Last week President Barack Obama embarked on his great reassurance tour of Asia. America’s allies need not fear. No matter how wealthy, influential, or powerful, they can count on Washington’s continuing protection.
So it is with the Republic of Korea (ROK), with which the U.S. fought a brutal war against North Korea and China, backed by the Soviet Union, between 1950 and 1953. Afterwards Washington initiated a so-called Mutual Defense Treaty with the South and left a permanent military garrison. Behind America’s shield the South prospered, developing an economy now around 40 times the size of North Korea’s. The ROK also has twice the population, an overwhelming technological advantage, access to global markets, and numerous important international friends.
Yet when President Obama arrived in Seoul he announced: “The commitment that the United States of America has made to the security of the Republic of Korea only grows stronger in the face of aggression.” In light of new North Korean threats, said the president: “Our alliance does not waiver with each bout of their attention seeking.”
With Eastern Europe calling for support against Russia, the Middle East ever-unstable, and China aggressively pushing territorial claims throughout East Asian waters, the U.S. is rather busy. Why must Washington promise even greater support for a country well able to defend itself?
The U.S.-South Korea military alliance once made sense. No longer.
In one sense the ROK’s dramatic growth demonstrates the success of American policy. In 1953 South Korea had been ravaged by war. Millions had been killed, wounded, or forced from their homes. Seoul’s politics was authoritarian. The South’s economic recovery was slow as its growth lagged behind that of the North. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was allied with both China and the Soviet Union. Without U.S. backing, the South could have been overwhelmed by Pyongyang in a second Korean War.
But the correlation of forces began to change in the 1960s. Although the ROK’s Park Chung-hee, father of the current president, was a brutal military ruler, he freed the economy. The ROK began to race ahead of its northern rival. Increased wealth enhanced the nation’s international influence. Democracy finally arrived at the end of the 1980s. Then China abandoned Maoism and the Soviet Union collapsed.
By the new millennium the Korean race was over. Seoul had won decisively. It had even stolen away the North’s allies. Both Russia and China recognized the ROK and expanded their respective economic ties. Only in terms of military power did Pyongyang remain ahead, and even there its advantage waned. The North possessed quantity but declining quality.
The DPRK held that advantage only because South Korea chose not to invest more of its growing wealth in its military. There is no special geographic principle which prevents the country in the southern half of the Korean peninsula from deploying as many men and tanks as does the northern country. In the early years, at least, Seoul could sensibly argue for concentrating on economic development. Once the ROK hit middle income status, however, it had no excuse for letting its defenses slide.
Other than the fact that America was still protecting the South.
It is impossible to blame Seoul for taking advantage of Washington’s misplaced generosity. I remember speaking at one conference years ago at which one of the South Koreans responded to my suggestion that his country spend more on its military: “but we have education and health needs.” Washington officials didn’t seem to be similarly concerned about America’s education and health needs.
Indeed, the U.S. had no similar excuse for maintaining the status quo. During the Cold War protecting the South was a means to help contain the Soviet Union. America’s many security commitments in Asia and Europe ensured that communism would not dominate Eurasia. But this rationale largely disappeared when America’s allies gained the economic and political wherewithal to defend against backward communist states. Then the rationale completely disappeared when the communist empire collapsed.
Yet all of these alliances live on, some in expanded form. If there was no cost of defending much of the known world, there’d be no problem with this approach. However, while everyone assumes America’s promise to intervene will deter war, human history is littered with cases when deterrence failed. Then alliances, if backed, ensure involvement in someone else’s conflict. Both World War I and World War II saw military partnerships act as transmission belts of war.
Thus, it is foolish to draw lines without the military manpower and materiel to back them up. Which is why the defense budget essentially is the price of America’s foreign policy. The more Washington wants to do in the world, the more of Americans’ money Washington must spend.
Moreover, receiving a security commitment from a major power usually makes nations more confrontational, even reckless: after all, if you have a big brother willing to do the fighting, why not take advantage of the opportunity? Countries like Taiwan and Georgia have challenged larger antagonists apparently because they presumed America’s backing. After Pyongyang’s attacks of 2010 Seoul threatened to respond more quickly and forcefully to future provocations; indeed, when the North launched artillery fire in disputed waters along the peninsula’s west coast, the South quickly retaliated. An aggressive response was made much easier by America’s security guarantee.
Finally, Washington’s treaty commitments and force deployments discourage allied nations from doing more on their own behalf. Europe, Japan, and South Korea all have spent far less than they could—despite facing serious security threats. Yet all chose to invest in their economies at the expense of their defense long after they could claim fiscal necessity.
The worst danger for America from its commitment to the ROK is involvement in an unnecessary war among nuclear powers. North Korea remains one of the most irresponsible and unpredictable of nations. That doesn’t mean its leaders are insane. Rather, they are playing a weak hand for maximum effect.
Despite assumptions that “Great Successor” Kim Jong-un would be constrained politically and committed to reform economically, neither appears to be true. While the execution of his uncle last December could signal bitter factional infighting, Kim appears to be in charge. And occasional talk of economic liberalization has little no practical effect. Worse, his regime has moderated neither its rhetoric nor its behavior, and appears to be planning what it called “a new form of nuclear test.”
After years of attempting to dissuade Pyongyang from building nuclear weapons—through varying degrees of isolation and engagement—the U.S. government and policy community appear to have concluded that the DPRK is unpersuadable. Former diplomat Evans J. R. Revere told the New York Times: “It’s now clear there is no way they will give them up, no matter what we offer.”
From North Korea’s standpoint, what could be worth more than a weapon which deters American and South Korean military attack, frightens neighboring states, provides international status, extorts money from the South, and pacifies domestic political interests? It would be surprising if the regime was willing to negotiate away its most important weapon.
This realization has left Washington officials searching for new approaches. In fact, news reports indicated that Pyongyang was high on the president’s agenda for his Asian trip. In Seoul he claimed that the North posed “a direct threat to us.” But the only reason the U.S. needs be so concerned is America’s military tie to the South. Absent Washington’s promise to war on the South’s behalf, the DPRK would have little interest in America. Kim & Co. are evil, not irrational. America looms large in their minds because it continues to defend North Korea’s arch nemesis.
Moreover, Pyongyang only has an ability to harm the U.S. because Washington has generously stationed 28,000 men and women, plus additional dependents, within range of its artillery and tanks as well as missiles. These Americans will be nuclear hostages as soon as the North is able to use its atomic arsenal offensively. If the U.S. was not stuck in the middle of the Korean imbroglio, Americans could laugh at the DPRK’s endless over-the-top rhetoric.
Of course, Washington promotes a general policy of nonproliferation. But it is a lot easier, and less dangerous, to do so from afar, as in the case of Iran. An abstract commitment to that principle does not justify permanent defense treaties and garrisons, and obsequious reassurance visits—the fourth to Seoul for this president.
Worse, it isn’t clear that nonproliferation works any longer in Northeast Asia. There nonproliferation acts a bit like domestic gun control, ensuring that only bad guys have guns. In Northeast Asia Russia, China, and North Korea possess the doomsday weapon. America’s democratic allies, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, have no similar deterrent and instead rely upon the readiness of successive U.S. presidents to risk immolation of their own nation to safeguard countries with no vital connection to America’s security.
The risks of this policy increase as Beijing grows more aggressive. It might be time for Washington to indicate that if Pyongyang continues to follow its present course and China allows the North to do so, the U.S. government would withdraw its objection to its democratic allies following the same path.
Dissolving the military alliance with Seoul wouldn’t mean ending other cooperation. President Obama spoke approvingly of “South Korea’s partnership, from typhoon relief in the Philippines to humanitarian efforts in Syria.” But such activities involve no combat and require no military alliance. Even future security cooperation is possible, indeed, desirable, without America promising to defend its wealthy friend.
Washington elites enjoy the illusion that they run the world, a feeling often inflamed by allied officials only too willing to flatter successive administrations in return for defense guarantees. So it was on President Obama’s latest trip, where those he visited ostentatiously deferred to him. Unfortunately, the rest of Americans will pay the bill in blood and money.
The U.S.-South Korea military alliance once made sense. No longer. American policy will not have really succeeded until the ROK ends its embarrassing security dependency on Washington.