Commentary

Foreign Policy Welfare Queen

This article appeared on Reason.com on October 17, 2005.
The U.S. State Department has never met an alliance, treaty, or aid program that it doesn’t like. As a result, the list of Washington’s foreign policy welfare queens is long. The Republic of Korea, however, must be near the top.

In 1950 the U.S. rescued South Korea from an invasion from the North. Today Seoul has about 40 times the GDP, twice the population, and a vast technological edge over the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. But the South continues to rely on Washington for a defense arrangement that is expensive for America, unpopular in Korea, and unnecessary for both countries. After the June summit between Presidents George W. Bush and Roh Moo-hyun, President Bush opined: “We’re strategic partners, allies and friends.”

Delusions about South Korea’s need for assistance infects Capitol Hill as well. This summer, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), vice chairman of the International Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to other House members extolling the U.S.-ROK alliance. “Forged in the heat of battle, the U.S.-South Korean bilateral relationship continues to be one of our most vital and vibrant partnerships,” Burton declared. The congressman cited “the continuing contributions made by South Korea to our mutual alliance—some that are all too often forgotten.”

Actually, they aren’t worth remembering. For instance, Burton pointed to trade. But Americans and South Koreans trade because it is mutually beneficial to do so, not because of our military alliance. The ROK “has been a strong ally in the U.S.-led War on Terror, having committed more than 3,270 troops to Iraq,” the congressman noted. What Burton didn’t mention was that Seoul insisted its forces be placed far away from hostilities.

Another “contribution,” in Burton’s view, is that Seoul “has taken positive steps on the question of human rights in North Korea.” But the ROK does not accept North Korean refugees as a favor to America. Moreover, Seoul has turned markedly frigid towards those fleeing North Korean tyranny. Government ministers have publicly denounced activists who organize mass defections and dis claimed any interest in undermining Pyongyang. South Korea seems more concerned about offending the DPRK officials doing the oppressing than the millions of people being oppressed.

Burton also contended that “South Korea is a key partner in the Six-Party Talks to resolve North Korea’s nuclear issue.” Actually, Seoul and Washington view the issue very differently. ROK Unification Minister Chung Dong-Young recently proclaimed that the North is entitled to have a nuclear program. South Korea has been closer to China than the U.S. in the six-party talks. Moreover, the South is providing substantial economic aid to North Korea without asking for much in return. ROK public opinion increasingly views the U.S. as a greater threat than the DPRK.

Nevertheless, Burton wrote, “South Korea is an important military ally with over 33,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country.” But there’s no justification for maintaining U.S. troops in the ROK. The South lost most of its strategic value to America after the Cold War. The U.S. garrison performs no useful regional role. If the United States ends up at war with China, we won’t be launching a ground invasion. More important, the South Koreans are unlikely to allow the U.S. to use their nation as a launching pad. Earlier this year, President Roh emphasized that his nation would not get involved in a war in Northeast Asia at America’s behest and that Washington could not use its troops based in the ROK without Seoul’s permission.

There remains much that Americans and Koreans can do together. But maintaining a close military alliance is not one of them. It’s time to focus on the interests of America rather than “allies” who believe Washington owes them a defense.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is coauthor of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea(Macmillan/Palgrave).