Commentary

Sixty Years Is Enough

In recent years South Korea has begun to develop regional ambitions. Seoul is creating a blue-water navy and deploying international peacekeeping troops. The Republic of Korea increasingly sees itself sitting alongside the world’s most powerful nations.

Unfortunately, the ROK government appears to have neglected its most important duty: defending its people. Last March North Korea sank a South Korean warship. Days ago Pyongyang unleashed a deadly artillery barrage against a South Korean island.

On both occasions all the ROK did was fulminate.

Granted, in the first case Seoul cut off what little bilateral trade remained between the two countries and demanded an apology. In the second instance the ROK fired back. It also changed the rules of engagement for the future and planned to bolster its island garrisons. Still, the effect was about the same as just talking. Pyongyang responded predictably, blaming the South and threatening to rain destruction down upon its enemies.

Worse, as ROK President Lee Myung-bak publicly worried lest South Koreans “let our guard down in preparation for another possible North Korean provocation,” his nation again hid behind Miss America’s skirt. President Barack Obama sent an aircraft carrier strike group to demonstrate “resolve” and professed America’s usual determination to stand by its helpless ally — “shoulder to shoulder,” as he put it.

It is a shocking situation.

Not North Korea’s misbehavior. The Stalinist dictatorship has morphed into the world’s only communist monarchy. Just two men, father and son, have ruled since the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was formed in 1948. Now “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il is attempting to pass power on to his youngest son, “Brilliant Comrade” Kim Jong-un.

The Kim family’s crimes are many: starting the Korean War, suppressing political, civil, and religious liberties, establishing a brutal gulag system, starving millions through imposition of an incompetent socialist state, and maintaining a permanent state of war. Firing off some artillery shells and killing four South Koreans is minor compared to the DPRK’s other activities.

Slightly more outrageous is China’s willingness to abet the North’s aggressions. After the latest incident, Beijing did not criticize Pyongyang. Instead, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called for all sides to show “maximum restraint.” That was a bit like urging the Germans, Soviets, and Poles to act responsibly in September 1939 after the Nazis and Communists invaded Poland. Still, while China’s conduct is disappointing, it hardly is surprising.

What is truly shocking is the ROK’s continuing dependence on America.

The Korean War ended in 1953. Since then the South has won the intra-Korea contest. The ROK raced past the North economically and now has upwards of 40 times the latter’s GDP. South Korea has succeeded in hi-tech production, benefits from twice the population, and possesses global diplomatic clout. In fact, Seoul even has stolen away North Korea’s allies, trading far more with China and Russia. In contrast to 1950, the latter two countries would not likely back Pyongyang in a fight.

Yet the DPRK possesses a bigger military. Although the North’s soldiers are ill-trained and its equipment is antiquated, the Kim government obviously still is capable of striking with deadly effect. Why hasn’t the South put its resources to better military effect? Because it doesn’t have to.

So long as America offers a security guarantee, maintains a tripwire troop presence on the peninsula, and promises to do whatever is necessary to protect the ROK, the South Koreans have little incentive to take over their own defense. Granted, it’s a bit humiliating to constantly beg Washington for aid: it would be a bit like the U.S. going hat-in-hand around the world asking for help to defend against Mexico. Still, better for Seoul to get the gullible Americans to pay its defense bill than to have to cover the cost itself.

Making the ROK’s behavior even more outrageous has been Seoul’s attempt to buy off Pyongyang while relying on American military support. For nearly a decade the so-called “Sunshine Policy” emphasized aid to and investment in the North. Seoul even effectively bought a summit between the late President Kim Dae-jung and the North’s Kim Jong-il. Although the Lee government has cut back on subsidies for the North, Seoul has not closed the Kaesong industrial park, an important source of hard currency for Pyongyang. Nothing changes even as North Korea kills the South’s citizens. Should war break out, some of the weapons fired at U.S. soldiers would have been effectively paid for by America’s allies in the South.

North Korea’s presumed nuclear capabilities add a more dangerous dimension to tensions on the peninsula, but America’s troop presence only worsens the problem by conveniently giving the Kim regime 27,500 nuclear hostages within easy reach. Moreover, the best way to get Beijing’s attention would be to suggest that Washington might eventually decide to respond to the North’s provocations by standing aside if South Korea and Japan want to build corresponding nuclear arsenals. That would give the residents of Beijing’s Zhongnanhai an incentive to clamp down on the DPRK.

With Uncle Sam effectively bankrupt, Americans increasingly will have to debate how much they should spend on “defense.” The answer should be: as much as is necessary for defense — of America. But no more for the defense of prosperous and populous allies, such as South Korea.

Today the U.S. protects countries that are well able to protect themselves. The result is not just to further impoverish debt-burdened Americans. It also is to reduce American security. After all, the U.S. would be far more secure if its allies were militarily strong and self-assured. Yet Washington’s security guarantees have turned friendly Asians and Europeans into a gaggle of helpless weaklings and wimps. U.S. allies espouse grandiose geopolitical ambitions but under-invest in defense — and when conflict threatens, scamper to Washington wailing for relief.

This behavior wouldn’t matter much if evil had passed away. But as we see in the Korean peninsula, the lion has yet to lie down with the lamb. The era of perpetual peace is not yet here.

Unfortunately, Washington’s military commitments may help deter conflict, but they insure American involvement if war breaks out. Taking that risk was necessary during the Cold War. But no longer. In Korea, for instance, only U.S. intervention could have prevented a North Korean victory in 1950. That is not the case in 2010. Americans no longer have anything at stake that warrants risking involvement in another conflict on the Korean peninsula.

The time is long past when Washington could play Globocop. We should start by bringing home the troops from Korea.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).