The Korean Imbroglio: Disengage and Ignore

by , September 09, 2006

You have to wonder what America has done to deserve to be stuck in Korea. What curse are we suffering under?

On the one side are the South Koreans, whom we have defended for five decades. Large numbers think more highly of China and North Korea than of America; many view the U.S. as the region’s most dangerous actor. It should come as no surprise that when President Roh Moo-hyun visits next week, he won’t be getting a trip to Graceland.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is far worse. The regime of Kim Jong-il is virtually unknowable and follows an internal logic that is indecipherable. The only certainty in dealing with Pyongyang is that negotiations are never over and another instance of brinkmanship is around the corner.

As a result, Washington finds itself in the middle when the North engages in yet another, inevitable provocation. For instance, the July 4 North Korean missile tests set off a frenzied reaction not only in Seoul and Tokyo, but Washington, D.C. Yet why should the most powerful nation on earth, with the largest, most sophisticated nuclear arsenal as well as overwhelming conventional military, be concerned about a backward, impoverished state seeking to develop a new missile? Absent America’s military presence in the South, the DPRK’s actions would be largely irrelevant.

U.S. contact with Korea goes back more than a century, but it was the 1945 defeat of Japan that brought American troops to the peninsula. Washington and Moscow set up competing regimes; only massive U.S. intervention in 1950 saved the Republic of Korea from defeat in a North Korean attempt at blitzkrieg. Three years later the combatants, which by then included the People’s Republic of China, signed an armistice halting combat near the original border at the 38th Parallel.

Since then Washington has defended the South, which eventually moved from dictatorship to democracy. North Korea remains a mysterious totalitarian hellhole, based on a personality cult beyond anything achieved by Mao Zedong or Joseph Stalin. An impoverished nation of 23 million, the DPRK would be largely irrelevant internationally if it was not busy developing nuclear weapons.

As in Europe, history weighs heavily in Korea upon U.S. military deployments. Washington intervened in a very different world, which has completely disappeared. The Cold War is over; the Soviet Union has collapsed; Maoist China has disappeared. North Korea remains hostile, but saw its economy shrink and its population starve in the late 1990s. Its recovery, such as it is, merely has replaced catastrophe with misery.

On the other side, America’s once war-ravaged allies, Japan and South Korea, have become prosperous democracies, leading trading nations, and influential global players. The ROK now has about 40 times the North’s GDP, as well as twice the population and a vast technological lead.

Starting afresh, no one would think of sending 30,000 U.S. troops to the South. Suggesting that the ROK can’t defend itself would be about the same as arguing that America required assistance in defending against Mexico. Even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admits: “I don’t see [the North Koreans], frankly, as an immediate military threat to South Korea.”

Some analysts worry that Seoul won’t make the effort necessary to defend itself, but that is not America’s problem. During the Cold War one might argue that the larger struggle required U.S. Intervention even on behalf of irresponsible allies. Not today, however: full responsibility for its future should be placed on the ROK.

Although the raison d’être for the Washington-Seoul alliance no longer exists, for some people the means (a garrison in the South) has become the end. Which means finding new justifications for old commitments.

Toward this end some U.S. and South Korean analysts have talked about “dual use” deployments. Seoul wants America to defend against Japan; Washington wants to use South Korean bases to defend against China. And everyone talks about preserving regional stability.

Yet Tokyo, despite current tensions with China and the ROK, isn’t about to embark upon a new campaign of aggression. Military action by Beijing seems almost as unlikely, even in the long-term; moreover, South Korean officials have made it clear that they won’t help form an anti-Chinese front.

There’s plenty of local instability throughout East Asia even with U.S. forces based in the ROK. Anyway, there isn’t much American troops could or should do in response to local troubles in the future. Patrolling, say, one of Indonesia’s potential breakaway provinces simply isn’t in America’s interest.

More broadly, U.S. Troops are said to cement U.S. influence or prevent a regional arms race. However, there’s no evidence that the garrison in the South adds anything to the influence that comes naturally from being the globe’s sole superpower. Nor has America’s force presence stopped the People’s Republic of China from upgrading its military; better that front-line allied states take responsibility for their region’s security rather than rely on Washington.

While there’s no obvious benefit for the U.S. in keeping troops in the ROK, there are plenty of costs. Instead of offering a cheap advanced base for America, the Korean commitment requires an expanded military to meet additional defense contingencies. Figuring out the exact cost of the Korean deployment isn’t easy, but past estimates ran upwards of $15 billion, about as much as Seoul spends on its entire defense.

A promise to defend also increases the risk of involvement in a conflict that no longer matters much for U.S. security. The ROK was important symbolically during the Cold War; today any conflict involving it would be a humanitarian tragedy but would have no significant security implications. The troop presence ensures that any war will involve America; even the the latest U.S.-ROK maneuvers raised tensions with the North. Today Washington has to worry about far more pressing conflicts, especially Afghanistan, Iraq, and the continuing fight against al-Qaeda.

Moreover, it is the defense guarantee for and force deployment in South Korea that make the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea America’s problem. Absent those ties, the latest machinations of the North’s exotic dictator, Kim Jong-il, would more amuse than frighten. Even Pyongyang’s nuclear program would primarily be an issue for North Korea’s neighbors.

The U.S. possesses the most powerful military on earth, including the most advanced nuclear force. Thus, the DPRK could not use nuclear weapons against America without inviting a devastating retaliation. And all evidence suggests that Kim Jong-il wants his virgins today rather than in paradise.

Washington would still rightly be concerned about proliferation, but Kim could be made to understand that this would be an extraordinarily risky way to make additional cash. Ironically, the worst proliferator so far has been U.S. ally Pakistan.

If it wasn’t entwined in Korean security issues, America would no longer need to take the lead in the ever tortuous and torturous negotiations with the North. America could offer to support whatever South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia come up with, with the proviso that they should not call on the U.S. for help if they botch the process.

Indeed, Washington also could take that position with regard to North Korean missile tests, conventional deployments, and the like. The U.S. could do so even if Pyongyang moved ahead with a nuclear test, now viewed as a possibility – though all such estimates must be treated with skepticism. After the recent DPRK missile tests, a Bush administration aide opined that the U.S. only had an array of “familiar bad choices.” Yet we have to choose among bad options only because we insist on being involved.

At the time of the North Korean launches, the U.S. blustered and threatened even though the DPRK violated no principle of international law and threatened no neighbor. Grant that it would be better if North Korea did not develop advanced weapons – heck, grant that it would wonderful if Kim Jong-il turned his country into a liberal democracy, dismantled the North Korean gulag, and turned himself over to the Hague for trial for crimes against humanity – it made no sense for America to complain if it wasn’t going to do anything in response. And it made no sense to do anything since Pyongyang’s action was merely a symbolic attempt at provocation which succeeded only because the U.S. And its allies got so excited about what was essentially nothing.

In one sense, “solving” the Korean problem is incredibly complicated. South Korea is nationalistic, with younger generations turning against America; many ROK residents have a strangely rosy view of the North. The DPRK is ever bellicose and belligerent, committed to a game of inconsistent brinkmanship, a war waiting to happen. How the expanding South and stagnating North work out their increasingly interconnected futures, and how that affects their neighbors, is anyone’s guess.

However, it really is easy for America to “solve” the Korea problem. Just get out.

Washington has begun a force drawdown, moving from 37,000 to just under 30,000 troops, and is preparing to turn over wartime command to the South. The U.S. should speedily bring the rest of them home. Americans should cheerfully sell the ROK whatever weapons it desires, but they should leave up to Seoul how to respond to the garrison’s departure. South Korea’s defense is South Korea’s problem.

At the same time, the U.S. Should essentially ignore the DPRK. Once Washington’s forces were gone, North Korea would be largely irrelevant to American policy. If Kim Jong-il breathed new threats against the U.S., Washington should politely remind him about its nuclear deterrent. Otherwise, it should offer no comment on the latest North Korean provocation and point to the ROK if he came calling for aid.

After a decent interval – and during a time of relatively “good” DPRK behavior – the U.S. Should offer to open discussions on establishing diplomatic relations. It would be a minor concession, providing Washington with at least a little window into the North, and Pyongyang with a reward of sorts for behaving more like a normal country. The U.S. Should indicate a willingness to engage in more substantive discussions so long as the DPRK makes a positive contribution to the larger security environment.

While stepping back the U.S. Should emphasize to North Korea’s neighbors that they now bear primary responsibility for ensuring regional stability. The South must realistically assess the threat posed by the DPRK, since the U.S. would not be defending Seoul.

China should seriously ponder the prospect of a nuclear North, since the ROK and Japan (and even Taiwan) might follow suit. Japan needs to realistically balance domestic political concerns over accounting for Japanese abducted by Pyongyang with international geopolitical concerns over moderating North Korean behavior.

How well these nations would perform obviously is impossible to predict, but they all have a greater incentive to get policy right – after all, the DPRK is spoiling their neighborhood, not North America. At the same time, they have greater insight, however limited, into the modern “Hermit Kingdom.” South Korea shares culture and history, China is a long-time ally, and Japan was a one-time colonial overlord. At least they have a better chance of getting it right than does Washington.

The U.S. has global interests, but that doesn’t mean it must micromanage the affairs of every region and must manipulate the details of every potential conflict. North Korea is an unsettling actor in Northeast Asia, but it is most threatening to its neighbors.

More than five decades after the end of the Korean War, three decades after the new opening with China, and nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. can disengage from the Korean peninsula. The ROK neither needs nor warrants American protection. Pyongyang neither requires nor deserves American attention. Washington should spend its time and resources addressing more important and more pressing issues elsewhere in the world.

Read more by Doug Bandow