Commentary

South Korea’s New Direction

South Korea has elected a new president, Park Geun-hye. A member of the ruling party, she looks to be the Republic of Korea’s George H.W. Bush, who followed Ronald Reagan promising moderation. For instance, Park has pledged to go easier on North Korea. 

The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains a problem child. A year ago the dictator died, leaving his son, Kim Jong-un, in at least nominal charge. The latter has projected a more youthful, even hip, image, but nothing of substance has changed. The North Korean people remain in Stalinist bondage, economically impoverished and politically oppressed.

For a decade liberal ROK presidents — Kim Dae-jung and Roh Mo-hyun — followed what they called the “Sunshine Policy,” which involved large-scale investment in and aid to the North with little required in return. Both South Korean leaders even traveled to Pyongyang for summits. The hope was to ease decades of military confrontation. Alas, the DPRK continued its missile and nuclear programs, maintained its large conventional military deployments along the Demilitarized Zone, and persisted in its provocative threat-making.

After Lee Myung-bak was elected ROK president in 2007, he changed course. Although not willing to cut off North Korea entirely — the cost of terminating existing investment projects would be high — he closed the open financial spigot for the North. Pyongyang responded with screams of outrage, additional missile and nuclear tests, and attacks on a South Korea military vessel and island. That hostility has continued under the new DPRK regime.

The election of its first woman president could mean some new “sunshine” for North Korea.”

None of this would matter much to America if the U.S. did not defend the ROK. President Harry Truman intervened in 1950 in what he termed a “police action” to stop a full-scale North Korean invasion. China then entered to save the North and the conflict ended inconclusively near where it began. No peace treaty was ever signed and American troops have remained on station ever since.

The Sunshine Policy created the spectacle of Seoul paying off its potential aggressor which America was simultaneously deterring. Unfortunately, DPRK simply took the money and ran. Billions of dollars later nothing had changed. The ROK could continue with a policy that wasn’t working only because American military personnel and taxpayers were on call.

Unsurprisingly, the Bush and Obama administrations embraced the Lee government. Yet a curious domestic political backlash soon developed in the ROK: support grew for a more conciliatory course with the North. This year both presidential candidates embraced a move back to the future. 

Leftish Moon Jae-in advocated a return to the Sunshine Policy, including holding another summit. The architect of his North Korea policy explained that the ROK “should take the lead” because “If we don’t make a move first, nobody else will.” That, of course, would mean more aid with fewer conditions. Moon’s position could be summarized as: Maybe this time the North Koreans can be bribed to be nice.

Park took a similar rhetorical position, though she appeared to be more cautious in practice. A decade ago she met the late Kim Jong-il, who she declared was “comfortable to talk to” and appeared to be someone “who would keep his word.” However, Pyongyang did not return the praise, losing few opportunities to vilify her during the campaign. The North even concocted a Gangnam-style spoof video attacking her.

She did indicate that an apology for recent military provocations would be necessary before any meeting with Kim Jong-un. However, she advocated separating humanitarian assistance from politics — which is impossible for the North, since any government-to-government aid is seen as a concession. Nevertheless, her election probably means a resumption of food shipments, at least.

Her main difference with Moon appeared to be to endorse economic assistance only if the DPRK responded in some fashion. She spoke of “trust building” with the DPRK, a daunting task when the latter sinks South Korean ships and bombards South Korean islands. Even she acknowledged that “shoveling” aid to Pyongyang had only resulted in a “fake” peace, and called for progress on nuclear disarmament to promote bilateral relations.

The latter sounds good, but appears to reflect the triumph of hope over experience. She will be under pressure to “move first,” granting concessions in the hope of inducing the North to reciprocate. This risks subsidizing the world’s worst government which continues to threaten her nation. Alas, so far nothing suggests a greater willingness in the North to adopt genuine détente. Talk of economic reform so far has been largely unfulfilled, and there is no evidence of political reform. Indeed, the Kim regime actually has tightened controls along the border with China. As long as Beijing is prepared to provide abundant investment and aid, the DPRK faces only limited pressure to change.

South Korea’s problems run deeper than its politicians, however. Pyongyang continues to possess the means and claims to have the will to do the ROK great harm, but many South Koreans no longer care. Last week’s rocket launch received international attention, but didn’t seem to be have “much effect on the current presidential contest one way or the other” reported John Delury of Yonsei University. Since Pyongyang already possesses short-range missiles that could hit the ROK, “most people don’t see this rocket launch as a security threat.”

Nor do they seem to see much else in the North as a threat. Choi Jong-kun of Yonsei University said: “Threat perception overall toward North Korea has somewhat waned.” Even violent incidents are nothing new. Explained Choi: “It’s been going on for the last 20 years, despite so many sporadic skirmishes, virtually nothing has happened.”

Younger South Koreans are the least concerned. They don’t fear the North, see the need for U.S. troops, or long for reunification. An unnamed official at the Ministry of Unification told World Affairs Journal that “Young people in Korea are not really interested in North Korea.” They are leading comfortable lives and “believe in the old policy, coexistence.” They also tend to get most angry at the impact of America’s military presence, from crimes committed to sovereignty violated.

Park’s election may complicate the ROK’s relationship with Washington. The Obama administration appears to be skeptical of any new North Korean initiatives. That is unlikely to change after the North’s rocket launch. If Seoul moves forward, it could resurrect the tensions of the 2000s, when George W. Bush pushed isolation and liberal Kim Dae-jung practiced engagement.

It is time for Washington to ask: Why is America guaranteeing the security of a country that worries ever less about its own security? Moreover, the South is well able to defend itself — it enjoys roughly a 40-1 economic advantage, for instance. Yet even the conservative Lee government allowed South Korean military outlays to lag. Surely the U.S. should not pay to defend a country that subsidizes its enemy.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently argued: “We maintain those forces not only for help and protection of South Korea but also as a force to indicate that the United States is going to always maintain a military presence in the Pacific.” However, alliances and deployments should be a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Why maintain such a presence?

Emergency access to ROK bases would be helpful to meet unexpected contingencies, but the permanent presence of an army division with no obvious use anywhere wastes American resources and entangles American forces. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the obvious point that anyone advocating another land war in Asia should “have his head examined.” 

Just as many South Koreans no longer worry much about the DPRK, Americans should no longer worry much about the ROK. The Cold War is over, South Korea’s security is not vital to that of America, and the South can safeguard its own future. Moreover, Washington is effectively broke and no longer can afford to treat defense spending as welfare for its friends.

South Korea has much of which to be proud. An impoverished dictatorship has become a prosperous democracy. If the new president wants to go back to appeasing the North, that is South Korea’s prerogative. However, there’s no reason for Washington to be subsidizing it.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he also is a Senior Fellow in International Religious Persecution with the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.