Korean Troubles Old and New: Time to Bring the Troops Home

The U.S. remains mired in Iraq. The president’s recent trip to the Middle East hit more than the usual roadblocks to achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians or reaching a denuclearization accord with Iran. The Balkans is simmering as Kosovo’s declaration of independence nears. Russia remains sullenly obstructionist. At least Washington is making progress with North Korea, right?

No. The six-party accord with the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has run into the usual turbulence that buffets any agreement with Pyongyang. Whether the problem is minor and temporary or serious and permanent is not yet clear.

Moreover, South Korea had an election. Lee Myung-bak of the conservative Grand National Party won his nation’s presidency in a landslide. He carried almost half the votes in a 12-man field, receiving roughly twice as many votes as did the ruling party candidate. Lee focused on economic issues, denouncing the “antimarket and antibusiness atmosphere” created by the current government.

Although Lee’s victory is important for the Republic of Korea (ROK), it provides Washington with an excellent opportunity to disentangle the U.S. from the peninsula’s complications. A hawk compared to his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, Lee is well-positioned to take the lead in dealing with North Korea, as the U.S. recedes into the background.

No surprise, American policymakers are most interested in the international implications of Lee’s victory. President Roh was never fond of Washington, and the feeling was reciprocated several-fold.

President-elect Lee, who takes over in February, said “I will do my best to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem through cooperation and a strengthened relationship with the United States.” Potentially even more important, Lee promised to take a more realistic approach to the DPRK.

For instance, he is expected to address North Korean human rights violations, including the status of South Koreans kidnapped by the North. Lee attacked the current government for having “completely refrained from criticizing North Korea and pandered to it in a one-sided way.” He also announced plans to dismantle the Unification Ministry, leaving reunification to the normal foreign policy process.

Moreover, Lee says he will include nuclear disarmament in the two Koreas’ talks. He may even slow economic aid and investment absent progress on denuclearization. “Serious economic exchanges between the two Koreas can only start after the North dismantles its nuclear weapons,” he explained. He has proposed a $40 billion multilateral investment program for North Korea predicated on denuclearization and offered to meet with the North’s Kim Jong-il to advance the process.

Although Lee’s views will receive a warm reception in Washington, he is not interested in a confrontation on the peninsula. However much Lee might desire regime change in the North, he is no more likely to risk war, or support a U.S. policy risking war, than was the current government.

Washington obviously should incorporate a more aggressive stance by the Republic of Korea into its nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang. The DPRK appeared to be moving forward on the six-party agreement, but then a dispute arose over disposal of nuclear fuel and destruction of a cooling tower as well as the North’s listing of its past nuclear activities. Thus, North Korea did not meet the December 31 deadline.

Analysts disagree over the seriousness of Pyongyang’s breach and Beijing called the delay “natural.” The DPRK denounced the U.S. for its “hostile” policy and vowed “to harden its war deterrent.” Even if the latest contretemps is resolved, several other disputes could ultimately wreck the plan: will North Korea disclose the status of the highly enriched uranium program, end dissembling over its use of precision aluminum tubes, agree to dispose of existing nuclear materials and weapons, and accept intrusive verification procedures? To expect a yes in answer to all four questions requires, as in a second marriage, that hope trump experience.

Washington must reorient the entire negotiating process with North Korea, which for years gained more from bad than good behavior. Both the U.S. and Seoul should encourage Japan to play a more constructive role as well. To date, Tokyo has focused on winning an accounting of its citizens who were kidnapped by Pyongyang; however, the best strategy for encouraging domestic reforms, including improved human rights, by the DPRK is to resolve the nuclear issue.

Complete denuclearization of the peninsula should be the ultimate allied goal. But the North may refuse to give up its existing weapons even if it dismantles its nuclear facilities.

The former, though desirable, is worth neither a hot nor a cold war. The latter, which would cap the North Korean threat, is most critical. What kind of ties with Pyongyang – diplomatic relations, economic aid, trade access, and more – should be pursued under what circumstances should be discussed by the ROK, Japan, and U.S., and then with China and Russia. Another topic worth discussing is the potential of Seoul and Tokyo creating their own nuclear deterrent capabilities; the mere discussion of this topic should impress upon Beijing the need to push the DPRK harder to comply with the six-party accord.

Among the allies, South Korea should take the lead, since events on the peninsula are a matter of its vital interest, while only of peripheral concern to the U.S. Indeed, Lee’s victory should encourage both Washington and Seoul to refashion their ties. The relationship has grown increasingly contentious. South Koreans, whose fluctuating attitudes have increasingly inclined toward China and North Korea and away from America, are less tolerant of the ROK’s dependent status, as reflected in such controversies as the status of forces agreement, operational control of the two militaries, and U.S. facilities in Seoul. The South also is less inclined to give America a blank check on using South Korean bases for regional contingencies. The ROK has its own ambitions; even Lee talks of South Korea promoting a “great Asian era in the 21st century.”

From Washington’s standpoint, the existing military alliance is no longer worth strengthening. The original threat, renewed North Korean aggression backed by China and the Soviet Union against a vulnerable, war-torn South, disappeared long ago.

During Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ November visit to Seoul, South Korean defense minister Kim Jang-soo opined: “we cannot say that the threat from North Korea has reduced tangibly or discernibly.” So even the leftish Roh administration pressed Washington to maintain its troops on the peninsula.

Yet if the North is so dangerous, why has South Korea lavished aid, investment, and commerce on Pyongyang? The two Koreas recently opened a rail line, unusual behavior for countries supposedly at risk of going to war. Why should Washington underwrite a country that blatantly appeases a potential aggressor?

The U.S. military’s Institute for National Strategic Studies recently warned that after an American withdrawal “an attack by North Korea would be well under way before U.S. forces could effectively redeploy to the peninsula.” But why would U.S. forces be needed to defend the South?

The ROK vastly outranges its potential antagonist on almost every measure of national power. South Korea’s GDP has been estimated to be as much as 40 times as large as that of the North. The South has twice as many people, possesses a vast technological edge, and is friendly with far more countries, including all of the advanced industrial powers and long-time DPRK allies China and Russia. Although North Korea retains a numerical military edge, its weapons are archaic and its forces are ill-trained.

Moreover, there is no special gravitational field on the peninsula which locks South Korea into a position of even quantitative inferiority. Indeed, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2006 the ROK outspent its northern antagonist ten-to-one. Arguing that the ROK needs defending against the North is as absurd as America requesting allied assistance to deter Mexico.

Some South Koreans don’t bother attempting to demonstrate military necessity. Foreign Minister Song Min-soon simply states that “The U.S. military will continue to stay on the Korean peninsula after the establishment of a peace regime and play a role that suits the new security environment in Northeast Asia.” However, in this environment the ROK, with the world’s 12th largest economy, does not need a permanent defense subsidy.

Although unnecessary for South Korea’s defense, America’s troop presence inevitably sucks Washington into regional disputes. For instance, the U.S. possesses a vast nuclear arsenal capable of eradicating the Kim regime many times over. If Washington did not maintain thousands of nuclear hostages in the South, it would have little to fear from a North Korean nuclear weapon. There would still be good reasons to dissuade Pyongyang from going nuclear, but principal responsibility for dealing with the North would reside with South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia, not America.

Of course, some Washington policymakers view U.S. forces stationed in the ROK as possessing “dual use” capabilities. However, in what contingencies would today’s 28,000 personnel be relevant? Burma and Indonesia might be unstable, but an American invasion would be no solution. Where else might U.S. soldiers go? Alliance advocates blithely talk about maintaining regional security and stability, but offer no practical role for the U.S. troops based in Korea.

The real goal is “containing” China. The INSS cited the importance of “a sound alliance structure” as “the ultimate guarantee” against China’s growing “military capabilities.” However, the ROK is a most unlikely conscript in an anti-China coalition. Seoul might want to be protected from an improbable Chinese invasion. But the South does not want to turn itself into a target of its permanent neighbor in a conflict begun over U.S. objectives, such as defending Taiwan.

Indeed, President Roh insisted that his nation was not going to get into regional wars and that U.S. forces based in Korea could not be used without his government’s permission. Incoming President Lee might be more circumspect in his rhetoric, but his position is unlikely to be much different.

America’s alliance with South Korea should be seen as a means, not an end. It once was necessary to protect the South from absorption by the DPRK. That objective has been fulfilled. Instead of looking for new goals to justify an old alliance, the U.S. and Seoul should drop the official defense commitment and move to informal military cooperation tailored to new circumstances.

The best South Korean government to manage such a transformation would be a serious, pro-business, pro-defense regime – like that expected from President-elect Lee. The ROK has come of age in the world. It deserves to be treated with respect by its neighbors and friends, including America. In return, it should take over responsibility for its own defense.