Another Perspective

One Way Out

North Korea becomes a regional problem if the U.S. disengages from South Korea.

By 10.24.06

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North Korea has successfully conducted one nuclear test and is threatening to host another one. The prospect of a nuclear-armed Kim Jong-il is setting Pyongyang's neighbors and the U.S. abuzz with worry. Peacefully dissuading the North from developing nuclear weapons seems increasingly unlikely.

Thus, no end to the North Korean nuclear soap opera is in sight. The West went through a similar drama in July when the Democratic People's Republic of Korea tested several missiles.

Even Bush administration officials admit that Washington has only bad choices in dealing with the DPRK. The U.S. should stop repeating the failed policies of the past. Step one might seem counterintuitive, but is essential: get out of South Korea.

The U.S. is preparing to turn wartime command over to the Republic of Korea. Troop levels already are scheduled to drop from 29,500 to 25,000 in 2008. They should fall to zero.

The Korean peninsula has little intrinsic security value for America. The traditional justification for America's force deployment, defending the ROK, no longer applies.

The South has twice the population of North Korea, around 40 times the GDP, and a large edge in virtually every other measure of power. It is quite capable of defending itself. Even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld acknowledges that the North Koreans are not "an immediate military threat to South Korea."

The troops on station serve no other serious security role. The Cold War is over, so the Koreas no longer play into a larger global power struggle.

AMERICA'S FORCES DO NOT HELP contain China, since Washington is unlikely to invade the mainland irrespective of any future controversy. In any event, Seoul has stated that it will not allow units based in the ROK to be used in any such adventure.

Nor does the U.S. presence promote broader regional stability. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which it would be in America's interest to intervene elsewhere.

Although the ROK commitment generates few benefits, it is expensive. There's not just the cost of creating and deploying the relevant units and added risk of war, but the necessity of dealing with both South and North Korea.

Seoul may be a long-time ally, but it is a troublesome friend. A new generation has come to power in the South and is much more distrustful of America. Many youth view China and North Korea more favorably than the U.S.

The last two ROK presidents have taken radically different approaches to Pyongyang than has Washington. Even after the DPRK's nuclear test many South Koreans oppose economic sanctions. In effect, Seoul simultaneously demands American protection, denounces Washington for past sins, and advocates policies potentially contrary to U.S. interests.

Moreover, it is America's presence in the South that requires the U.S. to worry about North Korea. The DPRK is an impoverished, starving and isolated nation. Washington could largely ignore Pyongyang absent the former's military commitment to the ROK.

Even a nuclearized DPRK would little threaten the security of the most powerful nation on earth, which possesses the strongest conventional military and most advanced nuclear arsenal on earth. Pyongyang matters because it is threatening its neighborhood, into which America has figuratively moved.

IF WASHINGTON BROUGHT HOME its troops, the DPRK's activities would shift from a global to a regional problem. The U.S. would no longer be expected to find a solution; instead, policymakers in Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing would have to take the lead. The potential for such cooperation is demonstrated by the joint warning against a nuclear test coming out of the China-Japan summit, as well as subsequent Beijing-Seoul consultations.

Proliferation would remain a U.S. concern, but could be met by telling Pyongyang that any hint of a transfer to a non-state actor would be a casus belli. In fact, American ally Pakistan has proved to be a far greater proliferation problem than the DPRK likely would be, since Kim Jong-il appears to want his virgins in the here-and-now rather than in paradise.

At the same time, Washington should continue squeezing the North's sources of hard currency while privately indicating that it is prepared to enter into bilateral discussions over lifting trade restrictions and providing diplomatic recognition -- but only if Pyongyang is evidently committed to an improved international climate. Should the North move ahead with the six-party nuclear talks as well as bilateral discussions with Seoul and Japan, the U.S. would be happy to advance the process as well. Negotiations seem unlikely to resolve the crisis, but there's no reason not to offer the possibility.

Dealing with North Korea will never be easy, but America need not take the lead in dealing with the DPRK. In the absence of U.S. troops in the South, the Kim regime would matter far less to America. Washington should allow North Korea's neighbors to take over responsibility for confronting it.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).