Realism on the Korean Peninsula: Real Threats, Real Dangers

The communist regime of North Korea now deploys ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan and, possibly, the western territory of the United States.

The communist regime of North Korea now deploys ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan and, possibly, the western territory of the United States. It may have a couple of nuclear warheads developed from spent fuel diverted from a nuclear reactor located north of the capital city of Pyongyang. The 1995 agreement between the United States and the regime of Kim Jong-Il ostensibly froze that regime's nuclear weapons production in return for the future reconstruction of two additional nuclear reactors, the provision of many tons of fuel oil and food, and a reciprocal agreement that the North Korean communists would allow UN and IAEA inspections to determine the extent to which spent nuclear fuel was in fact diverted from the Yongbon nuclear reactor in contravention of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed by the North in 1985.

The current American administration has sought to secure an agreement among the regional actors-China, Russia, Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) on a multilateral approach to ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons. The aim is to have a unified position to take away the North Korean gambit of playing each of the parties against the United States to avoid making the concessions required to end its nuclear program. A critical part of that strategy has been securing the cooperation of the Chinese government in pushing the communist regime in North Korea to agree to what are termed "multilateral" negotiations.

Ted Carpenter of the CATO Institute wrote last week (  how foolish such a strategy was, arguing that China could exercise little, if any, influence over the regime in North Korea, frightened as North Korea was by the hostile attitude of the United States and its deployment of U.S. military forces in both the Republic of Korea and the region. Carpenter and his colleagues at CATO have argued for nearly a quarter of a century that U.S. forces should withdraw from the Republic of Korea, not because we are not defending that country, but because the North is insufficiently reckless to initiate hostilities regardless of the U.S. presence, and, all things being equal, the U.S. military should simply withdraw from the ROK and the region. Ironically, many on the left argue that the US military presence in Korea is actually preferred by the DPRK because it acts as a brake on a possible invasion of the North by rogue elements within the ROK military. While both positions are fanciful, the impact of a constant refrain from Carpenter, and his CATO colleague Doug Bandow (see his essay in In the National Interest, at , that U.S. military forces in the ROK should unconditionally come home, undermines the security and freedom of the region and leaves the impression of a United States now tired of its security commitment to Seoul.

The CATO Institute argues that a large U.S. military establishment, by definition, requires a large and powerful U.S. central government, high taxation, and powers inconsistent with our Bill of Rights and Constitution. Ironically, the unwarranted power of the United States government over private property and the chipping away at our liberties is a problem identified by CATO with which I concur. 

However, Carpenter has long advocated a unilateral withdrawal of our U.S. forces from the Republic of Korea, under the guise of arguing that such a reduction of U.S. forces would save tax-payer dollars, as well as U.S. lives, should there be an armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. 

In fact, Carpenter, in conversations I have had with him, readily agrees that a U.S. withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula might very well precipitate an invasion by the communists in the North with the aim of quickly capturing Seoul and then suing for peace in an agreement that would eventually give control over a unified country to the communists.

Apart from the fact that U.S. forces withdrawn from the ROK would be redeployed elsewhere in the U.S. and thus save the U.S. taxpayers nothing and given that U.S. military forces deployed overseas and at home have declined by over 1 million soldiers since the end of the Cold War, a withdrawal from the ROK by the United States would do nothing except cause another Korean War, kill millions of Korean civilians and soldiers and place in danger the ability of Japan to maintain its economy in the face of a Korean Peninsula in communist hands. As every Commander of U.S. forces in Korea since 1979 has told Congress in public testimony, Japan is not defensible if Korea is taken by the communists. A blockade of trade routes to and from Japan would become a realistic weapon in the hands of the PRC, not dissimilar to a blockade of Taiwan by the PRC portrayed by Patrick Robinson in Kilo Class.

Given this context, let us examine Carpenter's assertion that China has no authority over North Korea. While Carpenter and I agree that a nuclear North Korea is a problem the Chinese want desperately to go away, I believe the PRC has the capability to significantly help in the achievement of that goal.