Tag: south korea

Forget North Korea, Weak or Strong: South Korea’s Strength Is Why America Should Come Home

Joshua Keating over at Foreign Policy offered a thoughtful commentary on Rob Montz’s North Korea documentary, “Juche Strong,” after last Thursday’s screening at Cato. Keating contended that the film, which suggests that pervasive regime propaganda has created at least some degree of legitimacy in the minds of many North Koreans, makes a case “that the United States needs to maintain its current military commitment to the region.” 

No doubt, it would be better for the Republic of Korea and Japan if the North was made up of “cowed and terrified people who will abandon their leaders at the first signs of weakness,” as Keating put it. But even popular determination and commitment—so far untested in an external crisis—go only so far. The question is not whether the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a threat, but 1) whether it is a threat which cannot be contained by its neighbors and 2) is a sufficient threat to America warranting U.S. led containment. The answers are no. 

First, the DPRK has amassed a large army with lots of tanks, but training is limited and equipment is antiquated. The North’s forces could devastate Seoul with artillery and missile strikes and a 4,000 tank surge might reach the South’s capital, but North Korea would be unlikely to ultimately triumph. The latter is weak in the air and with a decrepit economy can ill afford anything other than an unlikely blitzkrieg victory. Nor could Pyongyang look to Russia or China for support: the Cold War truly is over. 

More important, the ROK, which currently possesses around 40 times the North’s GDP and twice the North’s population, could do much more in its own defense. South Korea has created a competent, modern, and sizeable military. Is it enough? Only Seoul can answer. 

If the South remains vulnerable to a North Korean strike, it is only because the ROK decided to emphasize economic development and rely on America. That made sense during the early days of the Cold War, but no longer. There is no justification for turning what should be a short-term American shield against another round of Soviet- and Chinese-backed aggression into a long-term U.S. defense dole. It doesn’t matter whether the North Koreans are “Juche Strong or Juche Harmless,” as Keating put it. South Korea can defend itself. (Doing so would be even easier if Seoul and Tokyo worked harder to overcome their historical animus. Alas, they feel little pressure to do so as long as they both can rely on Washington for protection.) 

Second, the DPRK poses no threat to America requiring an ongoing military commitment. Even in 1950 the Pentagon did not believe the Korean peninsula to be vital strategically, but the Cold War created a unique context for the conflict. Today a second Korean War would only be a Korean War. Tragic, yes. Threat to America, no. Pyongyang is an ongoing danger to its neighbors, not the United States. 

The North matters to the United States primarily because Washington remains entangled, with troops, bases, and defense commitments. That is, North Korea threatens America because Washington chooses to allow North Korea to threaten America. 

Of course, proliferation would remain a concern even without a U.S. presence in Korea, but America’s garrison does nothing to promote denuclearization. To the contrary, Washington is helpfully providing tens of thousands of American nuclear hostages if the DPRK creates an arsenal of deliverable nuclear warheads. It would be far better for U.S. forces to be far away, out of range of whatever weapons the North possesses. 

North Korea is only one side of the Northeast Asian balance.  It doesn’t much matter if Pyongyang is weak or strong so long as South Korea and Japan are stronger. 

The North Korean Threat: Disengage and Defuse

Americans lived for decades with the fear of instant death from a Soviet nuclear strike. The People’s Republic of China has acquired a similar, though more limited, capability. Nothing happened in either case, because even evil people who acted like barbarians at home refused to commit suicide abroad. 

So it is with North Korea. A Defense Intelligence Agency report that Pyongyang may have miniaturized a nuclear weapon for use on a missile has created a predictable stir. Yet the analysis was carefully hedged, and Washington’s top security leadership, ranging from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper dismissed the seriousness of the threat.  

If the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was lucky, it could successfully launch its longest range missile, topped by a warhead with explosives rather than a nuclear weapon, without the rocket blowing up or falling back on the DPRK. With additional luck, the missile might hit somewhere in Alaska or Hawaii, though Pyongyang would have little control over the actual strike zone. 

But if the missile “worked” in this way, the North’s luck would quickly end. The United States would launch several nuclear-topped missiles and Pyongyang, certainly, and every urban area in the North, probably, would be vaporized. The “lake of fire” about which the DPRK has constantly spoken would occur, all over North Korea. Pretty-boy Kim Jong-un wouldn’t have much to smile about then. 

Deterrence worked against Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. There is no indication that it won’t work against the North Korean leadership. There always is a risk of mistake or miscalculation, but that properly is a problem for Pyongyang’s neighbors.  

The latest DPRK crisis should trigger a policy shift in Washington. Once the immediate furor has passed, the Obama administration should begin bringing home the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the Republic of Korea, and then end America’s formal security guarantee. Once Washington no longer confronted the North, the latter would turn its ire elsewhere. 

The ROK should take over its own defense, while building a better relationship with democratic neighbors, most obviously Japan, which also has been threatened by the North. At the same time, the Obama administration should hint at a rethink of Washington’s traditional opposition to the possibility of South Korea and Japan building nuclear weapons. China should understand that failing to take strong measures to curb its ally’s atomic ambitions could unleash the far more sophisticated nuclear potential of America’s allies. 

North Korea is a practical threat to the United States only to the degree which Washington allows. Better policy-making would reduce America’s role in Pyongyang’s ongoing tragic farce.

Stop Rewarding North Korea

To a degree almost impossible to imagine just a month ago, North Korea has won international attention, dominated events in Northeast Asia, and embarrassed the United States. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has played into Pyongyang’s hands by responding to the North’s provocations. Now Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting East Asia, beginning Friday, where the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will dominate the agenda.

Rushing off to the region on a high-profile trip is another mistake. Whatever Secretary Kerry does or says is likely to be seen as enhancing the DPRK’s stature. Better for him to have stayed home, phoning his counterparts as appropriate. 

No doubt the Obama administration hopes to craft a diplomatic answer to what is widely seen as a crisis. However, Washington dare not reward the North for its caterwauling, even if Kim Jong-un suddenly adopts the mien of a serious leader of a serious nation. Rather, Secretary Kerry should hold out the possibility of engagement, even diplomatic relations—but only if Pyongyang chooses to behave like other nations. No more providing benefits in response to threats. 

Moreover, the secretary and other U.S. officials should stop responding to every new North Korean development, big and small. America is a superpower with the ability to vaporize every acre of the DPRK. The North is impoverished; its people are starving; its military is antiquated. Its leaders are evil, not stupid or suicidal, and have neither the ability nor the incentive to attack America. Washington should respond to the next North Korean provocation, whether verbal challenge or missile test, with a collective yawn. 

Hope continues to breed eternal that China will tame or replace the Kim regime. No doubt Beijing is frustrated with its nominal protégé. However, the Chinese government will act only if it believes doing so is in China’s interest. Insisting or demanding will achieve nothing. Secretary Kerry must seek to persuade Beijing, an unusual strategy for Washington, which is used to dictating to other nations. 

North Korea is a human tragedy, but its belligerent behavior is primarily a problem for its neighbors, not the United States. Washington should give Pyongyang the (non) attention that it so richly deserves.

North Korea’s Cute Leader Isn’t So Cuddly

North Koreans might be impoverished and starving, but Pyongyang has entered the Internet age. Unfortunately, the new leadership isn’t using its skills to make friends. 

Thirty-year-old ruler Kim Jong-un has followed his “Great Leader” grandfather and “Dear Leader” father, so some of us call him the “Cute Leader.” But he’s not proving to be warm and cuddly—at least toward the United States. 

The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea recently posted an animated YouTube video showing Manhattan in flames after a missile attack from an unnamed country. The images are cribbed from the video game Call of Duty and the audio is an instrumental version of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s “We Are the World”—so it’s not exactly an ILM-quality production. Scrolling across the pictures is Korean text reading, “It appears that the headquarters of evil, which has had a habit of using force and unilateralism and committing wars of aggression, is going up in flames it itself has ignited.”

The DPRK video—removed from YouTube because of copyright violation but still available elsewhere—occasioned hand-wringing and worries that maybe the United States should take the threat seriously. However, the threat is nothing new. Pyongyang previously issued posters showing missiles hitting America’s Capitol Hill.

The North Koreans aren’t the only people to view Washington as the Center of All Evil. However, most of the rest of us, especially here at Cato, don’t view foreign missile attacks as a particularly good solution to political disagreements.

How to Respond to North Korea’s Latest Threats

Relations between North Korea and the world are off to a familiar start in 2013. Last week, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution tightening sanctions on Pyongyang in response to its missile test last December. The reclusive regime responded by predictably issuing threats against America and its allies. It seems likely now that Kim Jong-un will order a nuclear test in the next few weeks. What will follow? The kabuki dance continues. 

If North Korea does indeed detonate a nuclear device, the United States and its allies should avoid reacting hysterically. As I counseled on the missile test in December, provocative acts by Pyongyang do not deserve a response from Washington. The North carries out these tests to upset its rivals. The White House’s reserved response to the missile test was an encouraging sign. Any nuclear test warrants only an extended yawn. 

But what can Washington do to ultimately prevent North Korea from developing its nuclear program further and force it to engage the international community? I authored a piece running today at the National Interest that provides a few suggestions: 

The United States should not push for renewal of the Six Party talks. The North announced that it would not surrender its nuclear weapons until “the denuclearization of the world is realized.” This may well be yet another negotiating ploy. However, Washington and its allies should take it seriously.

Instead of begging Pyongyang to return to negotiations and requesting China to make Pyongyang return, the administration should indicate its openness to talks but note that they cannot be effective unless North Korea comes ready to deal. No reward should be offered for the North’s return to the table. 

Third, the United States should spur its allies to respond with the only currency which the Kim regime likely understands: military strength. Washington has had troops on the peninsula for nearly 63 years, far longer than necessary. That has left the ROK and Japan dependent on America. They should take over responsibility for dealing with the North’s military threats.

Washington should unilaterally lift treaty restrictions on the range and payload of South Korea’s missiles, a bizarre leftover from Seoul’s time as a helpless American ward. The administration also should indicate its willingness to sell whatever weapons might help the ROK and Japan enhance their ability to deter and even preempt a North Korean attack. The changing security environment should cause Japan to formally revise the restrictions placed on military operations by its post-World War II constitution.

I have a number of other policy recommendations in the full article, which you can find here

North Korea: Déjà Vu All Over Again!

North Korea wants to deal. Or, more likely, North Korea wants to be paid to deal. Washington has reached another agreement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The North promises to—again—halt nuclear tests and uranium enrichment, and the U.S. will—again—provide Pyongyang with food aid. The so-called Six Party talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, are—again—expected to resume.

It is better for the U.S. and Northeast Asia if North Korea is talking rather than shooting, as it was two years ago, when it sank a South Korean naval vessel and bombarded a South Korean island. However, Washington should have at most modest expectations: the DPRK has given no indication that it desires to yield the only weapons which allow it to command the world’s attention. Moreover, the ongoing leadership transition in Pyongyang makes it unlikely that anyone has either the desire or authority to challenge military priorities.

The U.S. should step back as it encourages resumption of negotiations. Other than following through with its promised food shipments, Washington should leave aid to private NGOs and the North’s neighbors. More important, American officials should inform both the Republic of Korea and Japan that the United States will be phasing out its forces in both countries, leaving them with responsibility for their own security. They should plan accordingly.

Removing America as the focus of regional attention would highlight the roles of other nations. Reaching a peaceful settlement on the peninsula would be primarily an issue between South and North Korea. Encouraging the DPRK to avoid confrontation would be primarily a responsibility of China. Supporting any new security and economic regimes that might result would be primarily a task for Japan and Russia, which are historically involved and geographically near.

The latest U.S.-North Korean agreement is more cause for skepticism than celebration. It could lead to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but is more likely to trigger a repeat of history: interminable talks with only minimal practical results. That would still be better than a war, but still would warrant only minimal effort by Washington.

The Brutal Impact of North Korean Statism

One hopes that the dictator of North Korea suffered greatly before he died. After all, his totalitarian and communist (pardon the redundancy) policies have cause untold death and misery.

But let’s try to learn an economics lesson. In a previous post, I compared long-term growth in Hong Kong and Argentina to show the difference between capitalism and cronyism.

But for a much more dramatic comparison, look at the difference between North Korea and South Korea.

Hmmm… I wonder if we can conclude that markets are better than statism?

And if you like these types of comparisons, here’s a post showing how Singapore has caught up with the United States. And here’s another comparing what’s happened in the past 30 years in Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela.

Pages