of the "U.S. being the U.S." for its superpower status, the role of world policeman, a global fountain of new ideas and the locomotive of growth for other nations.
Now the U.S. increasingly resembles an ordinary country or "one of us" ― or, to borrow a Trumpian metaphor, an old landlord eager to get tenants to cough up extra bucks anyway he can.
Niccolo Machiavelli would add untiring youth as a key characteristic for any great leader if he were given a chance to revise his best-seller "The Prince." That is what the U.S. is missing now. The U.S. has already lost the most cherished element that makes a leader by the Machiavellian standard ― an ability to strike fear into the hearts of those ruled.
Remember the U.S. decision to abort retaliatory military action against Iran for its provocative action of shooting down a drone or the pullout from Syria in a major act of betrayal that has left its ally against ISIS ― the Kurds ― at the mercy of their arch-foe, Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Again, the U.S. has failed to come up with a decisive act ― as seen in the Plaza Accord ― to subdue China in a protracted trade war that is likely to end in a truce without a clear winner.
Washington refused to step into the Korea-Japan feud, saying it is a matter between the two. And it called Europeans ingrates, with its leader socializing with the ilk of North Korea's Kim Jong-un and Russia's Vladimir Putin.
Friends of the U.S. like Korea have followed its lead because it was more affordable and reliable than going it alone. Dealing with Washington is getting more expensive and less reliable, besides being tricky. Then, China is expected to take advantage of potential schisms in the U.S.-led global order and stage a charm offensive to make it an alternative.
The U.S. would be better off for once if it took the situation from its friends' point of view before becoming an ex.
Oh Young-jin (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com) is digital managing editor of The Korea Times.