The U.S. has defended South Korea for 50 years. But newly elected President Roh Moo-hyun suggests that his nation might “mediate” in any war between America and the North. Whatever value the U.S.-ROK alliance once had has disappeared.
Although attention has focused on the resumption of North Korea’s nuclear program, an equally important issue is the future of America’s relations with South Korea. The presence of 37,000 troops in the South is a Cold War artifact, resulting from the post-World War II division of the peninsula and subsequent Chinese and Soviet support for North Korean aggression. Today the Cold War is over and China and Russia are friendlier with Seoul than Pyongyang.
Moreover, the South has raced ahead of the North, enjoying 40 times the GDP, twice the population, and a vast technological edge. The DPRK’s military is large, but decrepit. Its latest weapons date to 1990; spare parts and training are nonexistent. To the extent that the ROK’s military lags behind that of its northern antagonist, it is a matter of choice, not necessity. There is no special gravitational field that prevents Seoul from building a larger force.
Although no U.S. forces are needed to guard against the bankrupt North, they are ubiquitous, with some based in downtown Seoul. Thus occur purposeless violent altercations and tragic traffic deaths.
After the recent acquittal in military court of two soldiers charged in the accidental deaths of two children, demonstrations erupted. Americans have been barred from restaurants, jeered, and in a few cases physically attacked.
President-elect Roh has called for a more “equal” relationship and promised not to “kowtow” to Washington. Even the U.S. seems prepared to change the status of forces agreement governing the treatment of American servicemen.
But the relationship between the two countries will never be equal so long as South Korea is dependent on Washington for its defense. If a country wants America’s protection, it can’t complain when Washington calls the shots. How could it be any other way: Surely the U.S. cannot be expected to risk war on another nation’s terms.
And so long as America protects the ROK, it will rightly demand special treatment for its soldiers. Even assuming that South Korean courts are fair and today’s rampant anti-Americanism won’t spill over into the judicial system, it would not be fair to U.S. soldiers to station them in another land to protect others while leaving them vulnerable to the vagaries of foreign injustice. Put bluntly, a country pays a price when it is a de facto protectorate.
That this arrangement is growing ever more difficult to sustain is evident when it comes to policymaking towards North Korea. Washington has established a troop tripwire in the ROK to ensure that it is involved in any war. As a result, the U.S. naturally wants to control the geopolitical environment.
This situation offers cold comfort for the South, however. A misstep towards Pyongyang would be bothersome for the U.S.; it would be catastrophic for the South. Yet, former President Bill Clinton relates, he prepared military options for use against the North a decade ago, with nary a nod to the South Koreans (and Japanese). President George W. Bush apparently rejected military coercion only because Korean President Kim Dae Jung personally related the horrors of the Korean War.
That is a thin reed for Seoul to rely upon in avoiding a new Korean War. As Roh recently complained, “We almost went to the brink of war in 1993 with North Korea, and at the time we didn’t even know it.”
Nor can Washington feel comfortable about shifting attitudes in South Korea. The generation grateful for American aid in the Korean War is passing from the scene; younger people, who will make up an increasing share of the electorate, think more of U.S. support for various military regimes and the indignities (and tragedies) of a foreign military presence.
Moreover, Seoul’s increasing assertiveness in developing its own policy towards the North is likely to increase. President-elect Roh is obviously committed to engagement, but even opposition candidate Lee Hoi-chang, though more conservative, would likely have stressed engagement with Pyongyang had he won.
Alas, the best strategy for handling the DPRK is not obvious, but it is not surprising that policymakers in Seoul, within easy reach of North Korean artillery and Scud missiles, have a different perspective than those in Washington. And given the stakes, South Korea (along with China, Japan, and Russia) are likely to insist that they not only be consulted, but also be involved in shaping policy.
Although the most-momentous issue involving the Korean peninsula today is Pyongyang’s continuing pursuit of nuclear weapons, America’s military tripwire also requires attention. Halting the North’s program is an important goal, but is not advanced by America’s existing troop presence.
Absent a U.S. plan to invade the North — something that seems unlikely even in the Bush administration — the U.S. forces perform no useful role. To the contrary, they are nuclear hostages if the North marries an effective atomic bomb to a means of delivery, which it may have already done. Nowhere else on earth would so many Americans be at such risk.
A better strategy towards the North will come through a coordinated response from all of its neighbors, particularly China, Japan, and Russia. None want war on the peninsula; none want a nuclear North Korea; all possess some degree of leverage over Pyongyang.
The basic message needs to be: Significant diplomatic and economic rewards are possible, but only for positive, verifiable disarmament. More-aggressive behavior, in contrast, will encourage both Japan and South Korea to respond in kind, which would not be in Pyongyang’s interest. Especially since North Korea could find itself confronting not one but two new nuclear powers, neither of which would be kindly disposed to the DPRK.
In contrast, Washington should move to the background, downplaying the crisis. This would sharply reduce the value of the Pyongyang’s nuclear card.
Alliances exist to serve a purpose. Yet in Korea the means has become an end. America pays the bill but gains no benefit from doing so. Indeed, it is finding ingratitude replacing appreciation.
Washington’s military presence is no longer necessary to protect the South. The troops play no role in constraining China, since no administration is likely to be foolish enough to embark upon a ground war with Beijing, or, even less plausibly, Japan, which is about as likely as the Philippines to again run amok throughout East Asia.
The relationship’s diminishing utility is most evident in the South. Seoul bears the cost of hosting foreign troops, runs the risk of having its security controlled by a self-centered great power, and craves the respect due a country moving towards the first rank of nations.
Even if the countries avoid a crisis today, they will only delay the inevitable. America’s security guarantee has lost its raison d’etre. It’s time for an amicable divorce rather than a much more bitter parting in the near future.
— Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.