Korea: The Case for Disengagement

December 8, 1987 • Policy Analysis No. 96

For 20 straight days last June the Republic of Korea teetered on the brink of chaos. Demonstrations rocked the capital, Seoul, and other major cities after ROK president Chun Doo Hwan abruptly terminated negotiations with the opposition over constitutional reform. Civilian riot police, who had easily broken up earlier protests led by radical university students, lost control when housewives, office workers, and professionals joined the marches. “Democracy is more important than economics,” said one businessman.[1] President Chun reshuffled his cabinet and only barely backed away from imposing martial law. A military coup against Chun, a former general who had seized power seven years earlier, seemed increasingly likely.

Officials in Washington were nearly as nervous as their Korean counterparts. The ROK, tied to the United States by a bilateral defense treaty, had long been considered one of this country’s closest military allies. The United States maintains tactical nuclear weapons and 40,000 troops in South Korea to back its defense commitment, yet the Reagan administration could only stand by helplessly in the face of the growing disorder.

But the Chun government unexpectedly gave ground. On June 29 the ruling party’s chairman and presidential candidate, Roh Tae Woo, proposed an eight‐​point program that met most of the opposition’s demands, including direct presidential elections (scheduled for December 16), the release of political prisoners, and protection of human rights. Chun agreed to the changes, and the demonstrations waned; the ROK moved away from the abyss.

Many dangers remain. Elections have been held in Korea before, but they have been fixed. Civilian governments have attained power there before, but the military has subsequently seized control; its fear of retaliation for past human rights abuses alone could trigger a coup attempt, particularly if long‐​time dissident Kim Dae Jung is elected.

Moreover, Korea’s political future is uncertain. Two opposition leaders who have feuded bitterly in the past, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, are running for president, and a split vote could result in Roh’s election. Even if one of the two Kims wins, political instability could follow; both disdain compromise and are distrusted by many Koreans. Whoever is elected will have to deal with the continued incarceration of more than a thousand political prisoners, unprecedented labor unrest, and renewed student protests. The current relative calm, warned one Western diplomat, “is just temporary. There are a hell of a lot of fights to come, and some of them will be in the streets. There will be more crises. The Koreans are great brinksmen.”[2]

Nevertheless, the ROK has a brighter future today than it did before Roh unveiled his eight‐​point program on June 29. Unfortunately, the United States can take little solace in that changed outlook. Anti‐​American sentiment in the ROK may be more intense today than it was before the protests began. And if South Korea’s move toward democracy is reversed, the United States is likely to receive much of the blame. After four decades of intervention in Korean affairs, it is deeply entangled in the ROK’s fractious internal struggles.

The case of Korea is yet another in which the political risk posed by popular disenchantment with U.S.-supported autocrats–which has poisoned America’s relations with Iran since the shah fell, for example–is not counterbalanced by any substantial security gain. Indeed, the United States’ commitment to defend the ROK is a major detriment, costing billions and increasing the risk of American involvement in an Asian war.

The United States should execute a phased military withdrawal from the ROK and should sever its defense guarantee once all the troops have been removed. Economic and cultural relations should be maintained thereafter, of course, but South Korea, a wealthy nation with the capability to match North Korea’s military, should be deemed to have graduated from the American military safety net. Even if the ROK then seemed somewhat less secure, the United States’ position would be immeasurably better. America would no longer be forced to take sides in South Korea’s internal political squabbles or subsidize the defense of a trading rival. Most important, the Korean tripwire, and the consequent threat of U.S. involvement in an armed conflict, would be gone.

About the Author