The argument is simple. The Republic of Korea has grown up and surged past the North. Ahead of Pyongyang on every important measure of national power save quantity of military manpower and materiel, the ROK should use its abundant wealth and larger population to close that gap as well. Just as most Americans expect those on welfare to get a job to take care of themselves and their families.
Perhaps there are good arguments against the proposal. But I have yet to hear them. Instead, what dominates is the tyranny of the status quo. Change a policy developed 61 years ago? Horrors! So what if the world has changed dramatically over the same period.
The dimmest and laziest response is that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has a big military. If that’s enough to justify America’s “mutual” defense treaty with the ROK, then Washington should defend China and Russia as well. After all, Pyongyang has a big military. But equally important is the other side of the equation. Both China and Russia have bigger, better equipped, and more deadly militaries.
Why doesn’t South Korea do whatever is necessary to deter the DPRK? I’ve never had a South Korean tell me that his nation couldn’t match the North. I’ve had plenty of South Koreans tell me that they didn’t want to match the North. And, of course, they would be fools to do so if they didn’t have to. After all, as one told me a few years back, “we have health and education needs.”
No doubt. But so do Americans. The question for Washington is, why should U.S. officials sacrifice the health and education needs of Americans to subsidize the defense of South Koreans? In the early years it was to enable the ROK to recover economically and develop into a self-sufficient country. But that policy succeeded decades ago. Why must Americans continue to put the health and education needs of South Koreans ahead of their own?
Which leads to the second rejoinder. Eliminating the Korean commitment wouldn't save much money. That is true if Washington simply redeployed its troops to America. But that ignores the relationship between security guarantees and force structure. The biggest cost of promising to defend the world is creating and sustaining the units necessary to enforce such guarantees. The more security commitments a country makes, the greater the manpower and materiel required. In a war the Pentagon would back its forces in Korea with the Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa, reinforce combatants with Army active and reserve units, and send in abundant air and naval assets. Eliminating the Korean contingency would enable Washington to further shrink personnel levels and equipment requirements, and thus cut military spending. (Over the years estimated savings have ranged upwards of $15 billion, depending on assumptions.)
Of course, the ROK is not the only populous and prosperous ally which suckles at the American defense teat. Tokyo could greatly augment its military capabilities—by, say, doubling military spending as a percentage of GDP from one to a still modest two percent—and help deter Chinese adventurism. Then America wouldn't have to guarantee disputed Japanese territorial claims.
If Europeans, who have eight times the GDP and three times the population of Russia, spent closer to American levels the Baltic States and Poland could call on their neighbors rather than the U.S. for reassuring military garrisons. Today America's Department of Defense doesn't so much defend America as threaten to take the offense on behalf of allied states which could defend themselves. Return the Pentagon to the job of protecting America and Washington could reduce force structure accordingly.
Perhaps the best, or at least most interesting, counter is that America must baby sit the ROK lest a frightened Seoul go nuclear in response to the DPRK. In fact, Washington's conventional forces do nothing to forestall a North Korean nuclear bomb. To the contrary, by increasing Pyongyang's sense of insecurity America's treaty and garrison probably encourage the North to seek nuclear weapons. The DPRK may be paranoid, but it does have enemies. Moreover, putting thousands of Americans within reach of North Korean attack is likely to make Washington more cautious in backing the South in any situation which might lead to conflict.
But will the ROK believe in America's nuclear umbrella without a conventional guarantee? Washington has risked war on Seoul's behalf for six decades. If that's not enough, the problem might be the weak case for Washington to promise to turn other nations' nuclear wars into America's nuclear wars. Assume Pyongyang eventually develops a miniaturized nuclear warhead and reasonably accurate ICBM. What risks would Washington actually take on South Korea's behalf? Why should the U.S. turn a peripheral geopolitical problem into an existential threat?
Nonproliferation is a political sacred cow, assumed to be beyond debate. And there's good reason for wanting to restrict the number of nuclear powers. However, in specific circumstances nonproliferation might end up creating greater problems than proliferation.
In Northeast Asia, for instance, nonproliferation has become the international equivalent of gun control: only the bad guys have guns. Russia, China, and North Korea all are nuclear powers. None of America's allies and friends has nuclear weapons. So Washington is supposed to defend Japan and South Korea, at least, and maybe some other nations, such as Australia and Taiwan, from nuclear attack by all three nuclear powers, if necessary. Everything might end up okay if America's commitment is never tested, but there's no guarantee for the future with a more assertive China and an ever-provocative North Korea.
Indeed, history is replete with disturbing examples of the unexpected and unintended. World War I began a century ago because deterrence failed and alliances became transmission belts of war. One might hope that rationality would hold in any Asian confrontation, but a number of years ago a Chinese general challenged a U.S. official: you won't risk Los Angeles for Taipei. And America's president shouldn't risk Los Angeles for Taipei—or Seoul, Tokyo, Sydney, or any other foreign city.
The alternative is to allow if not encourage Washington’s allies to build countervailing nuclear weapons. The mere possibility would create a powerful incentive for the People’s Republic of China to take a more active role in preventing North Korea from proceeding along the nuclear path. While the PRC genuinely opposes a nuclear Pyongyang, that prospect still appears less disturbing to China than applying pressure which could result in the North’s collapse. But a realization in Beijing that continued North Korean nuclear development could lead to nuclear weapons in the ROK and Japan would cause the PRC to share the nightmare. If China was able to reverse the North’s nuclear course, then the process could end without Seoul going nuclear.
Even if Pyongyang moved ahead there is no guarantee that the South and Tokyo would follow. Nevertheless, the Park Chung-hee government gave up its nuclear program only under pressure from Washington. Since then the possibility of going nuclear has received sporadic attention, recently from Assemblyman and past presidential candidate Chung Mong-joon, who founded the Asan Institute. Chung argued that the ROK should be “given this leeway as a law-abiding member of the global community who is threatened by a nuclear rogue state.” The possibility also is periodically mooted in Tokyo. Would possession of nuclear weapons by the South and Japan be so bad for America?
More nations would have The Bomb, expanding possibilities for leakage. But the new nuclear states would be more responsible than the DPRK and more reliable than China and Russia. There might be greater regional unease, but that would primarily work against the latter two powers to America’s advantage
Beijing, especially, would be more constrained in challenging either Japan or South Korea. Engaging in militarily provocative conduct around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, for instance, would be more risky. Deterrence no longer would come from a U.S. promise to go to war, but a Japanese capability to inflict enormous retaliatory damage.
A conflict between the PRC and Seoul is far less likely, but some analysts fear Chinese attempts to turn the Korean Peninsula into a modern variant of a tributary state. That outcome seems unlikely, but South Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons would make it even less so. Moreover, the South no longer would be in the uncomfortable position of subcontracting out its security to Washington.
The Korean Peninsula is the land of second best solutions. No one wants North Korea to have The Bomb. But virtually no one believes that the North will give up its atomic arsenal. If Pyongyang moves ahead, then what?
The ROK doesn’t need an American conventional security guarantee. The South can over match North Korea militarily. And leaving Seoul free to develop nuclear weapons might be the best way to respond the North’s persistent threat to turn most everything everywhere into a “lake of fire.”
After all, there are worse things than nuclear weapons spreading to responsible, democratic allies. Like leaving Pyongyang with a small state nuclear monopoly. It’s time to think the unthinkable rather than forever enshrine the tyrannical status quo as Washington’s Korean policy.