End America’s Defense Dole for South Korea

South Korean President Park Geun-hye postponed her trip to the U.S. because of a public health emergency at home. Unfortunately, the delay won’t make a future Park trip any more useful.

There is much on which the two nations should cooperate. But the military alliance is outdated. Despite having surged past the North, enjoying a 40-to-1 economic advantage and 2-to-1 population edge, Seoul continues to play the helpless dependent, unable even to command its own forces in a war.

South Korea eventually took off economically and adopted democracy. Yet through it all South Korea’s defense dependency on America persisted.

The South Korean government isn’t even willing to take over operational control, or OPCON, of its own forces in wartime. It isn’t ready, it insists. Yet North Korea commands its forces.

Of course, some South Koreans admit that they most fear shifting command would encourage Washington to withdraw its troops. Thus, their objective is to appear as helpless as possible as long as possible to retain the U.S. troop tripwire.

The present arrangement obviously is bad for America. Protecting South Korea isn’t cheap.

The more potential wars, the bigger the military needed. That the ROK helps pay for occupation costs ignores the more basic expense, the cost of raising, equipping, and maintaining the units themselves.

Today the peninsula is militarily inconsequential. A North Korean victory would not be the first leg of an exorable march toward global Communist domination.

No question, it would be an awful outcome. But that doesn’t warrant a permanent “alliance” entangling the U.S. in one of the most heavily militarized and unstable regions on earth.

Especially since Seoul is well able to defend itself. The South is only acting helpless.

Some analysts want to expand the alliance, but it has no alternative purposes. The ROK isn’t going to help contain the People’s Republic of China, since few South Koreans want to make a permanent enemy of their big neighbor.

The Pentagon imagines other military scenarios in East Asia—say a squabble in Southeast Asia—but they almost certainly wouldn’t justify American intervention. Seoul did kick in some support for America’s misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, but if the price was a permanent garrison on the peninsula, the cost was far too high.

The most important downside for the U.S. today is that defending the South threatens to drag America into a real war with potentially horrific casualties, even if the outcome was certain “victory.”

Although the benefits of being protected are obvious, the ROK loses in several ways. First is diminished self-respect. Real countries defend themselves.

Second, the South’s defense is in part out of its own hands. Committed to war if necessary, the U.S. will inevitably interfere.

Third, the ROK’s diplomatic strategy toward the North suffers. If Washington chooses the opposite approach, the result is conflict and confusion.

Fourth, secure in the U.S. defense guarantee Seoul feels little pressure to seek a modus vivendi with Japan. The two prosperous democratic states should cooperate on security instead of fixating on history.

Fifth, relying on the U.S. encourages South Korea to accept permanent dependency. Seoul has less incentive to invest in the military.

Finally, Seoul is unable to consider building a countervailing nuclear weapon if necessary. The U.S. should not risk its security by putting the American homeland at potential risk from a nuclear-armed North.

The ROK could do the job itself. The mere possibility of the South going nuclear, likely followed by Japan, would encourage Beijing to redouble its efforts to achieve a nuclear free peninsula. 

South Koreans pay a high price for America’s security guarantee. They are stuck on the U.S. defense dole, as dependent as any domestic welfare recipient.

As I wrote on Forbes: “When the two presidents next meet, they should discuss how to transform the U.S.-South Korea relationship into one of equals. Nearly seventy years of defense welfare is enough. It’s time for the ROK to grow up and take its place on the world stage.”