Commentary

Cutting the Tripwire: It’s time to get out of Korea

This article originally appeared in Reason on July 1, 2003.

As the Bush administration prepared for war in Iraq, North Korea steadily raised the nuclear ante, restarting its mothballed reactor and threatening to produce a regular supply of plutonium. As Gulf War II wound down, Undersecretary of State John Bolton declared that North Korea should “draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq.” Pyongyang then agreed to talks that included China, while Washington abandoned its precondition that the North eliminate the uranium enrichment program that touched off the crisis. The road ahead almost certainly will be filled with disappointments, frustrations, and threats, with no guarantee that an agreement will be reached.

But why is the U.S. worried about the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? It’s a distant and poor country surrounded by far more powerful states; it is an economic irrelevancy and a diplomatic nonentity. Most important, it has no effective means to attack America. North Korea should be a problem for other nations — for China and Russia, the most important regional powers, and for Japan and South Korea, America’s closest regional friends. All have more at stake in the North than we do. Indeed, the only reason Washington is entangled in the Korean peninsula is inertia: The U.S. has defended South Korea for 50 years.

The alliance with the Republic of Korea — actually a one-sided security guarantee — has been America’s most consistently dangerous commitment since World War II. The nearly 34,000 deaths in the Korean War have been supplemented by further flare-ups, such as the North’s 1968 seizure of the USS Pueblo and its 1976 murder of two U.S. soldiers cutting down a tree in the demilitarized zone. Reports of other, unpublicized incidents abound, including full-fledged firefights between American forces and North Korean soldiers entering the South. The Korea Defense Veterans of America estimate that 1,500 Americans have been killed by Northern forces since the Korean War ended.

Yet South Korea is beginning to look away. During his presidential campaign last fall, eventual victor Roh Moo-hyun suggested that his nation “mediate” in any war between America and the North and called for “concessions from both sides.” He even added, “We should proudly say we will not side with North Korea or the United States.” Before leaving office in February, President Kim Dae-jung attempted to chart an independent course between Washington and Pyongyang. The head of Roh’s transition team, Lim Chae-jung, developed a proposal that sought “a concession” from both America and North Korea. This is an alliance?

Although North Korea’s nuclear program has understandably attracted Washington’s eyes, America’s relationship with the South requires equal attention. The nuclear controversy grows out of the unnatural U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula, and no solution is likely until that presence is removed.

Well before the present contretemps, it was evident that the 37,000 troops in the South were a Cold War artifact that had lost its raison d’être. Washington’s commitment was a result of the post–World War II division of the peninsula, the North’s subsequent invasion of the South, and China’s intervention on the Northern side. After the war ended, South Korea had an unpopular, authoritarian government and a primitive economy. But for Washington’s promise to go to war, backed by an occupying garrison, Seoul likely would not have survived another attack.

The Cold War is now over, and Beijing and Moscow are friendlier with Seoul than with Pyongyang. China and Russia trade far more with the South, and the latter has become a significant investor in the People’s Republic of China. Russia has even paid off debts by shipping weapons to South Korea. Although both nations retain ties with North Korea — indeed, both have competed a bit for influence during the last couple of years — they have far more at stake in the peninsula’s continuing stability and the South’s continuing prosperity than in the North’s “victory,” political or military.

Nor does Pyongyang have any other allies of note. With a trail of bad international debts and barely 1 percent of the South’s foreign trade, the North is an insignificant economic player. Despite a recent charm offensive that led to official ties with a number of Asian and European nations, the renewed nuclear crisis has brought that diplomatic effort to a halt. Whatever good will North Korea’s summit with Japan generated has dissipated; the U.S. will talk about nothing else until the nuclear issue is resolved.

Moreover, the South has left the North far behind economically: It has 40 times the gross domestic product (GDP), twice the population, and an overwhelming technological edge. It took a significant economic hit in the 1997 Asian economic crisis but since then has recovered its status as one of Asia’s tigers. In 2000 it enjoyed a GDP of $462 billion, making it the world’s 12th largest economy. It significantly outproduces not just North Korea but Russia.

The North is in no position to compete. It is an economic wreck, with an economy that South Korean analysts estimate to have shrunk by half between 1993 and 1996 alone. Its subsequent “recovery” is thought to have pushed per capita GDP to about $700, roughly 40 percent of the 1990 level. Food production is down 60 percent during the last 15 years. Much of the country lacks electricity much of the time. Life expectancy fell 10 percent during the 1990s. During the same decade hundreds of thousands of people — perhaps as many as 2 million — starved to death. Approximately six in 10 North Koreans are malnourished. The country has been reduced to begging for millions of tons of food aid.

Only in the military sphere does the North retain any advantage. Even there, its forces are large, but its weapons are ancient, with the newest ones dating to 1990. There is no money for spare parts, and training is nonexistent. Pyongyang’s dramatic attempt to launch a satellite in 1998 failed. “The North Korean military is one that is using antiquated 1950s and 1960s vintage weapons,” reports Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Bruce Bechtol, “while the South Korean military continues to strengthen itself with dynamic new programs such as the building of brand new F-16s. In addition, the South is superior in other key aspects of military readiness, such as command and control and training.”

Although South Korea’s ground forces are smaller, they would be fighting on the defensive — a military advantage — with superior air and naval support. Indeed, in the initial stage of any war, South Korea would have to rely primarily upon its own military for ground forces, irrespective of America’s defense commitment. It would take the U.S. weeks to deploy heavy armored and mechanized reinforcements, depending upon events elsewhere and available lift capabilities.

Moreover, South Korea has begun a serious space program, launching a three-stage liquid-fueled rocket, produced at home, last November; it hopes to launch a satellite in two more years. Seoul also has unveiled plans for an ocean-going navy, one more obviously directed at Japan and China than North Korea.

To the extent that the South’s military lags behind its antagonist’s, that is a matter of choice, not necessity. Nothing prevents Seoul from building a larger force. Rather, the American tripwire discourages it from doing so. As the South acknowledges in its own defense reports, it chose to focus on economic development at the expense of military strength — a plan it can follow securely as long as America protects it.

Unfortunately, while the South needs no help to defend itself against its shell of a neighbor, American soldiers are everywhere: arriving at Seoul’s international airport, based at the 630-acre Yongsan Army Garrison in downtown Seoul, and on maneuvers around the country. Some number of fights, traffic accidents, and crimes are inevitable. Last fall, when a military court acquitted two soldiers who ran over two children, demonstrations broke out across the nation. Koreans jeered, ostracized, barred from stores, and in a few cases physically attacked their supposed protectors. One American soldier was even kidnapped by a mob after a serviceman refused to accept a leaflet attacking the U.S. over the deaths of the two girls. Some Koreans are boycotting American goods.

Before taking office, President Roh promised not to “kowtow” to the U.S. and called for a more “equal” relationship. All of the presidential candidates — including the one favored by Washington, conservative Lee Hoi-chang — demanded a change in the Status of Forces Agreement, which covers a variety of issues involving the investigation and custody of U.S. soldiers accused of a crime. But the nation will never be America’s equal as long as America is defending it. Protecting oneself is among the most important attributes of sovereignty. If Seoul instead puts its security in Washington’s hands, it is giving Washington authority to make the decisions. No South Korean could expect the U.S. to risk war on the South’s terms. And as long as Seoul wants an occupying garrison, it must expect to be treated like an occupied country. That means American forces appropriately receive special protections not available to tourists.

The Status of Forces Agreement has long been a matter of controversy. Earlier revision talks date back to November 2000. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld initially dismissed the possibility of more changes, but the two governments subsequently established a task force to review the agreement. But Washington can go only so far. The U.S. cannot deploy American citizens in other nations and leave them to the tender mercies of local residents, alien cultures, and unfamiliar legal systems. It would be particularly unfair to do so while anti-Americanism is resurgent, since South Korean justice is not immune to such influences. (It was the three soldiers attacked by a Korean mob, and not those who beat them and kidnapped one of them, whom the Korean police charged with assault.) A Status of Forces Agreement is part of the price a nation pays when it turns its security over to another country.

Placing even greater pressure on this unequal arrangement is disagreement about proper policy toward North Korea. Some 24 million people, roughly half of South Korea’s population, live in the Seoul-Inchon metropolitan region. Yet Seoul sits barely 25 miles from the border, vulnerable to artillery and Scud missile attack. Thus, the costs of mishandling the North would be horrific for the South. As President Roh has said, war “is such a catastrophic result that I cannot even imagine. We have to handle the North-South relations in such a way that we do not have to face such a situation.”

Washington, by contrast, has almost casually considered plunging the peninsula into war. Former President Bill Clinton admits that his administration prepared for a military strike against the North during the first nuclear crisis, without consulting the South. President Roh understandably complained. “We almost went to the brink of war in 1993 with North Korea,” he later said, “and at the time we didn’t even know it.”

Upon what can Seoul rely to avoid a new conflict? There are reports that President Bush rejected a military course after then-President Kim Dae-jung personally described the carnage of the Korean War. Yet Bush explicitly refuses to rule out any option. Secretary Rumsfeld has called the Kim Jong-il government a “terrorist regime,” offering an obvious justification for action. And it is hard to find anyone who speaks with administration officials off the record who believes their publicly pacific intentions.

Indeed, some hawks flaunt their lack of concern for Seoul’s views. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) opines that “while they may risk their populations, the United States will do whatever it must to guarantee the security of the American people. And spare us the usual lectures about American unilateralism. We would prefer the company of North Korea’s neighbors, but we will make do without it if we must.” Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy hits a similar note: “The desire of dangerous nations’ neighbors to accommodate, rather than confront, them is understandable. But it should not be determinative of U.S. policy. Such pleading today from South Korea and Japan is reminiscent of the Cold War advocacy for détente by leftists in the West German government.” Apparently, America’s allies should gaily commit suicide at Washington’s command.

Like politicians everywhere, President Roh began dancing toward the political center once elected, calling the U.S.-Korean alliance “precious.” The serious possibility of a rupture in the relationship has forced South Koreans to confront the potentially significant budget cost of augmenting their military forces to make up for an American troop withdrawal.

But no policy Band-Aids will save the two nations’ relationship. Moving Yongsan base out of Seoul or cutting a few troops ignores the basic issue. Rumsfeld is reportedly considering pulling U.S. troops back from the demilitarized zone, but that would merely expose the deployment’s lack of purpose. A tripwire in Pusan is no tripwire, or at least not one with any value.

Why is America still in Korea? The security commitment is the only reason the North breathes fire against Washington. If the U.S. withdrew, Pyongyang would pose no serious threat to us. Today it wields only an untested missile with the theoretical possibility of hitting Alaska or the West Coast, and it knows that attacking America would ensure obliteration. In contrast, leaving forces on the peninsula creates 37,000 nearby nuclear hostages if Pyongyang develops a nuclear arsenal. The troop presence also further strains a military that intends to garrison a defeated Iraq along with the Balkans, all while searching for Al Qaeda worldwide.

Alliances are created at particular times to meet particular threats. They are not ends in themselves, to be preserved no matter how much the world changes. Instead of augmenting its forces in the Pacific and threatening Pyongyang with war, the U.S. should bring home its troops and turn the problem of Pyongyang over to its neighbors, where it belongs.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.