Why are We Still in Korea?

The United States has maintained troops in South Korea for more than a half century. Since 1950, Washington has defended the Republic of Korea (ROK) with blood and treasure. During that time the ROK has gone from an impoverished, authoritarian state to a prosperous democracy. Yet America’s commitment remains essentially unchanged. Why?

It’s certainly not because South Korea appreciates Washington’s efforts. ROK President Roh Moo-hyun recently complained that “clinging to the crotch of the U.S.’s pants and hiding behind the U.S.’s ass” suggests his nation is too dependent on America.

Very true. It’s time for Washington to help by ending its defense guarantee to the South.

The U.S. has begun reducing troop levels, as well as moving the bulk of its soldiers out of Seoul. Moreover, Washington recently agreed to turn over wartime command responsibility to South Korea in 2012. Indeed, the U.S. was prepared to do so in 2009, but ROK officials, who long had demanded the transfer, feared doing so would leave them vulnerable to a North Korean attack.

These steps are welcome, but remain inadequate half-measures. America should initiate a much more rapid drawdown of its forces. Five years from now there shouldn’t be a single U.S. soldier based in South Korea to turn over command responsibility to the ROK.

Alliances are created in specific geopolitical circumstances for specific geopolitical purposes. For instance, there was good reason for Washington to intervene in 1950 to prevent the South from being absorbed by Kim Il-sung’s North Korea.

South Korea was an economic and political mess. Pyongyang possessed a stronger military than the ROK (which had been denied American heavy weapons because of its threat to attack the North). The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was backed by China and the Soviet Union. With the Cold War raging globally, a geopolitical loss in Korea might destabilize other nations (such as Japan) and regions (such as Europe).

The world looks very different today. The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union has disbanded, and the People’s Republic of China has discarded Maoism. Japan sports the world’s second biggest economy; most other East Asian states are allied to or friendly with the U.S.

Moreover, South Korea has surpassed the North on virtually every measure of national power. The ROK possesses roughly 40 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea. The South has a vast technological edge, is engaged internationally, and even trades more with China than does Pyongyang.

Finally, though Seoul’s military is numerically smaller, it is qualitatively superior to that possessed by the North. South Korea spends between three and four times as much as the DPRK on the military. The ROK’s reserve capacity and potential support is even greater.

Why does the U.S. still have troops in South Korea?

The fact that the South can well defend itself is reason enough to bring home America’s forces. But that’s not all. As President Roh has indicated, many South Koreans bridle at their dependence on Washington. Since they no longer need rely on the U.S., they dislike the inevitable cost, especially to their pride, of doing so.

Instead of fighting to stay on the peninsula, Washington should allow the ROK to take on responsibilities commensurate with its abilities. Seoul wants to be a significant international player. Seoul should defend itself.

Moreover, most South Koreans no longer feel threatened by the North. The younger generation, especially, is more skeptical of America’s role in Northeast Asia, and more favorable towards both the PRC and North Korea. It seems silly to defend a country that no longer sees much need to be defended.

Indeed, U.S. officials have begun talks with Pyongyang intended to lead towards diplomatic recognition. After six years of refusing to negotiate with the North, the Bush administration’s new Korean policy appears to be detente with its former enemy. War is still possible, but seems ever less likely. America should reduce the chance still further by removing the only forces positioned to come into contact with Pyongyang.

For some alliance advocates the defense of Korea long ago ceased to be an argument for defending Korea. Instead, they argue that U.S. forces serve a “dual use” function. That is, a garrison that protects the ROK also serves other military purposes in the region.

But Japan isn’t going to attack either Korea. It’s hard to imagine Washington sending its Korea-based Army division to hold fractious Indonesia together, restore democracy in Thailand, or battle Burma’s brutal military junta. No one threatens Australia and New Zealand. Rather, the only plausible alternative mission is “containing” China.

It’s a dubious goal. There isn’t much that a small American ground contingent could achieve against such a populous and geographically expansive power. Whatever the future course of U.S.-China relations, American participation in a ground war against the PRC seems inconceivable.

Nor does the ROK have any interest in becoming a base for U.S. operations against Beijing. Two years ago President Roh stated that Washington would require his government’s permission to use its Korean-based forces elsewhere in the region, and that South Korea would not be drawn into a needless war. Although the conservative opposition might triumph in Korea’s presidential election at the end of the year, the Grand National Party seems no more likely to allow America to turn the ROK’s next door neighbor, a potential regional or global superpower, into a permanent enemy.

Indeed, Washington has no need to “contain” the PRC. Beijing is decades away from military equality with America. Moreover, if the two nations’ interests clash, it will be over Washington’s continued domination of East Asia. The U.S. will remain influential in the region irrespective of China’s development. Attempting to keep Beijing down cannot justify war.

As for America’s allies, it is up to them to defend their own interests. Washington should devote its greatest effort to reducing the likelihood of future conflict.

The U.S. certainly need not be a constant meddler in East Asia, concerned with day-to-day geopolitical controversies. Rather, America should look on from afar, prepared to back up allied states in the unlikely event that a hegemonic power threatens to dominate Eurasia. War is in no way inevitable, and should not be treated as such.

The U.S.-ROK alliance has fulfilled its purpose. It no longer serves the interest of America or South Korea. It’s time for Washington to schedule a geopolitical retirement party.