Leave Korea to the Koreans

May 27, 2000 • Commentary

The planned summit between South Korean President Kim Dae‐​jung of South Korea and Communist party head of North Korean leader Kim Jong‐​il offers the hope of ending the Korean Peninsula’s Cold War. Washington should use this opportunity to reduce its involvement in Korean affairs.

Korea has for 50 years been one of America’s most dangerous military commitments. Today the United States maintains 37,000 soldiers as a tripwire to ensure involvement should war again break out between the two Koreas.

Indeed, there is no place else in the world where Americans are more likely to be involved in a conflict. The United States would win any war, but it would not be a bloodless victory, like that over Serbia.

Yet, the Korean Peninsula is not nearly as important as American policy suggests. Neither the Pentagon nor Gen. Douglas MacArthur believed South Korea to be intrinsically significant in 1950. President Harry S. Truman intervened to stop North Korea’s invasion because he believed it was inspired by the Soviet Union.

We now know that the Soviets were reluctant supporters of Pyongyang’s offensive. In any case, the Soviet Union is gone, along with any threat of global conquest.

Thus, by any definition, Korea today is a peripheral rather than a vital U.S. interest. War there would be tragic, but would not threaten America.

Moreover, the Republic of Korea need no longer play the role of helpless victim. The South has won the competition between the two Koreas.

It has 30 times the GDP, twice the population, and a vast technological lead. South Korea, in contrast to the North, is a major international player.

Indeed, Russia is shipping weapons to South Korea to pay off its debts. China, too, is unlikely to back Pyongyang in any war.

Obviously, North Korea remains a dangerous actor. But its threats are largely empty — desperate attempts to gain international attention. Bankrupt, starving, and friendless, the North is struggling to survive, not to dominate South Korea, let alone the region.

Even its most worrisome activities, such as missile and nuclear weapons research, look more like strategies to defend itself in an increasingly hostile world than to prepare itself for an aggressive war. When your neighboring enemy spends as much on defense as your entire GDP, and is allied with the world’s greatest military power, you don’t have many defense options.

The summit announcement is one of the most dramatic developments on a peninsula long noted for surprises. Six years ago, Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il‐​sung, was set to meet Kim Dae-jung’s predecessor, Kim Young‐​sam. Kim Il‐​sung dropped dead shortly before the meeting, however, and relations between the two nations quickly deteriorated.

Since that time, North Korea has suffered famine, near economic collapse and, if reports are accurate, political infighting. The only card Pyongyang has had to play to gain international attention and assistance is the threat to misbehave.

Kim Jong-il’s apparent willingness to meet with Kim Dae‐​jung is another sign of desperation. Even if the meeting falls through, Pyongyang has conceded the legitimacy of its southern counterpart.

Of course, a successful summit is not sufficient to end a half‐​century of hostilities. The North has initiated war, regularly employed terrorism, launched frequent military probes, and constantly rattled its saber. Seoul has returned the hostile feelings, if not actions.

But a meeting of the two Kims would provide an opportunity for their two nations to start anew. Moreover, it would offer Washington a chance to step into the background.

The United States should leave the direction of Korean policy to Seoul. The country most threatened by North Korea is South Korea. The country with the most to gain from detente between the two is South Korea.

America should normalize its relationship with both countries. For the North, that means dropping economic sanctions and initiating diplomatic relations.

Of course, such a policy would “reward” Pyongyang, but that is precisely what the United States should do when North Korea acts responsibly. Such an opening may not be enough to defang what remains a militarized yet unpredictable regime, but it is more likely to have positive results than is the current policy.

As for the South, Washington should phase out its troop presence and security guarantees. South Korea is well able to defend itself. The justification for an American tripwire disappeared long ago.

The Korean Peninsula is entering an exciting new era. The two Koreas may be finally willing to put their 50‐​year old struggle behind them.

In any case, it is time for Washington to disengage. Then South Korea and its neighbors, rather than America, are the ones that have to deal with future bumps in the Korean road to peace and reunification.

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