Washington’s policy toward Korea – both Koreas, actually – isn’t going well. President Donald Trump calls the North’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un his "friend," but Kim might be on his deathbed, incapacitated, or just hiding out to confuse his adversaries. In any case, the two haven’t talked since last summer, after a brief handshake while meeting at the DMZ when Trump visited the South. Negotiations between their underlings sputtered out in the fall.
South Korea is a longtime defense dependent, with the relationship forged in the Korean War which began 70 years ago this coming June. However, last year the administration demanded that Seoul increase its contribution toward the U.S. garrison under the Special Measures Agreement more than fivefold, to $5 billion annually. The Republic of Korea balked and talks deadlocked. The US recently furloughed thousands of ROK employees, which probably hurts American personnel, who must make up the work, more than Seoul.
As Washington officials speculated on who in North Korea currently possesses the key to that nation’s nuclear arsenal they tried to sound a reassuring note, claiming to have contingency plans if Kim dies. However, the Supreme Leader’s unexpected departure for beyond the River Styx would set off a brutal and possibly bloody power struggle – imagine millions of refugees, loose nukes and other WMDs, open warfare, and both South Korean and Chinese generals determined to intervene. Yet at this moment of uncertainty the US relationship with Seoul, which provides most of the troops on the ground, is strained and uncertain. Much could go wrong.
The possibility of a nuclear war, though slight, raises the obvious question: why does America have troops in the South? On June 25, 1950 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, created out of the Soviet Union’s occupation zone in the former Japanese colony, invaded the ROK. The US and a gaggle of allied states intervened, followed by China. The Soviet Union surreptitiously aided the North. On July 1953 an armistice was signed, followed by decades of an extra frigid cold war on the peninsula.
Nearly seven decades later most South Koreans believe Washington should continue to defend the ROK because it has always done so. They treat the Pentagon as a source of international welfare, created to reduce the defense burden on allied states which would prefer to spend their money elsewhere. US policymakers share this curious vision, stationing American personnel in the South at American taxpayer expense.
But even before Congress opened the Treasury in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, running up debts unlikely to ever be paid, the president dissented. In his uniquely obnoxious way he criticized Washington’s routine practice of turning prosperous and populous allied states into helpless defense dependents.
Trump appeared to instinctively understand that circumstances had changed since the Korean War. In 1948 both the ROK and DPRK declared statehood but claimed the entire peninsula. Washington left its client ill-equipped and vulnerable. The Soviet Union was not so careless. The North’s Kim Il-sung launched an invasion of the South on June 25, 1950, coming very close to victory. However, US troops fought desperately to preserve a beachhead in the southeast around Pusan. After a large buildup American forces drove the North Korean forces northward toward the Yalu River and the recently created People’s Republic of China.
Lacking diplomatic relations with America, the Beijing government unsuccessfully attempted to warn the U.S. through intermediaries, such as India, not to approach the border. The PRC then intervened on a massive scale, driving the allied forces south and retaking Seoul. The US – leading a diverse United Nations force – rebounded and retook the South’s capital. Battle lines stabilized near the original demarcation line along the 38th Parallel. On July 27, 1953 the long-negotiated armistice took effect.
The ROK was impoverished and unstable, wholly dependent on a continued American troop presence. However, in the 1960s general turned president Park Chung-hee set the South’s economy on a growth course. Democracy finally arrived another couple decades later. In contrast, the DPRK languished. The Stalinist economy delivered poverty and debt defaults; a famine in the last 1990s killed at least a half million people. Terrorist bombings by Pyongyang in 1983 and 1987 left the regime isolated diplomatically. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 led Moscow and then Beijing to recognize South Korea.
Only militarily did the South lag, but that was a matter of choice. So long as it could rely on the globe’s remaining superpower, it saw no reason to waste more money on defense. American policymakers routinely whined in response. But the US defense guarantee remained.
The 1990s turned into 2000s which turned into 2010s and now 2020. Nothing has changed. Some 28,500 US personnel – an army division and assorted other units – remain on station in the South. The Marine Expeditionary Force stationed on Okinawa largely serves as potential Korean reinforcements. Backing them are abundant air and naval forces in the region, as well as America’s sizable nuclear force. The US even retains operational command over South Korea’s military in war, an extraordinary sacrifice of national sovereignty and dignity by the ROK.
The result is a great deterrent force, but costly to America. Not just basing costs, which Seoul helps pay – hence the SMA talks. Commitments require force structure. The more defense promises made the more personnel, weapons, and supplies are required. Indeed, given America’s relative geographic invulnerability, most US"defense" costs actually go for offense to protect other nations, not the homeland.
Yet the ROK does not need help. South Koreans enjoy an economy that is more than 50 times the size of North Korea’s. The South’s population is twice as large. On every measure of power and influence save quantity of men under arms and military materiel, Seoul is far ahead. As for armed forces, the ROK’s are better equipped, trained, and led. Long ago America’s ally should have done what mature nations traditionally were expected to do, provide for its own security.
The North’s nuclear program makes perfect sense given the regime’s declining economy, increasing isolation, disappearing allies, and strengthening enemies. The latter include the US, the world’s aggressive self-styled unipower which drones, bombs, invades, and occupies smaller nations at will without the slightest restraint by its own legislature or international law.
The DPRK’s conventional threat against the ROK’s capital of Seoul might deter the South’s government from taking military action, but Americans worry less about South Korean casualties: as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) memorably observed, a war in Korea would be "over there," not "over here." Only a nuclear capability clearly moves the North out of the category of countries that get bombed by America. Hence the shrieking from Washington as the current Kim regime tested not only nukes but ICBMs capable of reaching the US Suddenly the price of fighting in Korea could be the loss of American cities. Even the most hawkish analyst would have trouble explaining to the American people why the US should risk Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, and potentially much more to defend Seoul.
The critical point is that none of the ruling Kims has been suicidal. They liked their virgins in this world, not the next. Kim Jong-un showed no interest in leaving this world atop a radioactive funeral pyre. The North has no intention of attacking America. It has every interest in deterring America. But not just from using nuclear weapons. Also from imposing defeat and occupation. In 1950 China rescued a defeated DPRK from American conventional attack. Beijing won’t go to war to protect the North again. The obvious, and probably only, effective substitute for great power backing is a nuclear arsenal, preferably capable of targeting the US
So instead of pushing Seoul to pay more to maintain what would become a mercenary garrison from across the Pacific, the Trump administration should plan a phased withdrawal of American forces. As the US pulls out, the ROK should be left free to decide on its future: do nothing, pursue détente with the North, launch a massive military buildup, promote regional security structures, and/or even develop a countervailing nuclear arsenal. The so-called "Mutual" Defense Treaty should be replaced with agreements for genuinely mutual cooperation when in both nations’ interests. Cultural, economic, educational, and personal ties would continue unabated.
In which case Kim’s current status, the identity of his most likely successors if he dies, would merely be an issue of academic interest to Americans. There still would be contingency plans, but they would be drafted by South Korea, not the US And Washington could begin paring its oversize military as the massive bills for the coronavirus crisis come due.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.