The U.S. remains mired in Iraq. The president's
recent trip to the Middle East hit more than the usual roadblocks to achieving
peace between Israelis and Palestinians or reaching a denuclearization accord
with Iran. The Balkans is simmering as Kosovo's declaration of independence
nears. Russia remains sullenly obstructionist. At least Washington is making
progress with North Korea, right?
No. The six-party accord with the so-called Democratic People's Republic
of Korea (DPRK) has run into the usual turbulence that buffets any agreement
with Pyongyang. Whether the problem is minor and temporary or serious and permanent
is not yet clear.
Moreover, South Korea had an election. Lee Myung-bak of the conservative
Grand National Party won his nation's presidency in a landslide. He carried
almost half the votes in a 12-man field, receiving roughly twice as many votes
as did the ruling party candidate. Lee focused on economic issues, denouncing
the "antimarket and antibusiness atmosphere" created by the current government.
Although Lee's victory is important for the Republic of Korea (ROK), it
provides Washington with an excellent opportunity to disentangle the U.S. from
the peninsula's complications. A hawk compared to his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun,
Lee is well-positioned to take the lead in dealing with North Korea, as the
U.S. recedes into the background.
No surprise, American policymakers are most interested in the international
implications of Lee's victory. President Roh was never fond of Washington, and
the feeling was reciprocated several-fold.
President-elect Lee, who takes over in February, said "I will do my best
to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem through cooperation and a strengthened
relationship with the United States." Potentially even more important, Lee promised
to take a more realistic approach to the DPRK.
For instance, he is expected to address North Korean human rights violations,
including the status of South Koreans kidnapped by the North. Lee attacked the
current government for having "completely refrained from criticizing North Korea
and pandered to it in a one-sided way." He also announced plans to dismantle
the Unification Ministry, leaving reunification to the normal foreign policy
Moreover, Lee says he will include nuclear disarmament in the two Koreas'
talks. He may even slow economic aid and investment absent progress on denuclearization.
"Serious economic exchanges between the two Koreas can only start after the
North dismantles its nuclear weapons," he explained. He has proposed a $40 billion
multilateral investment program for North Korea predicated on denuclearization
and offered to meet with the North's Kim Jong-il to advance the process.
Although Lee's views will receive a warm reception in Washington, he is
not interested in a confrontation on the peninsula. However much Lee might desire
regime change in the North, he is no more likely to risk war, or support a U.S.
policy risking war, than was the current government.
Washington obviously should incorporate a more aggressive stance by the
Republic of Korea into its nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang. The DPRK appeared
to be moving forward on the six-party agreement, but then a dispute arose over
disposal of nuclear fuel and destruction of a cooling tower as well as the North's
listing of its past nuclear activities. Thus, North Korea did not meet the December
Analysts disagree over the seriousness of Pyongyang's breach and Beijing
called the delay "natural." The DPRK denounced the U.S. for its "hostile" policy
and vowed "to harden its war deterrent." Even if the latest contretemps is resolved,
several other disputes could ultimately wreck the plan: will North Korea disclose
the status of the highly enriched uranium program, end dissembling over its
use of precision aluminum tubes, agree to dispose of existing nuclear materials
and weapons, and accept intrusive verification procedures? To expect a yes in
answer to all four questions requires, as in a second marriage, that hope trump
Washington must reorient the entire negotiating process with North Korea,
which for years gained more from bad than good behavior. Both the U.S. and Seoul
should encourage Japan to play a more constructive role as well. To date, Tokyo
has focused on winning an accounting of its citizens who were kidnapped by Pyongyang;
however, the best strategy for encouraging domestic reforms, including improved
human rights, by the DPRK is to resolve the nuclear issue.
Complete denuclearization of the peninsula should be the ultimate allied
goal. But the North may refuse to give up its existing weapons even if it dismantles
its nuclear facilities.
The former, though desirable, is worth neither a hot nor a cold war. The
latter, which would cap the North Korean threat, is most critical. What kind
of ties with Pyongyang – diplomatic relations, economic aid, trade access, and
more – should be pursued under what circumstances should be discussed by the
ROK, Japan, and U.S., and then with China and Russia. Another topic worth discussing
is the potential of Seoul and Tokyo creating their own nuclear deterrent capabilities;
the mere discussion of this topic should impress upon Beijing the need to push
the DPRK harder to comply with the six-party accord.
Among the allies, South Korea should take the lead, since events on the
peninsula are a matter of its vital interest, while only of peripheral concern
to the U.S. Indeed, Lee's victory should encourage both Washington and Seoul
to refashion their ties. The relationship has grown increasingly contentious.
South Koreans, whose fluctuating attitudes have increasingly inclined toward
China and North Korea and away from America, are less tolerant of the ROK's
dependent status, as reflected in such controversies as the status of forces
agreement, operational control of the two militaries, and U.S. facilities in
Seoul. The South also is less inclined to give America a blank check on using
South Korean bases for regional contingencies. The ROK has its own ambitions;
even Lee talks of South Korea promoting a "great Asian era in the 21st century."
From Washington's standpoint, the existing military alliance is no longer
worth strengthening. The original threat, renewed North Korean aggression backed
by China and the Soviet Union against a vulnerable, war-torn South, disappeared
During Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' November visit to Seoul, South
Korean defense minister Kim Jang-soo opined: "we cannot say that the threat
from North Korea has reduced tangibly or discernibly." So even the leftish Roh
administration pressed Washington to maintain its troops on the peninsula.
Yet if the North is so dangerous, why has South Korea lavished aid, investment,
and commerce on Pyongyang? The two Koreas recently opened a rail line, unusual
behavior for countries supposedly at risk of going to war. Why should Washington
underwrite a country that blatantly appeases a potential aggressor?
The U.S. military's Institute for National Strategic Studies recently warned
that after an American withdrawal "an attack by North Korea would be well under
way before U.S. forces could effectively redeploy to the peninsula." But why
would U.S. forces be needed to defend the South?
The ROK vastly outranges its potential antagonist on almost every measure
of national power. South Korea's GDP has been estimated to be as much as 40
times as large as that of the North. The South has twice as many people, possesses
a vast technological edge, and is friendly with far more countries, including
all of the advanced industrial powers and long-time DPRK allies China and Russia.
Although North Korea retains a numerical military edge, its weapons are archaic
and its forces are ill-trained.
Moreover, there is no special gravitational field on the peninsula which
locks South Korea into a position of even quantitative inferiority. Indeed,
according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies,
in 2006 the ROK outspent its northern antagonist ten-to-one. Arguing that the
ROK needs defending against the North is as absurd as America requesting allied
assistance to deter Mexico.
Some South Koreans don't bother attempting to demonstrate military necessity.
Foreign Minister Song Min-soon simply states that "The U.S. military will continue
to stay on the Korean peninsula after the establishment of a peace regime and
play a role that suits the new security environment in Northeast Asia." However,
in this environment the ROK, with the world's 12th largest economy, does not
need a permanent defense subsidy.
Although unnecessary for South Korea's defense, America's troop presence
inevitably sucks Washington into regional disputes. For instance, the U.S. possesses
a vast nuclear arsenal capable of eradicating the Kim regime many times over.
If Washington did not maintain thousands of nuclear hostages in the South, it
would have little to fear from a North Korean nuclear weapon. There would still
be good reasons to dissuade Pyongyang from going nuclear, but principal responsibility
for dealing with the North would reside with South Korea, Japan, China, and
Russia, not America.
Of course, some Washington policymakers view U.S. forces stationed in the
ROK as possessing "dual use" capabilities. However, in what contingencies would
today's 28,000 personnel be relevant? Burma and Indonesia might be unstable,
but an American invasion would be no solution. Where else might U.S. soldiers
go? Alliance advocates blithely talk about maintaining regional security and
stability, but offer no practical role for the U.S. troops based in Korea.
The real goal is "containing" China. The INSS cited the importance of "a
sound alliance structure" as "the ultimate guarantee" against China's growing
"military capabilities." However, the ROK is a most unlikely conscript in an
anti-China coalition. Seoul might want to be protected from an improbable Chinese
invasion. But the South does not want to turn itself into a target of its permanent
neighbor in a conflict begun over U.S. objectives, such as defending Taiwan.
Indeed, President Roh insisted that his nation was not going to get into
regional wars and that U.S. forces based in Korea could not be used without
his government's permission. Incoming President Lee might be more circumspect
in his rhetoric, but his position is unlikely to be much different.
America's alliance with South Korea should be seen as a means, not an end.
It once was necessary to protect the South from absorption by the DPRK. That
objective has been fulfilled. Instead of looking for new goals to justify an
old alliance, the U.S. and Seoul should drop the official defense commitment
and move to informal military cooperation tailored to new circumstances.
The best South Korean government to manage such a transformation would
be a serious, pro-business, pro-defense regime – like that expected from President-elect
Lee. The ROK has come of age in the world. It deserves to be treated with respect
by its neighbors and friends, including America. In return, it should take over
responsibility for its own defense.