SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — The Republic of Korea is one of America’s most important allies. But South Koreans aren’t sure they want Americans to stick around, even as North Korea continues to compete with Iran for the title of most dangerous nation. Washington’s best policy to deter the DPRK from developing nuclear weapons isn’t obvious. What is certain is that the U.S. should pull its troops out of the South, turning Korea’s problems over to nations in the region.
Pyongyang recently coupled its claim to possession of an atomic arsenal with rejection of renewed bilateral negotiations. But even if it eventually rejoins the talks there is no reason to believe that Pyongyang will ever agree to dismantle its weapons program. Kim Jong-il has moved his nation into greater contact with the outside world and undertaken serious, if still inadequate, economic reforms at home. However, the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has obvious reasons to develop a nuclear arsenal and has regularly dashed prior hopes of progress.
Nukes impede economic progress but offer military security and political influence. Whatever trade-off the Kim regime ultimately makes will almost certainly reflect the perceived value of the West’s concessions and the degree of pressure applied by China, the DPRK’s closest ally. The latter, in turn, will depend on Beijing’s relations with the U.S., as well as the state of America’ ties to Taiwan.
Washington continues to debate policy towards the North, as the Bush administration reportedly is mulling a new offer to Pyongyang. Although the administration understandably has emphasized six-party talks, bilateral discussions, which in no way preclude Beijing’s involvement, might advance a settlement. Sanctions will not work without China’s support and even then might not bring the DPRK to heel. Military action likely would trigger engulf Seoul and possibly much more of South Korea in war.
ALTHOUGH THE U.S. CANNOT control relations with the North, it can better direct changing relations with the South. Seoul currently is filled with complaints against America, most recently over allegations that Washington hyped the North Korean nuclear threat.
The ROK has announced that it will no longer refer to the DPRK as its “main enemy” and plans to reduce the size of its armed forces by 40,000. President Roh Moo-hyun obviously desires to chart a more independent foreign policy. Washington should encourage him to do so. And to lead the South in taking over responsibility for its own defense.
The U.S. has guaranteed the security of the ROK since intervening to stop North Korea’s invasion of the South in 1950. Yet South Korea since has raced ahead of its northern antagonist. The South has about 40 times the economic strength of North Korea, along with twice the population. Seoul has become a high- tech producer, is one of the world’s greatest trading nations, and has won the contest for diplomatic support around the world.
The ROK’s very success has led to growing resentment over its dependence on the U.S. In 2002 the leftish Roh won South Korea’s presidency by criticizing American domination of the bilateral relationship and the burden of hosting U.S. military forces. Astonishingly, many younger voters, who strongly backed Roh, view Washington as a greater threat to peace than the DPRK.
In its recently released national security strategy, Peace, Prosperity and National Security, the Roh administration called for “a self-reliant defense posture in which South Korea will assume a leading role in the defense of the country.” In mid-March President Roh told graduates of the Korean Air Force Academy: “we have sufficient power to defend ourselves. We have nurtured mighty national armed forces that absolutely no one can challenge.”
Yet while extolling their plan to achieve seeming independence, ROK officials insist that U.S. soldiers stick around. The National Security Council complained: “our military capabilities are not strong enough to deter North Korean threats on our own.”
The U.S. and South Korea have begun talks under the Security Policy Initiative to chart the future of the alliance. But Seoul’s cooperative vision is almost entirely one-sided. The much-delayed deployment of 3,000 ROK soldiers to Iraq — to a peaceful Kurdish region not even requiring a foreign troop Presence — was intended to help counteract American plans to withdraw troops for deployment in Iraq. As for the future, Seoul reacted negatively to the suggestion of Lt. Gen. Charles C. Campbell, commander of the 8th Army in Korea, that the alliance could eventually evolve into joint humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in Asia.
Such a strategy would be too “burdensome,” explained the ROK Ministry of Defense. In contrast, apparently, to America’s maintenance of 37,000 soldiers in the South and thousands more in Okinawa and elsewhere as potential reinforcements in another Korean war.
THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION HAS pulled out about 4,000 troops and intends to draw down U.S. forces in Korea by a total of 12,500 by 2008. That would still leave a significant commitment, however. In fact, the Pentagon is offering soldiers $300 to $400 more per month to extend their tours in the ROK, traditionally an unpopular assignment. In any war the U.S. would respond with massive reinforcements. And Washington plans to enhance combat capabilities on the peninsula with an $11 billion force improvement package over the next five years.
Yet even so, South Korean opposition delayed the move by three years. Explained the Pentagon, bilateral discussions “considered the Korean public’s perceptions regarding a potential security gap.” Similarly, observed Ahn Kwang-chan, a ROK defense planner, “This decision was made fully taking into account the concerns of our citizens about a weakening of war deterrent capability against North Korea and a security vacuum.” In fact, Washington should have accelerated rather than delayed the force drawdown as part of a plan to transform its relationship with South Korea. The changes don’t go nearly far enough.
After all, the unexpectedly costly and lengthy Iraq occupation has badly stretched active forces and threatens to ruin the Reserves. Yet American ground forces are no longer needed in Korea. They serve no role in resolving the nuclear stand-off. A preemptive U.S. assault would be far too uncertain and risky. In contrast, removing America soldiers would reduce the targets available to the North.
Moreover, South Korea, with the world’s 12th largest economy, and not America, facing a bill in Iraq that might eventually hit $300 billion, should be paying for its conventional defense. After all, it is Seoul, not Washington, D.C., that is being defended.
Thus, the U.S. should plan on withdrawing all 37,000 troops. Of the planned 12,500 reduction, complained one South Korean official, “the realignment should not undermine our national security.” But why, then, is the South planning to cut its own forces?
Prosperous and populous, the South is fully capable of defending itself. In today’s world it is irresponsible for the U.S. to maintain an international dole for self-indulgent client states.
SEOUL KNOWS WHAT IT needs to do. Last June the Roh government announced that it was requesting a 13 percent increase in military spending to compensate for the proposed U.S. troop cutback.
But South Korea can spend far more if it believes additional increases are necessary for its defense. With its dramatic economic success has come the obligation of behaving like a serious country with important international responsibilities, beginning with its own security.
Seoul could use a U.S. withdrawal as part of the negotiating process. The North has routinely called for American forces to go home; Pyongyang recently wrote U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, calling for the dissolution of the U.N. command and withdrawal of American troops. Seoul should offer to do so as part of a comprehensive settlement for the peninsula.
Until the pressure of maintaining American forces in Iraq forced the Bush administration to rethink its commitment to South Korea, the U.S.-ROK relationship seemed locked in a time warp. Despite the dramatic weakening of the North and strengthening of the South, Washington retained its forces largely unchanged on the Korean peninsula.
But America can no longer afford to be a captive of the status quo. It doesn’t have enough soldiers to go around the world. It’s time to bring America’s military forces home from Korea. All of them.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the co-author, with Ted Galen Carpenter, of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations With North and South Korea (Palgrave/MacMillan), and author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (Cato Institute).
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