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Biographic Sketch & Links: Doug Bandow
The Future of the U.S.-ROK Alliance:
Equality, Mutuality, and International Security
Doug Bandow *
Paper Presented to International Conference
"The Second-Term Bush Administration and ROK-US Relations"
Hosted by Korean Association of International Studies
Seoul, Republic of Korea March 24-25, 2005
ROK President President Kim Young-sam visited the U.S. in 1995 in order to "cheer up" Americans, explained Prime Minister Lee Hong-koo. "This occasion celebrates what we've achieved together." 2 In fact, South Korea and the U.S. had achieved much together. Or rather, the ROK had achieved much because of hard economic work carried out under Washington's military protection.
The U.S. became involved militarily on the Korean peninsula as an outgrowth of the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War. Had America not intervened, the South would almost certainly have been absorbed by North Korea. The Rhee Syngman regime was incapable of defending itself, and viewed by many South Koreans as not being worth defending.
Thus, America's military presence and the subsequent "Mutual" Defense Treaty invited ROK free-riding at the start. However, such behavior was expected. By under-investing in the military and focusing on economic development, Seoul set the stage for the eventual financial miracle that has transformed South Korea into an international power.
But the U.S.-ROK relationship remains unequal, because the obligations are not mutual. Indeed, Seoul is unwilling to fully
commit to its own defense, let alone accept larger, regional security responsibilities. Now that South Korea has developed a significant global presence, the ROK should take over its defense burden as America decreases its responsibility.
Unfortunately, opposition on both sides of the Pacific has prevented that from happening. Shocked outrage greeted President Jimmy Carter's proposal to remove most U.S. troops and his successor, Ronald Reagan, reaffirmed the one-way U.S. commitment. Year after year of record economic growth in the South did nothing to change American policy under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Only pressure from the war on terrorism has prompted President George W. Bush to reconfigure and reduce Washington's force presence, despite strong opposition in Seoul.
Yet South Korea is one of America's most obvious security free-riders. The ROK vastly outranges its northern antagonist, possessing about 40 times the GDP, enjoying a vast technological edge, and sporting a large economic presence around the globe. The South also has twice the population of the DPRK, is friendly with every major international and regional power, in contrast to the erratic North, and long ago won the diplomatic contest throughout the Third World.
However, argues Peter Huessy of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm, "the ROK's population, GDP and per capita income are all irrelevant to its defense." 3 That's true, but only in the sense of military capabilities today. Moreover, to simply cite the North's quantitative lead, 1.1 million to 687,700 armed services personnel, for instance, doesn't say much about actual combat capabilities.
Still, grant the DPRK a military advantage. The National Security Council plaintively explains: "cooperation with allies and friendly nations is very important because it is impossible to fully guarantee the survival of a nation and the safety of its people by its own efforts only." 4 But the existing personnel and materiel imbalance is not inevitable, an immutable aspect of Korean geography. Rather, the disparity results from past ROK free-riding. Even the spending increases planned by the Roh government are insufficient to close the gap. 5 Recognition that current policy manifestly is not in America's interest may be helping drive Bush administration policy towards at least limited disengagement.
There was little in the start of America's relationship with Korea that suggested Washington would ever have a security interest in the peninsula. Korea was forever a pawn in a larger regional game of power politics.
America's first contacts with Korea were sporadic maritime visits, not all of them peaceful. As Japan increased its influence, however, the Korean kingdom concluded the Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce, and Navigation with America on May 22, 1882. Korea granted commercial privileges and extraterritorial status; the U.S. offered its "good offices" to help Korea resist foreign oppression.
Alas, reports Hahm Pyong-choon, former ROK ambassador to the U.S., "the Korean leaders read into the Korean-American treaty of 1882 something that was not there: a strategic commitment on the part of the United states to intervene to preserve the sovereignty and political independence of the Kingdom of Korea." 6 But Washington had no interest in fighting with China, Japan, or Russia to protect Korea. In 1905 Washington recognized Japanese predominance in Korea, terminated the two nations' treaty, and closed its Korean legation.
For the next 35 years Korea essentially disappeared as an issue for Washington, except for the private campaign, waged by emigres and American supporters, on behalf of Korean independence. Then came the Second World War and division of the peninsula between the U.S. and Soviet Union.
Seoul had little practical choice but to rely on America. The North refused to participate in U.N.-supervised elections along with the South, solidifying the peninsula's partition. Both regimes claimed to represent the entire peninsula and settled into a rather hot cold war, with frequent cross-border raids and formal military clashes. Moscow withdrew its troops from the North in late 1948; America's last forces left the South in July 1949. 7 Although Pentagon defense planners recognized that there was a risk of the North invading the South, they did not intend to unilaterally commit U.S. troops in the event of war. Nor did they want to equip the Rhee Syngman regime with heavy weapons which could allow it to fulfill its own aggressive intentions.
On June 25, 1950 North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel. The Truman administation responded almost immediately out of fear of the greater geopolitical consequences. The resulting three years of devastating war are well-known.
No formal peace treaty was ever reached. As a cold peace descended on the peninsula, Washington negotiated a defense treaty with South Korea. Or as Youngnok Koo of the University of Michigan puts it, Rhee "extracted" the agreement, which the U.S. used to mollify him because of his dissatisfaction with the war's indecisive outcome. 8 The Mutual Defense Treaty, ratified in January 1954, does not explicitly guarantee U.S. military assistance to the ROK; rather, it states that each party "would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes," which later caused Seoul to request a strengthening of the clause.9
However, the continued presence of U.S. soldiers in the ROK acted as a tripwire that would make American participation in combat automatic. Observed Gen. John Bahnsen, the chief of staff of the ROK/U.S. Combined Field Army during the early 1980s, "The wisdom of maintaining any U.S. infantry in a country so rich in manpower is purely political." 10 What those soldiers, at least when centered around Seoul and the Demilitarized Zone, long did was guarantee immediate American casualties, making it unlikely that any administration would fail to order full-scale participation and any Congress would challenge such a decision.
No wonder that South Korean officials opposed the Bush administration's decision to redeploy U.S. forces to the south. It is the very visible tripwire to the treaty that made it so easy for the South to free-ride on America. 11
After the war America continued to support the ROK despite Rhee's despotic and erratic rule. And though the U.S. drew down its troop levels, which had peaked at 360,000 during the war, it left two divisions, for a total of about 60,000 troops, after 1957. U.S. financial aid and military support continued after Rhee's fall and the rise of Park Chung-hee, because the peninsula was regarded as an integral part of the Cold War struggle.
In 1963 Pentagon planners considered reducing U.S. forces but held off after South Korea dispatched some soldiers to Vietnam (in part to forestall any American drawdown). The United States continued to provide more than half of South Korean's defense budget until 1969. In early 1970 President Richard Nixon withdrew the Seventh Army Division the following year, leaving about 40,000 personnel stationed in Korea.
This decision horrified the ROK, which had grown accustomed to American protection. The Park government cited not only the North's military superiority, but also claimed that only an American presence could deter Chinese and Soviet support for a DPRK invasion.12 However, Nixon helped purchase Korea's acquiescence to the pullout by authorizing a $1.5 billion, five-year military modernization program for the ROK forces. (Additional U.S. force withdrawals were to begin in 1973, but were not carried out as the Watergate scandal consumed the Nixon presidency and North Vietnam conquered the Republic of Vietnam. 13) Although the Ford Administration admitted that Chinese intervention in any conflict was unlikely, it contended that the military commitment in the ROK remained necessary "to serve as a symbol of America's continued interest in the overall stability of that part of the world during a period of some tension."14
But in 1978 President Jimmy Carter pulled 3,600 soldiers out of South Korea, the first step of his plan to remove all ground forces by 1982. He, too, attempted to buy Korea's sufferance to a troop reduction, through a $2.2 billion, five- year program of credit and weapons transfers. However, under congressional pressure Carter put his plan "in abeyance."
Carter might have revived the program had he won reelection, for a military regime arose in the aftermath of the assassination of President Park. But his successor, President Ronald Reagan, immediately moved to improve relations with Seoul, reaffirming America's commitment to the South's defense. Although ROK defense free-riding was growing more evident in the midst of the South's rapid economic growth, in 1986 Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger pledged that American troops would remain there "as long as the people of Korea want and need that presence." 15
While South Korea was not inclined to take over its defense even as it emerged on the international stage, its evident success led to domestic calls for winning a greater say in the alliance. The ROK army resented the fact that the Combined Forces Command, with nominal authority over most Korean forces, was headed by an American. Koreans disliked the inconvenience and cost of a U.S. base near the center of Seoul. And many Koreans were angered by the Status of Forces Agreement which, as noted earlier, accorded American soldiers special treatment when accused of a crime. Not only was the ROK a free-rider; it was turning into an increasingly ungrateful free-rider.
Yet nothing seemed to shake America's willingness to guarantee South Korea's security. Shortly after taking office President George H.W. Bush promised to maintain America's troop presence "as long as they are needed and as long as we believe it is in the interest of peace to keep them there."16 Assistant Secretary of State Richard Solomon proclaimed in 1991 that "The United States intends to maintain appropriate forces in Korea so long as our two governments agree that a U.S. presence is necessary to deter a renewed outbreak of hostilities."17
President Bill Clinton maintained a similar policy: preserving existing military deployments and promising to do so as long as the ROK desired. When he visited the South in 1993, he told the Korean National Assembly that "the Korean Peninsula remains a vital U.S. interest."18 In the aftermath of the June 2000 summit between South Korea's President Kim Dae-jung and the DPRK's Kim Jong-il, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright emphasized the necessity of maintaining 37,000 troops in the South. Indeed, the Clinton administration actually halted the Bush administration's planned troop drawdown to 30,000 troops and beefed up U.S. forces in response to North Korea's intransigence on the nuclear issue. Explained the Defense Department in early 1995: "Our security relationship with the Republic of Korea continues to be central to the stability of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, as it has been for over forty years." 19
There was more movement under Bush II, but only in the midst of frustration of the South's relatively pacific approach towards the North over the nuclear issue, and pressure to find additional troops to maintain an unexpectedly difficult occupation of Iraq. The administration agreed to give up Yongsan base in the center of Seoul, long an objective of the South Korean government, and arranged to move its forces away from the DMZ, a step not sought by the ROK. Washington also announced plans to remove upwards of 12,000 troops from the peninsula, though it delayed the withdrawal in the face of ROK objections. Barely a year after electing the presidential candidate most critical of the U.S.-ROK alliance, many South Koreans loudly complained that American forces would no longer act as a tripwire in the event of another North Korean invasion. 20
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proclaimed that America's commitment and capability to deter the North remained unchanged. 21 Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz contended that the step would actually increase deterrence. 22 In June 2002 Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed that America's mission had not changed despite vastly changing world circumstances: "Our 37,000 military men and women in Korea today have exactly [the] same mission I had when I commanded an infantry battalion 30 years ago facing the DMZ: stop an attack from North Korea at all costs." 23
Moreover, Washington planned an $11 billion force enhancement program and a shift of air resources to Guam and Okinawa. 24 Finally, Washington watered down its initial proposal in the face of ROK objections. The biggest hint of potential long-term change came when Secretary Rumsfeld opined during his visit to the ROK in November, 2003: "It is time for them to set a goal for becoming somewhat more self-reliant." 25
In fact, it is well-past time for South Korea to become "somewhat more self-reliant." With large numbers of U.S. troops tied up in a violent occupation of Iraq, fighting resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda elements in Afghanistan, pursuing terrorists elsewhere around the globe, and prepared to handle any number of unexpected international contingencies, why should Washington commit substantial manpower, materiel, and even more money to Korea? Equally important, why should South Korea remain aloof from regional security concerns, ranging from Chinese assertiveness to Indonesian instability. Despite the initiation of supposedly far-reaching talks on the Security Policy Initiative, American and ROK policymakers seem stuck in the world of a half-century ago.
Korea, neglected and exploited by its Japanese colonial overlords, possessed neither economic nor military power when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. moved in. But by 1950 the DPRK had achieved military superiority primarily because of Soviet backing. Alas, it took Washington three years of war to redress the imbalance.
The ROK was equally vulnerable at the close of the war in 1953. If South Korea was going to be defended, it was going to be by America. Although the Chinese troops eventually went home, the DPRK's two major communist allies were next door. And the ROK remained desperately poor, with a per capita GDP estimated to be no more no more than $100, and perhaps under $90, in the early 1960s.
But Park Chung-hee, though a military dictator, adopted an export-oriented, market-friendly economic policy. South Korea rapidly turned into one of the world's greatest success stories. The Asian economic crisis of 1997 notwithstanding, the ROK has become a global economic power. With a GDP running $605 billion in 2003, South Korea has the 12th largest economy in the world. Its per capita GDP exceeds that of Russia (the ROK's total GDP runs about two-thirds of that of Russia), once the feared ally of its bitter enemy. The country would do even better today with further reforms, particularly rationalizing a banking system that continues to provide economic preferences for well- connected businessmen and cutting off subsidies to influential firms.
Pyongyang has been left far behind. The North began to fall behind at an accelerating rate during the 1970s. It has since become an economic wreck, whose economy was estimated to have shrunk in half between 1993 and 1996 alone; its subsequent "recovery" is thought to have pushed per capita GDP to about $700, roughly 40 percent of the 1990 level, which suggests a total GDP of about $16 billion. 26 Another GDP estimate runs about $17 billion, though no calculation is easy with such an isolated and antiquated economy. 27
Food production is down 60 percent over the last 15 years. Much of the country is enveloped in darkness much of the time. Life expectancy fell ten percent during the 1990s; during the same decade hundreds of thousands, and perhaps as many as two million people, starved to death. Although the DPRK since has avoided a repeat of the worst famine of the mid-1990s, it still cannot feed itself, and has been reduced to begging for millions of tons of food aid.
Perhaps the best comparison of the two economies comes through purchasing power equivalents, rather than exchange rate calculations. Estimates for the South and North respectively in 2002 ran $941.5 billion vs. $22.26 billion for GDP, $19,600 vs. $1000 for per capita GDP, and 6.3 percent versus 1 percent real annual growth. 28 Although there seemed to be evidence of limited improvement in the DPRK economy in recent years, continuing famine and grotesque inefficiencies lead to continuing warnings of inevitable collapse.
With the ROK's economic growth has come abundant resources, industrialization, hi-technology production, and access to international capital markets. Thus, the longer a war, the greater the South's advantage: as South Korea's Ministry of National Defense puts it, "South Korea has a comfortable edge over North Korea in terms of war sustainability." 29
Economic growth also improves a country's ability to make war materiel. As the South's economy took off, the Pentagon acknowledged that the ROK's aircraft, transportation system, and military-industrial capability were superior to those in the DPRK. 30 Along with the military-industrial capability came development of an indigenous arms industry. Admitted the ROK's Ministry of National Defense, "South Korea can claim an increasing edge over the North in military science and technology, backed by the rapid growth of its aerospace, automobile, communication and electronic industries." 31 And that was a decade ago.
Another decade and South Korea has begun a serious space program and development of a blue-water navy. Observed one American military analyst: "As the perceived threat from the NKPA [North Korean People's Army] has diminished, the ROK military has looked ahead and attempted to develop military capabilities to reduce its dependence on the United States and to meet future security challenges." 32
Which leaves only the present, in which the North retains an advantage. However, though large, the North's military is decrepit. In 1997 CIA Director George Tenet told the U.S. Senate that: "The military has had to endure shortages of food and fuel, increased susceptibility to illness, declining morale, often sporadic training and a lack of new equipment." 33
The North's latest weapons date to 1990; spare parts and training are nonexistent. 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." 34 Moreover, South Korea would be fighting on the defensive in mountainous terrain with limited tank invasion routes.
Finally, to the extent that the ROK's military lags behind that of its northern antagonist, it is a matter of choice, not necessity. Even grant Peter Huessy's "8 year, and perhaps 13 year, procurement and acquisition cycle" for long-range air power and major seapower." 35 Why can't Seoul shorten the process by acquiring U.S. or European weapons? And why didn't it begin to develop new weapons over the last two decades, as economic growth has delivered the necessary resources for increased military investments? Truly shocking is how little the ROK military has grown over the last decade. 36 In fact, the South's effort is not only lower, as a percentage of GDP, than it was before the economic crisis of 1997; it is less than half the peak, back in 1981. 37
Lack of opportunity does not explain the failure of Seoul to augment its forces, if it believes those forces to be inadequate. In 1979 an irritated President Jimmy Carter asked ROK dictator Park why South Korea, with a much larger economy than the North, did not match the latter's military spending. 38 Park had no good excuse. The American tripwire simply discouraged it from doing so. Why should Park's government have spent substantially more on defense when the money instead could be invested in economic development? Similarly, why should Roh Moo-hyun's government spend substantially more on defense when the money instead could be invested in economic development? As the South acknowledges in its own defense reports, it chose to focus on economic development at the expense of military strength, which it could do secure in America's protection. 39
Obviously, the ROK can easily outspend vastly outspend Pyongyang on defense. Moreover, the North cannot count on any outside aid. Financial credit and weapons transfers from China and Russia to the North have largely dried up. Indeed, in the mid-1990s Moscow began shipping arms to Seoul to help pay off its debt and has proposed joint development of high-tech weapons. The ROK also has proposed holding military training exercises in land-rich Russia.
Of course, it still would be foolish for Seoul to be complacent. But the problem of complacency should be squarely faced by the ROK. The reasons for allowing the South to free- ride on the U.S. have disappeared.
Indeed, President Roh's apparent conversion from critic of the American military presence to advocate--calling it "precious," for instance--demonstrates the reluctance of even Korean nationalists to accept their nation's responsibility for its own defense. 40 South Koreans (and Americans) have for years prophesied Seoul's imminent achievement of parity against the North. For instance, in 1970, after President Nixon announced his plan to withdraw one U.S. division, South Korea's President Park stated that his nation's forces would be superior to those of the North by 1975. 41 In 1975 President Park declared that in just a few more years the ROK would require no American assistance, not even air, naval, or logistical support: "We want the capability to defend ourselves, and that will take four or five years." 42 Similar claims were made throughout the 1980s and 1990s. But the free-riding continues. After all, with America's protection, the Ministry of National Defense admitted that it could concentrate "on its economic and social development" while North Korea emphasized military production. 43
President Roh has pledged to increase military spending, returning to the 3.2 percent (up from today's 2.7 percent) of GDP spent before the 1997 crisis. His government has proposed a series of qualitative improvements and force restructuring as well as enhanced R&D. 44 The ROK also is deploying 111 U.S.-made missiles with a 300-kilometer range, meaning they can strike most anywhere in North Korea. The program foresees a 42 percent increase in defense investment and reinstates work on AWACS surveillance aircraft, refueling aircraft, and Patriot missiles. Alas, though long-overdue, the plan merely moves outlays back to pre-1997 levels.
Moreover, the proposal has generated opposition on a variety of grounds, including the argument that the South already could defeat the DPRK and that a collective defense strategy is a better approach. 45 One magazine article argued that such a budgetary increase "is nearly inconceivable" given "the sluggish economy, and the growing need for more welfare expenditures." 46
In any case, the ROK's claim to be building a "self-reliant defense" is misleading. 47 President Roh is not aiming for genuine self-sufficiency, without U.S. support. As he explained: "We should have self-reliance in defending our nation, and a military alliance and multilateral security mechanism should be complementary measures." 48 His government's 2003 defense white paper reported that Washington and Seoul "agreed that the ROK Armed Forces expand its role in defending the Korean Peninsula." 49 Even if Roh wins all of the defense funds that he desires from a skeptical National Assembly, the free-riding is to continue, just to a somewhat less egregious degree.
Ultimately, the issue comes down to money. Strangely, some South Korean analysts once seemed to believe that the ROK was not free-riding if it devoted anything towards its own defense. For instance, in the early years of the U.S.-ROK relationship, wrote Chung Jin-young, a professor at Kyung Hee University, "South Korea provided free land for USFK [U.S. Forces in Korea] bases and supported manpower through the Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army." 50 One is tempted to ask "so what?", especially since Chung acknowledges that exemption from taxes was counted as support and Seoul contributed no cash towards the American presence until 1989. More incredibly, some South Koreans argued that they were spending too much because, for instance, their nation devoted a larger percentage of its GDP to the military than did Germany and Japan. 51 But the relevant measure is the ROK's contribution both compared to its capability and the magnitude of the threat.
The problem of free-riding was recently symbolized when South Korean analysts demanded "equality" with the U.S. even as others opposed contributing towards America's efforts in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said "We'd like assistance. We'd like troop assistance, we'd like humanitarian assistance, we'd like financial assistance." 52 However, Seoul's response was reluctant, hesitant, delayed, and miserly. 53 Placing 3600 soldiers out of harm's way in Kurdish territory where no foreign garrison is necessary offers at best symbolic aid. Ill-considered the U.S. war and occupation might have been, but the ROK hesitated spending money and risking lives to aid America even though Washington had for a half century spent money and risked lives to defend South Korea.
Even more blatant was the free-riding incorporated in the proposal by the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security for continuing the alliance after Korea's reunification. The Institute, reported the Han Kook Ilbo, observed: "Any military alliance between a unified Korea and the U.S., however, would have to be closely restricted to Northeast Asia to stave off the possibility of Korea being involved in global conflicts under U.S. leadership." 54 That is, Washington should continue to defend the ROK; Seoul should do nothing substantial to aid the U.S. IFANS scholar Kim Sung-han was quite forthright in his goal: "If South Korea wants to avoid a situation in which it has to astronomically increase its defense expenditure due to the withdrawal of US forces, it should try to keep the alliance alive--even after the possible future disappearance of the North Korean threat." 55
Figuring the exact value of America's defense subsidy for the ROK isn't easy. The cost of raising and maintaining units stationed in South Korea as well as those destined to reinforce them in event of a conflict--such as the Marine Expeditionary Force on Okinawa--probably runs on the order of $15 to $20 billion annually. 56 Seoul has made various attempts to figure what it would have to spend to counteract an American withdrawal. A recent ROK government estimate was that $30 billion extra spending would be necessary.
That would be a major burden, but hardly unreasonable for a wealthy land threatened by an aggressive and well-armed neighbor. Indeed, no one in the ROK says they would be helpless without America's presence. Rather, they complain about the added expense. The South simply has refused to do more. That Seoul does not want to up its spending is understandable. But that reluctance is no reason for the U.S. to maintain troops in the ROK.
In fact, when presented in the past with an obvious need to do more, South Korea has responded. Between 1954 and 1955 the U.S. withdrew six infantry divisions--China was simultaneously reducing its force presence in the North. Seoul added five infantry divisions. Similar has been South Korea's reaction to later reductions in America's commitment: the Nixon cutbacks, Carter withdrawal program, and conflict with America over human rights all convinced Seoul, observes Asian expert Ralph Clough, "that South Korea must move quickly to become less dependent on the United States for its defense." 57 The Korean government itself admits as much. 58 Clough writes that President Richard Nixon's withdrawal of the 7th Division in 1971 came "as a shock to the South Koreans." 59 The result was a dramatic take-off in South Korean military expenditures and development of indigenous arms production. As one South Korean officer put it, "The disappointing US withdrawal [under Nixon] gave the ROK government and soldiers a chance to realize the importance of self-reliance." 60
Although President Jimmy Carter's proposal to withdraw U.S. forces was whittled down and eventually abandoned, it, like the Nixon shock, helped push the South towards the "self-reliant" defense that it now claims as a goal. Wrote Makoto Momoi, of Japan's National Defense College:
The Seoul government responded to the withdrawal plan by moving to consolidate the populace behind President Park ... and by taking steps to accelerate the modernization of the Korean armed forces. Not only was the ROK's Force Improvement Program stepped up, but there was a more rapid development of South Korean defense production capabilities, including substantial improvements in the capabilities for production of sophisticated arms. 61
Small-scale force cuts also were made by President George H.W. Bush. In 1993 Seoul's Ministry of National Defense reported that "South Korea has drawn up its own contingency plan, with a view to minimizing the effects of too rapid a reduction of [American] troops, easing military tension on the Korean peninsula, and achieving a more self-reliant defense posture in the long run." 62 Two years later the Ministry noted: "We urgently need to secure a combat capability to replace the reduced US forces as they pursue their reduction and role change. Since assistance from the US has served as the cornerstone of our defense, [the Bush troop] reduction has been a major blow." 63
The Bush II plan to redeploy and reduce U.S. forces may provide a similar catalyst. It almost certainly encouraged President Roh to suggest pushing ROK defense outlays up from 2.7 percent to 3.2 percent of GDP, the level when South Korea's economy nosedived in 1997.
That's a fine start, but no nearly enough. Necessary is full defense devolution. Years ago Henry Rowen, a former president of the Rand Corporation who also served in the Defense Department and the Bureau of the Budget, observed: "Seoul's present military deficiencies exist because of earlier decisions that South Korea would rely on the United States in those areas. So long as a decision has been made to develop R.O.K. capabilities in these areas, it should not be difficult to overcome these weaknesses." 64
South Korean free-riding might be of little concern to America if it was costless. That is, the problem with today's alliance is not that the ROK spends too little; it is that the U.S. spends too much. Unfortunately, providing defense guarantees--and maintaining the forces necessary to back them up--is not cheap.
Most obvious is the financial expense. As noted earlier, it costs upwards of $20 billion annually to pay for maintenance of the units based in Korea, as well as those destined to intervene in the event of war. Billions in defense subsidies to allied nations (South Korea is merely one beneficiary, of course) have a dual impact. One is on domestic economic policy, since such outlays further inflate tax collections and government borrowing, diverting resources away from more productive private investment. American defense subsidies simultaneously enrich foreign nations that are major trade competitors. Allowing South Korea (as well as Japan and a host of European nations) to concentrate domestic resources on economic rather than military development has indirectly underwritten large Korean, Japanese, and European businesses as they compete with U.S. firms.
Also significant are several more intangible costs. Happily, the ROK's move to democracy has largely eliminated Washington's identification with military dictators, once a serious problem. Nevertheless, many South Koreans still fear U.S. manipulation of elections to promote Washington's interest. Some ROK citizens thought that America orchestrated the North Korean nuclear crisis to generate hysteria in the South and thus forestall the election of President Roh. They overestimated Washington's influence and competence, of course, but such beliefs help poison the two nation's relationship.
Indeed, noted the report on a recent conference held by Georgetown University, the Pacific Century Institute, and the Korea Society: "South Korean anti-American sentiment is intense, real, and contrary to the national interests of both countries, and thus is important. The causes of such sentiments are complex, and may be divided into structural factors related to U.S. power, historical issues, and process problems concerning alliance maintenance (although they sometimes overlap)." 65 Unfortunately, policy bandages, such as closing Yongsan base, will not stem the deterioration of the popular base of the alliance driven by larger factors--perhaps, most importantly, different views of the nature of the threat posed by North Korea and the best means of eliminating that threat.
More significant is the military risk of U.S. security ties. Although the American commitment helps deter North Korean aggression, it ensures that the U.S. will be involved if hostilities should again occur. Moreover, protecting the South discourages it from enhancing its own military, which reduces deterrence.
While the risks of war remain slight, the consequences would be horrific. The possible acquisition by North Korea of atomic weapons increases the potential costs exponentially; should a conflict come the American troops would become nuclear hostages. 66
There obviously are times when the U.S. must go to war. But this is not one. There are no vital American interests at stake warranting such costs and risks. The mere fact that the U.S. fought in Korea 55 years ago does not mean it should prepare to do so again. America's interests in the peninsula-- cultural, economic, family, and political ties between the U.S. and the ROK--are significant, but they do not warrant a security guarantee and troop presence. In any case, Washington no longer needs to provide a military commitment to secure its interests. South Korea is now fully capable of protecting itself. 67
Americans enjoy abundant and wide-ranging ties with South Korea. But the most expensive and dangerous link is the so- called Mutual Defense Treaty, which is mutual in name only. For Washington, the ROK is a peripheral security interest that requires no military commitment, especially since the South can take on responsibility for its own defense. Yet, with the acquiescence of American policymakers, Seoul continues to free- ride on the U.S. Rather than enhance its own military capabilities to secure both its own defense and regional stability, South Korea lobbies Washington to maintain its generous security guarantee. In 1991 Seoul warned against "drastic" force reductions "until the Republic gains the capability to defend itself on its own." 68 Even then the ROK was capable of doing so. It is even more so today.
Unfortunately, the South will never have an incentive to develop a truly "self-reliant" defense, let alone take on additional regional responsibilities, as long as Americans unnecessarily foot South Korea's defense bill. Ironically, as Seoul has pressed harder for equality in the bilateral relationship, it has resisted more fervently the only means of achieving genuine equality--ending its dependence on Washington and accepting mutual defense responsibilites.
Although the Bush administration continues to publicly affirm the value of the alliance, its behavior suggests a private willingness to reconsider the relationship. Even hawkish analysts have grown irritated with the South, as they have tired of ostentatious popular hostility towards the U.S. and official appeasement of North Korea. 69 Moreover, the ongoing occupation of Iraq has forced Washington to search for new manpower sources, and an unnecessary garrison in the ROK is an obvious place to look.
The U.S. and Republic of Korea have achieved much together. But links between the two countries are growing increasingly fragile, since the raison d'etre for Seoul's military free ride has disappeared. Although officials on neither side of the Pacific are ready to concede the obsolescence of the security structure that they have so laboriously constructed, it is bound to collapse. As the ROK grows richer, Pyongyang reforms or dies, America tires of underwriting a defense treaty that is mutual in name only, and South Korea no longer wishes to be treated as a protectorate, there may come a nasty divorce. The two governments should instead agree to an amicable separation. That means beginning, now, through the Security Policy Initiative or another forum, to plan a positive transition emphasizing a relationship of bilateral mutuality and equality rather than of South Korean dependency and inferiority.
* Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, he is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (Cato Institute, 1996) and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America's Troubled Relations With North and South Korea (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2005).