|U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley salutes with his Korean counterpart and host Gen. Park Han-ki during an honor guard review in the grounds of the Defense Ministry before their Military Committee Meeting (MCM) Thursday. Yonhap|
By Oh Young-jin
But remarks by the top U.S. military man since October are raising questions about his image.
On his way to Japan, the stopover before he landed in Korea for his first Military Committee Meeting (MCM) with his Korean counterpart, Gen. Park Han-ki, Thursday, Milley spoke to reporters as if he were the personification of U.S. President Donald Trump, or "little Trump" (I don't know his exact biometrics but he stood shoulder to shoulder with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meaning he is shorter than his boss).
The principle of civilian control of the military behooves Milley, just like any other official man of arms, to follow the commander-in-chief's orders. But he is no mere foot soldier who also has a right to disobey an unlawful order but is a key military adviser to the president, a job that requires him to take account of the image of the military and national interest and be honest with his boss (James Mattis, the former defense secretary, comes first to my mind).
By that standard, Gen. Milley owes an explanation for his observation regarding the U.S. military presence in countries including Korea: These are very wealthy countries, so why can't they defend themselves?
He said the U.S. military is obliged to answer the question posed by the "average American" about why their troops are used to preserve peace in the region at U.S. taxpayers' expense.
|Generals Park and Milley review the honor guard, Thursday. Yonhap|
His remarks carry the same thrust as Trump's assertion: Korea has been a freeloader for a long time and now it is time to pay up. It is as if Korea doesn't pay and the ROK-U.S. alliance serves Korea's purposes only.
Trump is a politician and his "transactional" businessman mentality is well known, so when he make remarks damaging the alliance and the U.S. military reputation, it is often taken at a discount.
But when U.S. military top brass like Gen. Milley or Gen. Robert Abrams, a soldier of soldiers, who leads U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) and commands the alliance's Combined Forces Command, repeat the Trump line, it is a totally different matter. Not just for allies but also for the men and women in their charge.
Some U.S. experts point out that Trump's forceful approach over Korea and Japan paying more for the upkeep of U.S. troops runs the risk of relegating U.S. forces to guns for hire or mercenaries. The logic behind it is obvious: U.S. soldiers have long served as a bulwark for peace and promoters of justice despite occasional cases of military misadventures. But the Trumpian thought is distinctly dangerous, seeing the allies as unilateral beneficiaries of its military, so they have to pay for the protection it provides.
That Trumpian confusion relates to the president accepting a partnership with anyone that can help his interests, even if it is Russia. Could the general accept this view, turning his patriotic soldiers into a utility?
If this "military being a utility" thought prevails, the next natural step is the corruption of the spirit of the U.S. military, depriving the servicemen and servicewomen of the honor of protecting the country and preserving peace. My questions to the general are: Wasn't the special honor that comes with service a key motivation for joining the ROTC program to be an army officer when he was in Princeton? Has he forgotten the weight of that special honor?
On a greater scale, the new burden-sharing proposition is dividing the allies when the U.S. needs them most for a new global order, with China emerging ― in the general's word ― as one that is a "competitor" that shouldn't be an "enemy" (you feel where he puts his weight between "c" and "e" words). It may be pushing Korea to the bosom of China and forcing Japan to have second thoughts about its alliance with the U.S.
Then, the general has been talking about the importance of the Korea-U.S.-Japan alliance but failed to mediate in the dispute that forced Korea's decision to leave the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), the bilateral military intelligence pact with Japan, after Tokyo imposed trade sanctions on Korea. The U.S. is keeping pressure on Korea to return to the pact before it expires on Nov. 22. Japan may be happy to see the U.S. taking sides with it but we in Korea are unhappy.
Take out all the emotional trappings regarding the Korea-Japan dispute, and it is nothing less than a strategic mistake for the U.S. not to settle this dispute quietly ― and the general should be the first among those to realize that.
He correctly observed that China and North Korea would be smiling at the schism among the trilateral alliance, triggered by GSOMIA, but his country failed to provide the glue to reattach the two estranged neighbors. President Barack Obama did patch things up between Seoul and Tokyo. If the general has a Korean friend from his days in Korea, please ask him and take the real pulse of Korea on these issues ― and report to your boss.
Oh Young-jin (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com) is digital managing editor of The Korea Times.