Three issues are likely to dominate the talks this week between President Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. On the economic front, the two leaders will emphasize the extensive potential benefits of the bilateral free trade agreement.
On the security front, there will be considerable discussion of both North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and the future of the U.S.-South Korean alliance. Unfortunately, leaders of the two countries are locked into increasingly obsolete and dysfunctional policies with respect to both issues. New thinking on those security matters is badly needed.
Seoul and Washington routinely contend that they will not tolerate North Korea having a nuclear arsenal. But other than the long-standing attempt to isolate Pyongyang internationally, U.S. and South Korean officials present no plausible strategy for preventing Kim Jong-il’s regime from expanding its nuclear capabilities. The much-touted six-party talks clearly have not worked. Moreover, without China’s active cooperation to deny crucial food and energy aid to North Korea (and there is no indication that Beijing is willing to take that step), North Korea cannot be truly isolated. Obama and Lee need to consider the possibility of learning to live with a nuclear North Korea, since the current U.S.-South Korean strategy for dealing with the nuclear issue is hopelessly ineffectual.
Policy regarding the bilateral security alliance is no better. Predictably, Lee and Obama will reaffirm the importance of that alliance. But from the standpoint of American interests, this commitment makes little sense. The principal effect of Washington’s security blanket for South Korea is to enable that country to shamelessly free-ride on America’s military exertions. Despite being located next to perhaps the most dangerous and unpredictable country in the world—Kim Jong-il’s North Korea—South Korea continues to spend an anemic 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. That is woefully inadequate, and the only reason Seoul can get away with such irresponsible behavior is that South Korean leaders believe they can rely on the United States to take care of their country’s security—at the expense of American taxpayers.
That arrangement was dubious even when South Korea was a weak, traumatized country facing a North Korea strongly backed by both the Soviet Union and Communist China. Today, South Korea is a wealthy country, and Moscow and Beijing regard North Korea as an embarrassment, not a crucial ally.
President Obama should inform Lee that an America whose government is hemorrhaging red ink at the rate of $1.5 trillion a year can no longer afford to subsidize the defense of free-riding allies—especially those that are perfectly capable of providing for their own defense. This summit meeting creates an opportunity for Washington to begin phasing-out the obsolete military alliance with South Korea.