The ICAS Lectures

No. 2003-0214-DxB

A New Policy for a New Millenium:
America's Relationship to South and North Korea

Doug Bandow

ICAS Spring Symposium &
Humanity, Peace and Security
February 14, 2002 12:00 PM - 5:50 PM.
U.S. Senate Dirksen Office Building Room 106
Capitol Hill
Washington, D. C.

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Doug Bandow

A New Policy for a New Millenium:
America's Relationship to South and North Korea

Doug Bandow 1

The U.S. has defended South Korea for 50 years. The alliance with the Republic of Korea--actually a one-sided security guarantee--has been America's most consistently dangerous commitment since World War II.

Yet South Korea is beginning to look away. Newly elected President Roh Moo-hyun suggested that his nation "mediate" in any war between America and the North and called for "concessions from both sides." Indeed, he advocated: "we should proudly say we will not side with North Korea or the United States."

Although public attention understandably has focused on North Korea's nuclear program, an equally important issue is the future of American relations with South Korea. Indeed, the nuclear controversy grows out of Washington's unnatural military presence on the Korean peninsula and no solution is likely until that unnatural presence is removed. The presence of 37,000 troops in the South has long been a Cold War artifact that has lost its raison d'etre.

Washington's commitment to the ROK resulted from the post-World War II division of the peninsula and subsequent Chinese and Soviet support for North Korean aggression. Today the Cold War is over and China and Russia are friendlier with Seoul than Pyongyang. Moreover, the South has raced ahead of the North economically, enjoying 40 times the GDP, twice the population, and a vast technological edge. The ROK has the world's 12th largest economy. In contrast, North Korea is an economic wreck.

Only in the military sphere does the North retain an advantage. Its military is large, but decrepit. Reports Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Bruce Bechtol: "the North Korean military is one that is using antiquated 1950s and 1960s vintage weapons while the South Korean military continues to strengthen itself with dynamic new programs such as the building of brand new F-16s. In addition, the South is superior in other key aspects of military readiness, such as command and control and training."

To the extent that the ROK's military lags behind that of its northern antagonist, it is a matter of choice. As the South acknowledges in its own defense reports, it chose to emphasize economic development at the expense of military strength, which it could do secure in America's protection.

Although no U.S. forces are needed to guard against the bankrupt North, they are ubiquitous. Thus occur violent altercations and traffic deaths. After the recent U.S. acquittal of two soldiers charged in the accidental deaths of two children, demonstrations erupted. Americans have been barred from restaurants, jeered, and in a few cases physically attacked.

Placing even greater pressure on relations is disagreement over policy towards North Korea. Says President Roh: War "is such a catastrophic result that I cannot even imagine. We have to handle the North-South relations in such a way that we do not have to face such a situation." Yet, relates former President Bill Clinton, he prepared military options against the North a decade ago, with nary a nod to the South Koreans. President Bush has explicitly refused to rule out a military strike; to the contrary, he has said that if the diplomatic option fails, the military option might be necessary. Tensions between the U.S. and its long-time ally have exploded in the midst of a dramatically changing geopolitical environment. Most important, relations between North and South Korea finally are starting to escape the effects of the Korean War. For years breakthroughs seemed to beckon, only to end in disappointment. But that is changing.

Most important was Kim Dae-jung's dramatic visit to Pyongyang in 2000. The DPRK began to cautiously adopt economic reforms while reaching out internationally, though retreats were almost as common as advances. But then last October Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James A. Kelly traveled to Pyongyang and charged the North with enriching uranium, cheating on the Agreed Framework. Pyongyang responded with a series of increasingly provocative steps. At the same time, Roh Moo-hyun won a bitter presidential election in the South, after strongly endorsing engagement with the North and criticizing Washington.

The only reason the U.S. entered the Korean War was because the Cold War gave strategic importance to an otherwise irrelevant conflict in a distant land. Today, however, Russia no longer poses a hegemonic threat. It also has dumped its alliance with the North in favor of economic ties with South Korea.

At high cost, Beijing saved the DPRK from defeat in the Korean War. The People's Republic of China remains the North's largest trading partner and continues to provide some aid to North Korea. Nevertheless, over the North's strenuous objections the PRC recognized the South in 1992 and has since developed a far stronger economic relationship with Seoul.

Although The ROK's relations with China, Russia, and North Korea have been evolving, its tie to America has remained essentially fixed in time. The U.S. established a permanent troop presence in the Korean peninsula with the onset of the Korean War, which has remained largely unchanged despite a radically different regional environment.

South Korean frustrations are not new, but have returned with greater force than ever. Explains Kim Sung-han of the Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security, "Anti-Americanism is getting intense. It used to be widespread and not so deep. Now it's getting widespread and deep." Although a majority of South Koreans still supports the U.S. troop presence, a majority also pronounces its dislike of America.

Some Americans hope that everything will go back to normal. However, the generation grateful for American aid in the Korean War is disappearing. Younger people think more of U.S. support for various military regimes and the indignities (and tragedies) of a foreign troop presence.

Policy differences between Seoul and Washington also will continue to worsen. Most obvious are disagreements over the best strategy for dealing with North Korea. Indeed, Roh Moo-hyun ran on an explicit peace platform that sharply diverged from U.S. policy: "We have to choose between war and peace," he told one rally. He once called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, but has since attempted to moderate his position. However, various proposals for "reform" of the relationship--adjusting the status of forces agreement, moving America's Yongsan base out of Seoul, withdrawing a small unit or two, changing the joint command (which envisions an American general commanding Korean troops in war)--are mere bandaids. Roh has called for a more "equal" relationship and promised not to "kowtow" to Washington. But the relationship will never be equal so long as South Korea depends on Washington for its defense.

In short, Washington needs to withdraw its troops and eliminate its security guarantee. Many hawks now say that the U.S. shouldn't stay if it isn't wanted. Even if America is wanted, however, another nation's desire for U.S. aid is no reason to provide it. The U.S. should do so only if doing so advances American national interests.

What vital U.S. interest supposedly is being served? America's presence undoubtedly still helps deter the DPRK from military adventurism, but it is not necessary to do so. As noted earlier, the South can stand on its own. A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported simply: "Without U.S. help, South Korea is capable today of defending itself against an invasion from the North." As one of the world's wealthiest nations, the ROK can well afford to replace the American tripwire.

Some argue that maybe American troops should be withdrawn, only just not now. But for some policymakers there will never be a good time to update U.S. policy. Indeed, many desire to preserve America's troop presence after reunification.

Advocates of a permanent U.S. occupation talk grandly of promoting regional stability. However, it would be a miraculous coincidence if a commitment forged in the Cold War and created to deter a ground invasion from a contiguous neighbor turned out to be the perfect arrangement to meet completely different contingencies in a completely different security environment.

In fact, there are no secondary "dual use" function for America's soldiers to perform. For instance, while U.S. and Chinese interests might eventually collide, America's deployments in Korea would provide little value. No administration would initiate a ground invasion against the PRC. And South Korea, like Japan for that matter, is unlikely to allow itself to become the staging ground for such a conflict. To do so would turn itself into China's permanent enemy. Containing a resurgent Tokyo is an even more fanciful role. The greatest threats to regional stability are internal--insurgency and corruption in the Philippines, democratic protests and ethnic conflict in Burma, economic, ethnic, nationalistic, and religious division in Indonesia. But they impinge no vital American interests and are not susceptible to solution by the U.S. military.

In sum, without any connection to the larger Cold War and global hegemonic struggle Korea is relatively unimportant to the U.S. So some American policymakers make an entirely different argument: the U.S. should base soldiers overseas at someone else's cost. But Washington must create the additional units, a cost that America's allies do not cover. Moreover, friendly states are not likely to long accept a foreign occupation carried out solely to save money for Americans.

Some supporters of the U.S. troops presence point to the North Korean nuclear threat. However, the American presence performs no useful role in dealing with Pyongyang's putative nuclear capabilities. In fact, the current deployment leaves U.S. forces as nuclear hostages if the North marries an effective atomic bomb to a means of delivery. Moreover, the troop tripwire makes North Korea America's problem. Removing it, argues Adam Garfinkle, editor of the National Interest, "would force China and the other parties to the problem to face reality."

The best strategy for handling the DPRK is not obvious. The North may have decided to cheat all along. Or it may have perceived that the Agreed Framework was unraveling, since the U.S. had failed to move forward with diplomatic and economic relations.

A not insubstantial factor in its current behavior may be the North's belief that the Bush administration has targeted Kim's regime for a preventive war. CIA Director George Tenet implicitly acknowledged the problem without noting America's role, when he suggested that if the North goes ahead and nonproliferation weakens, other states might view the acquisition of nukes as the best way to match neighbors and deter more powerful nations.

Irrespective of who is to blame, what is to be done? It is not surprising that policymakers in Seoul, within easy reach of North Korean artillery and Scud missiles, have a different perspective on coercion. Beijing, Moscow, and Tokyo also worry about radioactive fallout, missile attacks, refugee flows, economic turmoil, and regional chaos.

Some advocates of military action say don't worry, that Pyongyang would choose not to retaliate in order to save itself. But such an attack would destroy the prestige of the regime. Moreover, the North might decide that a military strike was the opening phase of a campaign to remove it. In that case, it would make sense to roll the tanks. This is how the North is threatening to respond to any U.S. strike: "total war" and its own preemptive strike. A high-ranking defector, Cho Myung-chul, estimates the chances of general war at 80 percent in response to even a limited strike on the North's Yongbyon facilities.

Most likely would be a limited but devastating retaliatory strike centered against the Yongsan facility in Seoul. Retaliation could easily lead to a tit-for-tat escalation that would be difficult to halt short of general war. The perception that South Koreans died because the U.S. acted against the wishes of the Roh government would create a divisive, and perhaps decisive, split between Seoul and Washington.

Attempts at lesser levels of coercion also would be controversial if not quite so risky. Sanctions probably would not trigger a North Korean military reaction, but might not work against what remains a largely isolated country whose leaders willingly tolerate mass starvation. Moreover, sanctions require support from the surrounding countries--enforcement by South Korea and Japan, U.N. approval by Russia and China. All hesitate to encourage the collapse of the DPRK.

Given the risks of war and problems with sanctions, negotiations are the obvious place to start. Offer U.S. security guarantees, political recognition, and economic aid in exchange for the verifiable termination of the North's nuclear and missile programs. Some analysts would add demobilization and withdrawal of conventional units from their advanced positions to the agenda. A few even want to include human rights guarantees.

South Korea and the other neighboring states are likely to insist on being involved in shaping policy. Involving them is in America's interest. Argues Shi Yinhong, a professor at China's People's University, it "is highly doubtful" that Washington alone can end the North's nuclear ambitions--peacefully, anyway.

But the U.S. cannot take their support for granted. For instance, so far Beijing has been disinclined to solve what it sees as primarily America's problem. China lacks the North's full trust and is suspicious of Washington's willingngess to assert its power globally. Concludes analyst Stephen Richter: "the North Korean crisis is helping to chip away at U.S. credibility in the world and it is even leading to tensions between the United States and its allies in Asia, such as South Korea and Japan. All that suits China just fine." The key to enlisting China (and Russia) is to convince them that helping the U.S. would help them. One tactic would be to put America's entire relationship with them on the line. That might or might not work, but only at great cost, given the many other issues also at stake in those relationships. Better would be to point out the adverse consequences to them as well as America if Pyongyang does not desist.

Would the North respond to a message that significant diplomatic and economic rewards are possible, but only for positive, verifiable disarmament? It is dangerous to bet on the goals of Kim Jong-il regime. The DPRK has behaved more responsibily toward and been more engaged with the outside world (everything is relative) over the last decade than ever before; thus, it has much more to lose from confrontation, isolation, and war. Pyongyang's emphasis so far on negotiation with America also suggests a willingness to bargain.

Still, Pyongyang may have already decided, or may decide in the future, that it requires a significant and perhaps growing nuclear arsenal, irrespective of its economic hopes. In which case no deal will be possible.

America (and to a lesser degree its neighbors) would pay no attention to the bankrupt, starving nation if it lacked a nuclear capability. An atomic bomb also eases defense in an ever more dangerous world. Now it is the U.S. that is to be deterred, and Pyongyang might decide that such deterrence is worth preserving.

If Pyongyang ends up moving ahead with its nuclear program, there would be no good solutions. One threat would be DPRK plutonium sales, including, conceivably, to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. Such a prospect would warrant consideration of--a possibility that Pyongyang should be aware of long before such a course appeared likely--interception of any air or naval shipments abroad. Beyond that would be sanctions, blockade, and even destruction of the North's nuclear reactors. Pyongyang would probably draw back before so obviously drawing Washington's wrath.

Quite different is the threat of the North expanding its presumed arsenal of one or two atomic bombs. Such a development would be worrisome, to be sure, but the DPRK also could be deterred from using any weapons. With regime survival Kim Jong-il's highest priority, he need only know that use of such weapons would lead to his own destruction.

However, maintaining a permanent nuclear umbrella over the South and Japan would unnecessarily keep the U.S. entangled in a dangerous situation potentially forever. It would be better to warn Pyongyang that more aggressive behavior on its part would encourage both Japan and South Korea to respond in kind. North Korea could find itself confronting two new nuclear powers, neither of which would be kindly disposed to the DPRK.

Washington need not push its allies to deploy nuclear weapons; it simply needs to withdraw its objection to them doing so. The threat is useful even if Washington or its friends ultimately drew back from such a policy. Moreover, the mere prospect of Japan (and maybe Taiwan) acquiring nuclear weapons would likely spur China to engage Pyongyang more seriously.

Obviously, such a step would be controversial throughout Asia. Yet in coming years Washington is likely to feel increasingly uncomfortable being tasked to shield its allies from a more powerful China. What would be more chilling than having to risk Los Angeles to protect Taipei or Tokyo?

Alliances exist to serve a purpose. Yet in Korea the means has become an end. America pays the bill but gains little benefit from doing so. Indeed, ingratitude is replacing appreciation.

Washington's military presence is not necessary to protect the South. The troops play no role in constraining China or preventing war elsewhere in the region. America's forces should be brought home and the misnamed mutual defense treaty should be terminated.

Ending America's military presence would also be in the ROK's interest. The relationship's diminishing utility is most evident in the South. Seoul bears the cost of hosting foreign troops, having its security controlled by a self-centered great power, and lacking the respect due a country moving towards the first rank of nations.

The growing nuclear crisis only makes a U.S. withdrawal more necessary. America is threatened primarily because America insists on remaining next door and being threatened. And the U.S. tripwire does more to hinder than solve the problem. Only by withdrawing its forces can Washington return responsibility for regional stability to those nations most affected.

Washington tends to think only of itself. President Roh's election is "a big headache," complained one U.S. official to the Economist magazine. But the ROK is entitled to elect its own leaders, assess its own interests, and chart its own course. America and South Korea have grown apart. It's time for an amicable divorce rather than a much more bitter parting in the future.

1. Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Reagan. He is the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

This page last updated 3/30/2003 jdb

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