North Korea’s dramatic announcement that it has pursued a covert nuclear weapons program in violation of the agreement it signed in 1994 underscores the gravity of the security burdens and risks the United States continues to bear in Northeast Asia. In a normal international system, the nations that would be most concerned about a possible North Korean nuclear weapons capability would be Pyongyang’s immediate neighbors: South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. They also would logically take the lead in formulating policies to deal with the crisis.
But thanks to more than a half-century of U.S. smothering behavior, there is nothing normal about the situation in Northeast Asia. Japan and South Korea continue to rely heavily on the United States for their defense needs, and given the ingrained pattern of dependence, they look to Washington to resolve the looming problem posed by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Even China and Russia expect the United States, as the principal military power in the region, to assume the lead role in that frustrating and probably unrewarding mission.
If it were not for the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and the nearly 50,000 stationed in Japan, the United States could afford to view the prospect of a nuclear North Korea with relative detachment. U.S. officials regard those troops as crucial military assets in the region. But if Pyongyang cannot be dissuaded from building a nuclear arsenal — and one dare not be optimistic on that score — those troops are no longer assets. They are nuclear hostages.
There is no need to expose American military personnel to such risks. During the early decades of the Cold War, there was a respectable rationale for keeping troops in the region and giving security guarantees to Japan and South Korea. Washington understandably wanted to keep both countries out of the orbit of a rapaciously expansionist Soviet Union or a hostile and volatile China. For many years, Japan and South Korea were also too weak to provide for their own defense.
Today’s security environment bears no resemblance to that earlier era. The Soviet Union has been replaced by a weak, non-communist Russia. China’s relations with the United States, while tense at times, are dramatically better than they were when America made its security commitments to Northeast Asia.
Even more important, Japan and South Korea are vastly more capable than they were when they became Washington’s security dependents. South Korea now has twice the population of North Korea and an economy some 40 times as large. If Seoul spent even a respectable amount on defense, it could easily outpace its decrepit communist neighbor. But it chooses to spend a smaller percentage of its gross domestic product on the military than does the United States — even though North Korea is on its border, not America’s.
Japan’s timidity on security matters is even more indefensible. Despite the decade-long recession that has plagued its economy, Japan still has the second-largest economy in the world. It also has a population 6 times larger than North Korea’s. It is pathetic to see a country with those characteristics — one of the world’s great powers — rely on another country to resolve a security issue that so clearly impinges on Japan’s vital interests.
Washington should begin to reduce its discretionary security risks in Northeast Asia. It is time — indeed, it is well past time — to tell Japan and South Korea they must provide for their own defense and take responsibility for dealing with security problems in their region. The continuing reliance of those two countries on the United States is not healthy for them — and it certainly is not healthy for America. Japan and South Korea, together with China and Russia, should bear the burden of dealing with a dangerous and unpredictable North Korea.