South Korea Must Learn to Defend Itself—without America

Despite the success of America’s post–World War II policy, its advocates act as if it is an abysmal failure. Consider analyst Khang Vu’s argument for continuing to treat the Republic of Korea as a helpless dependent. No matter that the Seoul took advantage of Washington’s defense shield to develop into one of the world’s most important, largest and advanced economies. The United States must continue to protect South Korea from the latter’s decrepit northern neighbor.

Notably, Vu offers no argument that South Korea is vital for America. He refers to another Korean war posing “an adverse prospect for future U.S. administrations.” That’s about right. It would be a human tragedy, source of instability and all-around inconvenience. But it wouldn’t matter much for American security. The next step would not be a North Korean task force sailing on Hawaii and conquering the West Coast (despite the hysterical plot of the movie reboot Red Dawn). Frankly, most Americans wouldn’t even notice the Republic of Korea’s fall.

Ultimately, North Korea threatens America only because America threatens North Korea.

But why would South Korea lose? Indeed, why couldn’t it deter a North Korean attack? Vu does not deny that South Korea is capable of defending itself. After all, South Korea possesses an economy around forty times as large and population about twice as large, and has neutralized North Korea’s two traditional military allies, China and Russia. Unless the peninsula has a special gravitational field which prevents South Korea from building as many tanks and fielding as many soldiers as the northern nation, Seoul could easily match, indeed overmatch, the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Yet Vu worries about a “vacuum of power,” apparently fearing that South Korea would not bother to build up its own forces. Like the Europeans who, though possessing far more military potential, don’t see any need to spend more on their own defense. Rather, they want to rely on the United States, apparently forever. America therefore must spend more, deploy more troops and repeatedly “reassure” its helpless allies.

Ohm Tae-am of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses recently defended South Korea inadequate spending as having increased six times since 1991. So what? The objective should not be “cost-sharing” with America, as he argued, but “cost-bearing” by South Korea. Seoul is poorer than America, but far richer than the DPRK. So South Korea has no excuse for claiming it cannot defend itself. If Pyongyang can afford to threaten the Republic of Korea, South Korea can more than afford to respond appropriately.

Still, maybe the Republic of Korea would not expand its forces while the United States was withdrawing its units. Heck, maybe South Korea Koreans would preemptively surrender. Probably not, but even that would be Seoul’s decision. It makes no sense to force the American people to defend the South Korean people if the latter aren’t willing to defend themselves. Washington should not treat security guarantees as international welfare.

However, Vu warns that South Korea might irresponsibly respond “militarily to avoid losing face” to a DPRK provocation. Thus, American troops must remain on station to prevent Seoul from doing something stupid. Seriously? More than six decades after the end of the Korean War the U.S. must occupy the ROK to prevent it from starting a new war? Surely that is a poor reason for Washington to continue to occupy a prosperous, populous nation that is far stronger than its chief antagonist. If Seoul is truly that irresponsible, Washington should disengage immediately. Americans shouldn’t risk dying because South Koreans might gamble away the peace.

Of course, Vu says, don’t worry, “the presence of American troops has effectively thwarted North Korean attacks in the first place.” However, deterrence frequently has failed. In both World Wars I and II alliances turned into transmission belts of war rather than acting as firebreaks to war. Moreover, the chief danger on the Korean peninsula is not aggression but mistake. Kim Jong-un appears to be less responsible, more impulsive and less experienced than his father and grandfather. It is impossible to deter misjudgment. If something goes wrong, the United States will find itself automatically involved in someone else’s war.

Vu also makes the curious claim that defending the world costs America nothing. Indeed, in his view Washington saves money every time it protects another wealthy nation because other states help pay basing costs. However, the U.S. does not raise military units for pleasure. Rather, they exist to achieve specific ends. Foreign policy drives force structure. If Washington did not promise to defend South Korea—as well as Japan, Europe and a multitude of other states—it could shrink the armed forces. So the cost of protecting the Republic of Korea is not just the expense of basing units overseas, but of creating them in the first place.

Finally, Vu authoritatively asserts that withdrawal “will not result in any breakthroughs in negotiations with North Korea.” Unless he has been conducting secret talks with Kim, however, it is impossible to know what the impact of U.S. disengagement would be. It seems highly unlikely that Pyongyang would yield its existing nuclear arsenal under any circumstances, but there are other potentially useful deals that could be struck, including limiting future nuclear developments and reducing conventional force deployments.

Of course, positive results remain unlikely. But Vu simply illustrates the old saw that the best definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. His solution to the “North Korea Problem”? Enforce sanctions. Yup, those have brought the North to heel. Get China on board. Yup, U.S. pleading, begging and whining have moved Beijing to, well, tears. Just keep trying and maybe, miraculously, something eventually will change for the better.

Not likely.

Ultimately, North Korea threatens America only because America threatens North Korea. If U.S. troops weren’t stationed on the peninsula, Kim would find other targets for his abundant venom and threats. Moreover, as noted earlier, South Korea is fully capable of containing the DPRK. There’s no need for America to be, as argued by Vu, an “offshore balancer” against a country which isn’t a threat and can be contained by someone else.

The Pentagon once focused on defending the United States. Today the military is a vast fount of international charity. South Korea is one of America’s many foreign welfare dependents. The U.S. military is overstretched. The U.S. government is effectively broke. The American people are overwhelmed with debt. It’s time for Washington to pare back unnecessary security commitments. Allowing South Korea to defend itself would be a good place to start.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.