Secretary Mattis Should Stop Babying South Korea

This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on February 3, 2017.

Candidate Donald Trump caused tremors in South Korea when he criticized America’s security commitment. Although far wealthier and more populous than the North, Seoul has grown comfortable being protected by Washington. The possibility of having to do more in their own defense shocked South Koreans who preferred to invest their money elsewhere for fun and profit.

Now Defense Secretary James Mattis has visited the Republic of Korea and offered the usual “reassurances” that American defense welfare will continue. The ROK is safely on the U.S. military dole, so no need to move toward defense independence.

No doubt, South Korean officials were pleased with what they heard. And they should be. Americans, however, should have a different opinion. The upshot is that Washington will continue to risk their lives and squander their wealth protecting a nation able to take over that responsibility.

This lovefest at U.S. expense might come to an end after South Korea’s presidential election later this year. Currently scheduled for December, the poll will be advanced if the ROK’s Constitutional Court upholds the impeachment of President Park Geun‐​hye. And the winner is likely to be on the left, with promises to improve relations with North Korea, block deployment of the THAAD missile defense, and perhaps even rethink America’s military presence.

The U.S.-ROK alliance is “obsolete” as the president referred to NATO. The former was created at the end of the Korean War in 1953, necessary to protect a ravaged country ruled by an unpopular authoritarian system from conquest by a totalitarian state backed by the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China. That world is gone.

During the Cold War the Korean peninsula mattered, mostly as part of the larger Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. However, the U.S.S.R. and Cold War are gone. So is the geopolitical relevance of Korea.

The ROK is a valuable trading partner. Former South Korean diplomat Chang Booseung, now at the Rand Corporation, justified U.S. defense subsidies for the South by citing “the $129 billion in annual trade” and resulting U.S. jobs. Of course, by Chang’s logic, the South should be helping to protect America to preserve all those jobs created in the South through its trade with the U.S.

Anyway, trade is no reason for Washington to pay for another nation’s defense. If so, America would be defending virtually every country on earth. It’s nice that U.S. companies benefit from commerce with the South, but the rest of Americans shouldn’t pay the price, human and financial, to secure those corporate profits. Instead, Seoul should invest its financial gains in its own defense.

A renewed Korean conflict would be a humanitarian tragedy as well, but that’s no reason to enhance the horror by involving American forces. Nations all over the world want to be rescued by the U.S. South Korea has joined the front rank of states and should take responsibility for preventing such an occurrence.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.