Reactions from the nattering classes to the interminably long line of stunningly similar crises on the Korean peninsula have become hopelessly predictable. On one side, doves clamor for engagement with the North Koreans, basically hoping Commissioner Bush will activate the Bat Signal and Jimmy Carter will appear, ready to charm Kim Jong Il into another deal. On the other side, hawks are calling for a deluge of bombs to rain down on Pyongyang in a repeat of the 1981 Israeli bombing of the Osirik reactor in Iraq.
Romanticized as these options have become in their respective camps, neither is a realistic solution to America’s troubles with North Korea. There is a serious problem of perception in both camps. The doves can’t come to grips with the fact that North Korea likely has no intention of giving up its nuclear program, and, indeed, under the last much vaunted treaty only agreed to freeze its nuclear program, not end it. Meanwhile, hawks fantasizing about another Osirik seem to overlook the fact that the good guys weren’t the only ones who watched that episode unfold. The two remaining “Axis of Evil” powers have planned accordingly by spreading out their nuclear programs with the most sensitive work likely being done underground.
In the midst of all this, the Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter and Doug Bandow have published The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (the subject of a Cato Book Forum today). It offers an unflinching look at the tortured history of the Korean peninsula, and asks the most basic question liberals and conservatives alike have not been able to bring themselves to ask: Why, exactly, are we still on the Korean Peninsula? What, exactly, is our dog in today’s intra-Korean tension? By the end of the slim volume, Carpenter and Bandow have persuasively argued, “it is time to free the American people from a commitment that costs far more than it is worth, absorbs valuable military resources, and keeps the Korean people in a dependent relationship that insults their nationhood and puts their destiny in another country’s hands.”
One can almost hear the cries of “Appeasement!” and “Surrender!” now. But consider the facts on the ground in South Korea today: Some polls show whole swaths of the South Korean population registering more distaste for America than North Korea. South Korea’s president Roh Moo-hyun publicly announced, “We should proudly say we will not side with North Korea or the United States,” and has likewise said North Koreans should be treated “not as criminals but as counterparts for dialogue.” Carpenter and Bandow also point to a July 2003 poll that shows a third of all South Koreans believe the United States is the “most threatening country” to their security.
And considering how close the United States came to initiating a war with North Korea in the early '90s without even bothering to tell the South Koreans — in other words, the very people who would bear the brunt of a war which would likely kill at least one million people — it is difficult to blame them. Our support for authoritarian South Korean regimes in the aftermath of the Korean War is likewise remembered more clearly there than here. (Carpenter and Bandow’s eye-opening, succinct history of post-World War II Korea is alone worth the price of the book.)
So why are we there? Once upon a time, we were defending a country that could not defend itself from the menace of Communism — a global movement that was very much a threat to American security. But, as they say, that was then and this is now. South Korea is an economic powerhouse today. In 2002, as Carpenter and Bandow note, the South’s GDP was $941.5 billion as compared to the North’s $22.26 billion. The South has a modernized military, while the North is looking for spare parts for their decaying Chinese hand-me-downs.
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