Military Readiness and Korean Commitments

August 31, 2000 • Commentary
This essay was distributed nationally by Copley News Service.

The real presidential race has finally begun, as Vice President Al Gore and GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush battle over the state of the military. But their focus on questions of morale and readiness ignore the more fundamental issue of security commitments, which require retention of an outsized military.

Neither candidate seems to have noticed that communism collapsed. Which means we don’t need a Cold War military anymore.

Consider the deployment of 37,000 soldiers in South Korea. The recent summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung was more successful than most anyone expected.

The two states have ended hostile propaganda broadcasts across the Demilitarized Zone and met to plot future cooperation.

Other positive signs include Kim Jong Il’s cautious endorsement of Chinese economic reforms and Pyongyang’s participation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum and increased diplomatic contacts with countries ranging from Australia to Italy.

Optimists are looking toward expanded inter‐​Korean trade, more family reunification visits, additional aid for the North and even Pyongyang’s membership in such international organizations as the Asian Development Bank. Exulted President Kim Dae Jung: ”The danger of war on the Korean Peninsula has disappeared.”

In short, the Korean cold war might be ending. But only might.

In 1972, the two Koreas signed a reconciliation agreement and halted propaganda attacks. Two decades later, they inked disarmament agreements. These accords all collapsed.

Issues such as the North’s missile program remain unresolved. Moreover, nearly 2 million soldiers still fill the peninsula.

What the summit has yielded, then, is the first step in a long process of rapprochement. A huge, indeed, vital, first step.

But a first step, nonetheless.

The Clinton administration has responded by lifting economic restrictions. This decision is welcome, though belated the administration first promised to do so last year.

In fact, the North apparently decided to warm relations with the ROK at least in part in frustration with Washington’s refusal to fulfill its earlier commitments. Similar discussions with Japan also led nowhere.

Nevertheless, Washington denies that the summit should have any impact on U.S. troop deployments. Explains Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon, ”We intend to remain a force for stability in that area as long as we are needed.”

Taking a similar approach is Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: ”Our forces, when they are stationed somewhere, provide evidence of America’s interest.”

In fact, the summit has not dramatically changed the threat environment or force balance on the peninsula.

But even pre‐​summit, the 37,000 U.S. troops in the Republic of Korea weren’t needed.

The ROK has upward of 30 times the GDP and twice the population of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Seoul holds a vast technological and industrial edge.

Indeed, the South leads the DPRK on every measure of national power other than current force levels. And the latter is a matter of choice, not an inevitable consequence of geography.

The South has also won the international contest. Although China and Russia have recently begun competing again for influence in Pyongyang, neither desires war on the peninsula. In fact, Moscow has been shipping arms to the ROK to pay off its debts; Beijing has far greater economic links with South Korea.

In such a world, there’s no need for America to defend Seoul. Rather, the U.S. presence is a Cold War anachronism, one that could impede genuine detente on the peninsula.

Curiously, there has been some indication that the DPRK is warming to the idea of maintaining U.S. forces as ”peacekeepers.”

That is, the North might be hoping to redress its growing weakness by relying on the United States. Yet, protecting the DPRK, with which America fought a war, would be truly bizarre.

Better inter‐​Korean relations will lead to less ROK reliance on Washington. That bothers not only American hegemonists who want to dominate the world, but also some Koreans.

Jeon Jaewook, an adviser to the opposition Grand National Party, worries: ”This could open up a Pandora’s box by triggering a surge of nationalism that could weaken our alliance with the U.S. and Japan.”

But, today’s patron‐​client relationship is not good for either Seoul or Washington. The two Koreas will not find it easy to achieve their avowed goal of reunification. But they, not the United States, should determine their future course whether together or separate.

Washington shouldn’t be expected to approve the result. Nor to finance or guarantee it.

The recent love fest in Pyongyang is likely to transform the relationship between North and South Korea. It should also transform the relationship between the ROK and the United States. If the presidential candidates recognize that the Cold War is over, that is.

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