The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is angry with the U.S. again, citing all manner of crimes and misdemeanors. To emphasize its point the DPRK is prosecuting two Americans for “hostile” behavior.
Why is North Korea worried about Washington? Because the U.S. military remains deployed in the South 61 years after the end of the Korean War. Washington has turned the otherwise successful Republic of Korea into an international welfare queen, apparently forever stuck on the U.S. defense dole.
It’s time for the ROK to graduate and America to leave the Koreans solve their own problems.
Last week North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador, Ri Tong‐il, gave a press conference denouncing Washington in florid terms. U.S. behavior “is reminding us of the historical lasting symptoms of a mentally retarded patient,” said Amb. Ri.
His list of grievances was long. It included Ulchi‐Freedom Guardian, the latest annual military exercise between America and South Korea. Amb. Ri also complained that Washington was sabotaging improved inter‐Korean relations and ignoring Pyongyang’s proposals for reducing tensions on the peninsula.
He requested an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the threat allegedly posed by Ulchi‐Freedom to peace and security. Unfortunately for the DPRK, the U.S. is the leading permanent member and Seoul is a rotating member this year, so no action is expected. Which merely exposes how the UN “has lost its principles, impartiality and responsibility,” complained Amb. Ri. Actually, the international body never has manifested those principles.
At greatest risk are three Americans currently held in the North. Kenneth Bae is serving a prison term, apparently for promoting Christianity while visiting. Two other tourists have been arrested in recent months and face trial. Pyongyang has been using them as bargaining chips in an attempt to get America’s attention.
Although it’s tempting to dismiss Amb. Ri’s dyspeptic remarks, he made a legitimate point when justifying his nation’s nuclear program: “No country in the world has been living like the DPRK, under serious threats to its existence, sovereignty, survival.” There is much not to like about North Korea, but even paranoids have enemies.
In any war the North would face South Korea, which has vastly outstripped Pyongyang on virtually every measure of national power, and the U.S., the globe’s superpower. East Asia is filled with additional American allies, while the North’s Cold War partners, Moscow and Beijing, have drifted away and almost certainly wouldn’t help in a conflict. Impoverished, bankrupt, and alone in a world in which Washington bombs and invades small countries at will, the DPRK would be foolish to entrust its survival to U.S. self‐restraint.
Which raises the question: just what is America doing with troops on the Korean peninsula?
The Korean peninsula never has been a vital interest for the U.S. Early American attempts to open up the “Hermit Kingdom” did not end well. After Japan won control of the peninsula and eventually turned Korea into a colony, Washington left the land to missionaries.
At the end of World War II the U.S. and Soviet Union divided the peninsula, with their occupation zones turning into contending countries, both claiming to represent all of Korea. The North’s invasion of the ROK in June 1950 drew America back in militarily. After the war ended inconclusively in 1953, Washington initiated a “Mutual” Defense Treaty with the South and retained a sizable military garrison, since whittled down to 28,500.
South Korea was economically depressed and politically unstable, leaving it vulnerable to renewed attack by the DPRK, backed by the U.S.S.R. and China, then led by Mao Zedong. However, the ROK began its economic take off in the 1960s and soon sped by the North, with a debilitating collectivist system.
Yet Seoul remains seemingly helpless and hopeless, dependent on an American security guarantee and military garrison. Indeed, the ROK wouldn’t even exercise operational control over its own forces in wartime, but instead leaves that with America, a relic of the Korean War when the South’s military capabilities were modest, to say the least. South Korea took back peacetime control only two decades ago. It finally planned to reclaim wartime “OPCON” in 2012, but then put it off until 2015, and now wants another delay, until around 2020.
Some South Koreans claim that the ROK military isn’t ready—which raises questions about what the South’s armed forces has been doing over the last six decades when not suppressing democracy. Indeed, how has far less technologically sophisticated North Korea managed its military all these years? Other officials in both the South and America worry that turning OPCON of South Korea’s military over to South Korea’s military would encourage the withdrawal of U.S. forces. That is, some in Seoul are committed to remaining helpless and hopeless in order to keep Americans at risk to ensure ROK security.
But why should Washington defend the South in 2014, 61 years after the Korean War ended?
The ROK is well able to construct whatever military forces are necessary for its own protection. The idea that Seoul cannot match a bankrupt, starving, and isolated nation with a fraction of South Korea’s resources is nonsense. There is no special geographical feature that keeps the nation to the south inferior militarily. The problem is political decisions in the South.
The DPRK possesses the ability to pour SCUD missiles and artillery fire into Seoul, the ROK’s capital, but that ensures deterrence, not the ability win an aggressive war. North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are unclear, but American conventional forces on the peninsula play no role in preventing a DPRK nuclear strike, assuming Pyongyang possesses deliverable weapons. To the contrary, U.S. conventional deployments unnecessarily put Americans in harm’s way, creating nuclear hostages.
Thomas M. Nichols of the Navy War College worried about maintaining deterrence on the peninsula, but that is South Korea’s job. It is not America’s purpose to bankrupt itself and risk its citizens’ lives demonstrating “resolve” all over the world on everyone else’s behalf. Prosperous and populous allies have a responsibility to do what the U.S. long has done—make the sacrifices necessary to defend themselves. The ROK should bulk up its army and spend more for defense at home, rather than create a “blue water” navy, for instance, for use in distant seas.
Some Americans envision U.S. bases in South Korea—and in a united Korea, should that happen—as “dual use,” part of a regional network to contain China. However, with South Korean President Park Geun‐hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping exchanging state visits, it would be foolish to expect the ROK to become a permanent enemy of its big neighbor to advance U.S. foreign policy designs. Seoul isn’t going to commit national suicide by, say, joining an American war against China over Japan’s claims to the Senkaku Islands.
Even stranger are ideas for expanding military ties into other areas. For instance, Army Lt. Col. James Minnich urged a “comprehensive, strategic alliance” reaching climate change, human trafficking, and peacekeeping. None of these have anything to do with America promising to protect wealthy South Korea from threats it can handle itself. Unrelated cooperation should be pursued without expecting Americans to die in Seoul’s defense.
The U.S. receives no benefits commensurate with the costs of inserting itself in the endlessly frustrating and threatening Korean imbroglio. The peninsula is an area of great power competition, but not one of vital interest to America. The U.S. largely ignored the peninsula until it fell into America’s lap with the surrender of Imperial Japan. The unique value ascribed to preserving South Korea then disappeared with the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union.
The ROK’s disadvantage compared to the North, which originally led to U.S. military intervention, ended as South Korea raced past its northern antagonist. No wonder the DPRK complains about threats to its survival. Absent the possession of nuclear weapons, it would find it ever more difficult to deter military attack by the South, especially if backed by America.
The defense commitment is expensive for Washington. The U.S. must not only pay the extra costs inherent to foreign deployments, but it must create a larger military to back such commitments. America maintains a sizable army for offense, not defense, since the threat of ground invasion of the U.S. is about as great as that of a Martian attack. Allow America’s manpower‐rich allies to fend off foreign attack and Washington could dramatically shrink its outsize ground forces.
Moreover, the U.S. defense guarantee and military garrison inevitably make America the focal point of North Korea’s antagonisms and frustrations. Pyongyang’s bizarre threats—the latest to nuke the White House—reflect Washington’s central involvement in Korean affairs. Leave Korea to the Koreans and the North would spew its venom elsewhere. Then American tourists might not find themselves arrested for such “offenses” as leaving a Bible behind, apparently the charge against Jeffrey Edward Fowle.
South Korea has achieved much, overcoming colonialism, war, and dictatorship to create a country at the front rank internationally. But that only sets Seoul’s military dependence in starker relief. A serious nation in every other regard, the ROK is an international welfare queen when it comes to defense, abusing the generosity of the American people. Like parents stuck with an adult child who doesn’t want to leave home, Washington must take the initiative and kick its overage dependent out on his own.
OPCON should shift, America’s troops should return home, and the U.S. security guarantee should end. South Korea could then take its place among the world’s nations as truly independent, freed of its embarrassing reliance on Washington for defense, perhaps the most basic attribute of nationhood.