Why Doesn’t South Korea Defend the United States?

December 5, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes on December 5, 2011.

Seoul is the political and industrial heart of the Republic of Korea. The metropolitan area holds half of the country’s population. Amid the city’s bustle the threat from the so‐​called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seems far away, but Seoul’s suburbs lie just 25 miles south of the demilitarized zone, within range of North Korean artillery and Scud missiles. Hence the North’s latest threat to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,”

South Korea became a defense dependent of Washington decades ago. Like America’s other alliances around the globe, the “mutual” defense treaty with Seoul does not protect the U.S. Given the South’s recent economic success, Americans should ask: When will this prosperous and populous friend begin defending America?

U.S. troops have been in South Korea for 61 years. Washington first intervened to reverse the North’s invasion of the ROK in 1950. Three years later the fighting ended in an armistice, with no peace treaty ever reached. Since then American troops have formed a military tripwire to ensure Washington’s involvement in any new war.

However, Seoul has precious few responsibilities in return. ROK forces never have been stationed in America. There were never plans for the South to assist the U.S. if the latter was attacked by the Soviet Union. No South Korean ships patrolled the sea lanes and no South Korean aircraft guarded the sky.

In the early days there was little the ROK, an impoverished dictatorship, could do. Seoul could not protect itself, let alone anyone else. But then, Washington should not have maintained the fraud that the security tie was mutual.

The South since has joined the first tier of nations. It obviously can do more, much more. Nevertheless, the treaty remains a one‐​way relationship. The ROK occasionally has contributed to Washington’s foolish wars of choice, such as Vietnam and Afghanistan, in order to keep American defense subsidies flowing. But this is no bargain for the U.S., which is expected to protect Seoul from all comers.

Of course, it might be too much to expect even a wealthier South Korea to help protect the U.S. After all, no nation poses a serious threat to America. Russia has a nuclear deterrent, little more. China is expanding its military, but remains far behind us. Every other potential adversary is a comparative military pygmy: Cuba, Burma, Iran, North Korea. Indeed, Washington’s “defense” budget has little to do with defense—of the U.S., at least. America spends far more to protect its allies, such as the ROK.

However, Seoul should at least defend itself if not the U.S.

One of the attributes of a serious nation is handling its own security. In the past, at least, no great and influential nation would subcontract its defense to another country. Doing so would make one a dependent, even a puppet. Early Americans were willing to assert themselves against great odds in both the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

Yet the ROK continues to rely on Washington. Indeed, South Korean troops would be under U.S. command in war, an arrangement that was supposed to change next year. However, at Seoul’s request that transfer has been postponed until 2015. With 40 times the GDP of the North and twice the population, the South continues to plead helplessness in the face of potential aggression. It is as if the peninsula had a special geographical force field which prevented the country to the south from ever matching the military of the nation to the north.

Of course, the problem is the one‐​way U.S. defense guarantee, not a mystical force field. As long as Washington politicians force American taxpayers to underwrite the ROK’s defense, why should Seoul burden its own citizens? It is a great deal—for the South, which can spend much less on the military.

Even under President Lee, who has pressed for more military outlays, the South’s defense budget has lagged behind threats. Reported the Congressional Research Service: “Defense Reform 2020 calls for defense budget increases of 9.9% each year, but the Lee Administration reduced the increase to 3.6% for FY2010, citing economic pressures.” Bruce Klingner of the ROK‐​friendly Heritage Foundation has written of “defense budget shortfalls” by the ROK.

Although these advantages of being a defense dependent are obvious, America’s military presence creates costs for the South as well. Hosting 28,500 mostly young men from another country and culture isn’t easy. Indeed, two recent rapes by American service personnel triggered protests and discussion about revising the Status of Forces Agreement. But such problems are inevitable when a nation asks another country for aid.

Most important, the South’s defense remains in outside hands. As guarantor of the ROK’s security, the U.S. inevitably will meddle in South Korean affairs. Yet in a crisis, Washington will do what Washington believes to be in its interest, not the South’s interest.

Still, just as alcoholics hate to give up liquor, South Koreans are unlikely to give up their defense free ride. Doing without an American tripwire would mean either achieving a modus vivendi with the DPRK, which seems unlikely, or spending more to bulk up forces for both defense and retaliation, which would be politically unpopular.

Unfortunately, the American people have to pay more because Washington treats the South as an international welfare dependent. And the problem is getting worse. Despite the budget crunch at home, the Obama administration has been expanding defense aid to the South.

For instance, on his recent visit to the South, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta discussed a joint response to any future North Korean provocation. He explained: “We have an alliance. We can provide strong and effective responses to those kinds of provocations if we work together.” The U.S. is “prepared to defeat the North” if war occurs, added the secretary, using “the full range of capabilities, including the U.S. nuclear umbrella, conventional strike and missile defense capabilities.” Finally, he asserted, “These efforts deter North Korean aggression by demonstrating that we have the will and the means to defend the ROK.”

The Defense Department also is relocating U.S. forces from Seoul’s Yongsan base to U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys to the south. This will cost several billion dollars, which makes sense only if the deployment is eternal. Moreover, the Pentagon has been planning to “normalize” the tours of American military personnel in South Korea, implementing longer stays and allowing troops to bring families. This step indicates that the American garrison is a permanent part of the South Korean landscape.Some South Koreans even are calling for reintroduction of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in the South.

But there is no defense justification for preserving Washington’s security commitment to the ROK. The Cold War is over, South Korea is far stronger than the North, and neither China nor Russia would support Pyongyang in a new war. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates observed, anyone advocating another land war in Asia should “have his head examined.” Military commitments should reflect geopolitical realities; alliances should be a means, not an end. Today, however, Washington appears determined to maintain alliances simply to have alliances, whether or not they benefit America.

Alliance advocates occasionally defend the alliance in terms of ChinaWashington Times editorial page editor Brett M Decker claimed that “The rapid militarization of the People’s Republic of China makes the decades‐​old alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States just as important as ever.” But the ROK is unlikely to act as a cheerful member of a new containment ring around the PRC. Seoul might like to be defended in the unlikely event that Beijing moved to swallow the peninsula. However, no South Korean government is likely to make itself a permanent enemy of the PRC by backing Washington in a conflict elsewhere, say over Taiwan.

Indeed, the Roh Moo‐​hyun government insisted that American forces based in the ROK could not be used elsewhere in the region without its consent. The Lee government has a better relationship with Washington and adopted an ambiguous compromise which might allow American forces in the South to deploy, though not operate, from their bases. But maybe not. The U.S. can count on nothing in a crisis.

Beyond China it is hard to imagine how the alliance could act like the“lynchpin of not only security for the Republic of Korea and the United States but also for the Pacific as a whole.” More sensible would be to leave the Japanese and South Koreans to overcome old antagonisms and create a relationship that could act as a security foundation for what is, after all, their region.

In 2009 the U.S. and ROK produced a Joint Vision for the Alliance which proposed greater cooperation in a lot of other areas, including counter‐​terrorism, anti‐​piracy, and development. But none of these activities require a military alliance, security guarantees, and military deployments by America. Indeed, such agreements would be most effective if implemented by equals, not superior and dependent.

Some advocates of permanent defense subsidies for Seoul point to the DPRK’s nuclear program. There is no easy answer to the threat of North Korean nuclear proliferation. But promising to shield the South from a DPRK nuclear attack is not costless. Maintaining a nuclear umbrella entangles the U.S. in unpredictable Northeast Asian disputes which pose no vital interest to America. Indeed, should the North develop even a crude ICBM and accompanying nuclear warhead, the U.S. would have to contemplate sacrificing Los Angeles for Seoul, a bad deal for America.

In any case, Washington’s garrison in the ROK does not constrain the North’s nuclear ambitions; to the contrary, there are now 28,500 nuclear hostages nearby for Pyongyang to target. The North’s nuclear program actually is yet another compelling reason for America to bring home its troops.

Moreover, it might be better for the South to have its own nuclear deterrent than for the U.S. to stay involved. Although Washington is dedicated to the principle of nonproliferation, U.S. policymakers should consider whether guaranteeing that North Korea alone among smaller power possesses a nuclear arsenal is a good policy. The effect is a bit like domestic “gun control”—only the bad guys end up armed. The prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of the ROK (and Japan) also would get China’s attention, encouraging Beijing to take tougher action against the North’s nuclear activities.

To coin a phrase, it is time for a change. Some Americans have reacted in anger against South Koreans who criticize America. For instance, columnist Dennis Prager called the ROK “the most ungrateful country in the world.” He proposed a South Korean referendum: “The beauty of such a plebiscite is that if a majority of the South Korean people wants American troops out, we have no moral obligation to stay there.”

But Americans have no moral obligation to stay in any case. Washington should deploy troops based on the interest of the U.S., not of other nations.

Washington should begin a quick and complete withdrawal of forces from the South. The Lee government recently received the ROK’s first AWACS plane, with three more to assembled in South Korea. Washington should sell Seoul whatever other conventional weapons the latter desires. The Obama administration already has discussed selling drones to the South, and should accede to the South’s request to adjust the bilateral treaty limiting the range of ROK missiles.

There still will be issues upon which the two governments can cooperate, but Washington should eschew the kind of “benefit inflation” which seems to permeate Washington today. A couple years ago the White House announced that the two countries “are building an Alliance to ensure a peaceful, secure and prosperous future for the Korean Peninsula, the Asia‐​Pacific region, and the world.” The world?

America’s alliance with the ROK once made sense. Sixty years ago. It is time to end military welfare for South Korea and other countries around the world. Iraq is not the only country where American troops should be home by Christmas.

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