Ending the U.S.-Korea Alliance

South Korea now dwarfs its northern neighbor in economic power and is close behind militarily. Seoul is slowly drifting away from Washington and says it wants better relations with Pyongyang. So why is America still underwriting South Korea’s defe

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has returned from the Republic of Korea (ROK), where he reaffirmed "the solid U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea." Troop levels will fall no lower than twenty-five thousand, to be reached after modest reductions this year. The goal, he adds, is to turn the relationship into a "twenty-first century strategic alliance."

Actually, the right twenty-first century alliance is no alliance.

U.S. troops have been in the ROK for more than a half century. In 1950 Washington rescued the South after North Korea invaded the American client state. In 1953, when the conflict came to its inconclusive end, the United States inked a "mutual" defense treaty to guarantee South Korea's security. Since then Seoul has been dependent upon America for its security.

That made sense in the early years. The ROK was desperately poor, having been ravaged by three years of war. The South was a political wreck, sliding from authoritarian, nominal democracy to military dictatorship. Chinese troops remained on station in the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Stalin was dead, but the cold war continued. By any measure, U.S. policy succeeded. The ROK took off economically and now possesses the world's twelfth-largest economy. The country developed politically as well, as democracy took hold. At the same time, the North essentially imploded, falling backward economically, suffering a murderous famine, and losing its mega-communist allies. Today Seoul dominates virtually every measure of comparative national power, with a GDP on the order of forty times that of the DPRK, twice the population and an enormous technological edge. South Korea is an important international player, while Pyongyang would be a nullity, absent its nuclear program.

Yet the alliance remains essentially unchanged. Various administrations have drawn down U.S. forces, but American troops remain on station, guaranteeing the ROK's security. Indeed, Secretary Gates has decided to lengthen army tours in South Korea and allow families to join service personnel. General Walter L. Sharp, the new commander of U.S. forces in Korea, says "We must be prepared to fight and win." He adds: "Our purpose is to continue to deter aggression on the Korean peninsula and, should deterrence fail, with immediate and overwhelming firepower and the U.S. will defeat that threat." Insists Secretary Gates, "We will maintain at least the same capabilities we have here, or perhaps be able to enhance them." Whatever for? 

The North retains a nominal military superiority, but its antiquated weapons are no match for South Korea's arsenal, backed by much-better-trained personnel. Moreover, the South could spend far more on its defense. There is no artifact of geography that keeps the ROK's military smaller than North Korea's. That results from a choice made by the government in Seoul. But it chooses not to, perhaps because the South Koreans aren't convinced that the DPRK poses much of a threat. The South has cheerfully sent generous aid and investment northward. Polls of younger South Koreans find more hostility toward America than Pyongyang. If the ROK's population doesn't believe the threat from the North warrants greater military effort, why should America underwrite South Korea's defense?

Some analysts on both sides of the Pacific contend that the alliance is necessary to respond to North Korean nuclear developments. However, absent the U.S. military presence-which provides a convenient target for Pyongyang-the prospect of a DPRK bomb would be a regional rather than an American problem. Washington still would have an interest in encouraging a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, but withdrawing the troops would increase American flexibility. Supporters of the status quo also advocate giving the bilateral relationship a new purpose. After the Gates meeting, the two countries issued a press release which "expressed a shared perception of the need for stronger cooperation in order to develop the ROK-U.S. Alliance into a 21st Century Strategic Alliance and agreed to exert a joint effort for the creative development of the ROK-U.S. relationship."

Which means precisely what? Some Americans view South Korea as a key member of an anti-China alliance. But while the ROK might enjoy being protected from Beijing in the extraordinarily unlikely event of Chinese aggression, the South has no interest in joining with an American crusade against the PRC. Indeed, the ROK's ties with Beijing continue to grow. Two-way trade between China and South Korea runs $145 billion, more than between the U.S. and the South. Popular South Korean attitudes towards the People's Republic of China vary-recent thuggish behavior by Chinese students towards demonstrators protesting repression in Tibet was ill-received in the South, for instance. But it is hard to find a resident of the ROK enthused about confronting the PRC. Indeed, more young people fear the U.S. than either China or the DPRK. Moreover, in May South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited Beijing, where he and Chinese President Hu Jintao announced that they had "agreed to upgrade ties from a partnership of comprehensive cooperation to a future-oriented strategic partnership."

The most likely scenario for conflict between the United States and China involves Taiwan. However, the prospect that Seoul will turn itself into a permanent enemy of a likely superpower with a long memory to help defend Taiwan approximates zero. America's East Asian allies might want Washington to stick around to counterbalance assorted feared states (variously China, Japan and Russia), but have little incentive to put themselves at risk to advance perceived U.S. interests.