South Korean President Park Geun-hye delayed her trip to the U.S. because of a public health emergency at home. That led to much chatter over whether the postponement was necessary and would harm the bilateral relationship.
Woo Jung-Yeop of the Asan Institute argued that “the focus of Park’s U.S. visit should be on what to discuss, not on when to reschedule.” After all, there was no obvious purpose in the trip: North Korea is a chronic problem but hasn’t done anything particularly provocative recently. The low-key summit plans, coming so soon after the high-profile visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left many South Koreans suffering from an inferiority complex.
However, the delay won’t make a future Park trip any more useful. There is much on which the two nations should cooperate, since the Republic of Korea has graduated from Third to First World status and sports one of the world’s largest and most advanced economies. But the military alliance is outdated. Despite having surged past the North, enjoying a 40-to-1 economic advantage and 2-to-1 population edge, Seoul continues to play the helpless dependent, unable even to command its own forces in a war.
The military relationship was forged in a different time. The U.S. and Soviet Union divided the Korean Peninsula after Japan’s surrender in 1945. There weren’t many alternatives. Continued Japanese rule would have enraged all Koreans and united Soviet rule would have enslaved all Koreans.
But the division resulted in two hostile Korean states. A three-year quasi-civil war erupted 65 years ago, in which the U.S. and West fought against China and the Soviet Union through their respective Koreas. After mass destruction, highlighted by millions of casualties and refugees, the conflict ended roughly where it started. With the ROK a wreck and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea backed by neighboring China and Soviet Union, only Washington’s security guarantee kept the South independent, if not exactly free.
What other nation with serious international ambitions subcontracts not only its defense, but control of its own forces, to another government?
That eventually changed. In the 1960s President Park Chung-hee, the present president’s father, suppressed all political opposition but reformed the economy, leading to the ROK’s dramatic growth. Democracy waited another quarter century, until the growing middle class tired of military rule.
Yet through it all South Korea’s defense dependency on America persisted. Seoul surpassed the DPRK in economic strength and achieved political stability. The Soviet Union disappeared and China joined the international community, with both Beijing and Moscow recognizing the South. South Korean businesses spanned the globe and Seoul began having military ambitions beyond the peninsula. No matter. The ROK insisted that abundant American forces must remain, backed by additional units aground in Okinawa and afloat and aflight in the Pacific.
The South Korean government hasn’t even been willing to take over operational control, or OPCON, of its own forces in wartime. It isn’t ready, it insists. Why not, one wonders? North Korea commands its forces. One can’t imagine Kim Il-sung leaving the keys to his tanks with Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong after the Korean War concluded. What other nation with serious international ambitions subcontracts not only its defense, but control of its own forces, to another government? For decades.
Of course, some South Koreans admit that they most fear shifting command would encourage Washington to withdraw its troops. Thus, their objective is to appear as helpless as possible as long as possible to retain the U.S. troop tripwire. “Please, we just can’t do it without you,” Seoul tells Washington. It’s an embarrassing ploy by a country whose people want to be taken seriously abroad.
The present arrangement obviously is bad for America, other than for U.S. officials who enjoy running the world, or at least who think that they run it. The “mutual defense treaty” requires Americans to defend the ROK. In return, the South agrees to be defended. That’s the way it always has been, and nothing much has changed recently despite all of the talk of refashioning the alliance.
Protecting South Korea isn’t cheap. Promising to go to war means America might have to go to war. That’s a risk which should not be taken lightly. Being ready to go to war requires force structure. The more potential wars, the bigger the military needed. That the ROK helps pay for occupation costs ignores the more basic expense, the cost of raising, equipping, and maintaining the units themselves.
Nevertheless, Washington considered the ROK’s survival as compensation enough, at least in the early years, when the U.S. was prepared to defend South Korea as part of the larger Cold War struggle. But today the peninsula is militarily inconsequential. A North Korean victory would be just that, a North Korean victory, not the first leg of an exorable march toward global Communist domination. There would be no threat to America.
No question, of course, it would be an awful outcome. But that doesn’t mean it warrants a permanent “alliance” entangling the U.S. in one of the most heavily militarized and unstable regions on earth. Anyway, the North would win a conventional contest only if Seoul allowed the former to do so, by failing to build the defense which it is well-capable of deploying. The South is only acting helpless.
Leon Whyte of the Fletcher Security Review calls for expanding the alliance “beyond old parameters,” but there are no alternative purposes for the military alliance (in contrast to reasons for friends to cooperate). Some American policymakers imagine the ROK as part of an iron ring containing the People’s Republic of China, but few South Koreans want to make a permanent enemy of their big neighbor with a very long memory. It’s one thing to be defended by America in the extremely unlikely event that the PRC attacked the South. But to join the U.S. in a war against China over, say, Taiwan’s quest for independence or Tokyo’s control of the Senkaku Islands? Washington can dream on. The South Koreans ain’t that crazy!
The Pentagon imagines other military scenarios in East Asia—say a squabble in Southeast Asia—but they almost certainly wouldn’t justify American intervention. And even if they did, Seoul wouldn’t likely join in unless it was in the ROK’s interest to do so, in which case a formal treaty would be unnecessary. (The first President Park sent soldiers to Vietnam in order to convince Washington to keep U.S. personnel in the South.) A temporary coalition of the willing makes more sense than permanently defending another country in the hope that it might help out somewhere sometime. Seoul did kick in some support for America’s misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, but again, if the price was a permanent garrison on the peninsula, the cost was far too high.
Nor does Washington get much else out of the relationship. South Koreans have never purchased U.S. products as a reward for America’s defense guarantee. Nor has the Blue House ever pliantly taken orders from Washington. Seoul rolls out the red carpet when an American president visits, but acts in its own interest nonetheless. Army Lt. Col. James Minnich proposed that a “comprehensive, strategic alliance” cover climate change, human trafficking, and peacekeeping, but none of these have anything to do with a bilateral military pact.
The most important downside for the U.S. today is that defending the South puts America in the middle of a contest between North and South Koreas, Japan, China, and Russia. All have more at stake than the U.S. Washington is constantly badgering the PRC to do America’s bidding against Pyongyang. And North Korea is constantly threatening the U.S. only because the latter’s forces “are there,” in the South, threatening the DPRK. Pyongyang might not like Washington, but it wouldn’t care about America if U.S. troops weren’t on its border. The North likely would spend its time issuing threats against its neighbors instead. As it is, the Korean peninsula is one of the most important flashpoints which could drag America into a real war with potentially horrific casualties, even if the outcome was certain “victory.”
While it might have been inevitable that North Korea would have sought nuclear weapons, America’s involvement likely made it inevitable. As Henry Kissinger once said, even paranoids have enemies, and only nukes offer a certain deterrent to the North, which today would fight alone against the U.S. in a region filled with U.S. allies. Worse, Washington has proved its willingness to dismember (Serbia), undermine (Syria), and impose regime change (Afghanistan, Grenada, Haiti, Iraq, Panama), even after making a deal with a government (Libya). The fact that the Kim dynasty is evil does not mean that it has no legitimate security fears which might be assuaged by possession of a nuclear arsenal. Only by markedly reducing the threat perceived by the DPRK is Washington likely to have meaningful negotiations over nuclear weapons, like those going on with Iran, once viewed as a fellow pariah state.
Although the benefits of being defended are obvious, the ROK loses in several ways. The first is diminished self-respect. Real countries should defend themselves, not be dependent on other states. Persistent squabbles over the status of forces agreement highlight the tension of being a sovereign state and hosting foreign troops. South Koreans rankle over showing American personnel special consideration, but the U.S. can’t station forces in another nation without ensuring minimal legal protections.
Second, the South’s defense is in part out of its own hands. After the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the U.S. urged restraint at almost any price. As Washington had the right to do, since it could be drawn into a war if Seoul retaliated and conflict erupted. Contracting out one’s defense to others necessarily yields control over major defense decisions.
Third, the ROK’s diplomatic strategy toward the North suffers. If Washington chooses the opposite approach, the result will be conflict and confusion. Moreover, the U.S. can use its dominant position to pressure South Korea to adopt America’s stance. Differences between George W. Bush and Kim Dae-jung were sharp, for instance. To the extent that Pyongyang views the South as merely a puppet regime the former will pay more attention to America’s tactics.
Fourth, secure in the U.S. defense guarantee Seoul has felt little pressure to seek a modus vivendi with Japan. The two prosperous democratic states should cooperate in defending themselves and promoting regional security, but have refused to leave history behind them. Both nations’ leaders made conciliatory remarks last Monday on the 50th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations, but nothing substantive has changed. Both share the blame but face the same perverse incentives.
Fifth, relying on the U.S. encourages South Korea to accept permanent dependency. No special geographical feature of the peninsula keeps the country to the south militarily inferior. But Seoul has less incentive to invest in the military. If the South won’t defend against the North, which really does pose a threat, Washington can’t seriously expect the ROK to join America in containing China.
Finally, Seoul cannot consider building a countervailing nuclear weapon if necessary. Nonproliferation in Northeast Asia is a bit like gun control: only the potentially hostile powers, in this case China, North Korea, and Russia, have nukes. There’s no good reason for the U.S. to risk its security by putting the American homeland at potential risk to guarantee South Korea’s security against a nuclear-armed North. Perhaps the ROK should do the job itself. Especially since a realistic Seoul recognizes that the U.S. might not follow through on its promises if the North is able to retaliate against America.
Moreover, the mere possibility of the South going nuclear, likely followed by Japan, would encourage Beijing to redouble its efforts to achieve a nuclear free peninsula. This threat likely would be far more effective than the allies’ oft-repeated determination to apply more pressure on Pyongyang to return to the Six Party Talks, which the North abandoned more than six years ago.
South Koreans pay a high price for the convenience of an American security guarantee. While they have achieved much, they are stuck on the U.S. defense dole, as dependent as any domestic welfare recipient. When the two presidents next meet, they should discuss how to transform the U.S.-South Korea relationship into one of equals, in which the ROK gives as much as it gets.
With Seoul locked into its role as military dependent, America should stop playing the indulgent parent and push the adult child out into the real world. Better, Seoul should take the initiative and end its unnatural reliance on the U.S. Nearly seventy years of defense welfare is enough. It’s time for the ROK to grow up and take its place on the world stage.