President-elect Barack Obama campaigned promising "change," but so far his prospective foreign policy is looking a lot like "same ole, same ole." So it is with Korea, an issue area that desperately needs a rethink.
Two days after he won the presidency, Obama called South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. A Lee spokesman reported that the president-elect
said relations between South Korea and the U.S. are already solid and he wanted to further beef up the alliance, because their closer relations will be a cornerstone for peace and stability in Asia. Obama also stressed the importance of bilateral economic and security relations, while expressing hope for closer personal relations with President Lee.
While visiting Washington for the G20 meeting on November 15 President Lee expects to meet with a group of Obama advisors and perhaps Obama himself as well.
Strengthening the alliance might have made sense three decades ago. The cold war still raged. Although the South Korean economic miracle was underway, the Republic of Korea (ROK) had not yet become a global powerhouse and the extraordinary weakness of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was not yet obvious. The U.S.-ROK alliance arguably had a role to play, albeit a shrinking one.
Today, however, the misnamed mutual defense treaty-in practice, the defense guarantee runs only from Washington to Seoul-is an expensive anachronism. It should be terminated, not reinforced. The ROK and the United States should remain friends and cooperate in pursuing common goals, including promoting Asian security, but the American people no longer should be responsible for South Korea's defense.
Washington's promise to defend the South goes back to 1953 and the unsatisfying end of the Korean War. Rather than gain the victory Americans had grown to expect, the Eisenhower administration accepted a stalemate near the pre-invasion border. The fighting concluded with an armistice, but no peace treaty. China, whose large-scale intervention had saved North Korea from defeat, maintained a large troop presence in the DPRK.
Without wartime U.S. support, the ROK government would have been swept from the peninsula. Without post-war U.S. support, Seoul would have been overwhelmed in any resumption of hostilities. The aged, irascible and authoritarian Syngman Rhee was an embarrassment to the United States, but Washington felt it had little choice but to support him as well as the military dictators who followed. At least Park Chung-hee was an economic liberalizer, and the ROK economy took off before the South finally transitioned to democracy, some two decades ago.
South Korea is a helpless international dependent no longer. The South ranks among the world's top-dozen economies and is the third most important geopolitical player in East Asia. Also, the ROK long ago raced past the North in every measure of national power. South Korea has twice the population, upwards of forty times the GDP, a vast technological edge, and far more allies and friends. Seoul's military budget approaches the DPRK's entire GDP.
Moreover, the North's one-time military allies, Russia and China, both recognized Seoul as the cold war concluded. The ROK now does more business with Beijing than with America. The likelihood of either Moscow or Beijing backing North Korea in any new war is somewhere between infinitesimal and zero. The rest of East Asia would unreservedly stand behind South Korea.
And yet, Seoul has spent the last decade subsidizing the North. Providing aid to and investing in one's enemy is a curious strategy for dealing with a supposed security threat. If the ROK actually fears the North, it should have redirected some of the aid money to its military budget.
In sum, the South doesn't need America to defend it. South Korea has been capable of protecting itself for decades. It makes no sense for the United States to maintain a defense guarantee for-or troop deployments in-the ROK.
The North's nuclear program, whatever the prognosis for the ongoing denuclearization talks, offers no justification for the alliance. First, U.S. forces based in the peninsula do not constrain Pyongyang. To the contrary, they offer a justification for the DPRK to build a nuclear arsenal. They will be nuclear hostages if the North creates a deliverable weapon. Nowhere else on earth would Washington have so many military personnel at such risk.
Second, absent America's defense commitment, a North Korean nuclear weapon would be a problem for the South and the rest of the region, not the United States. Washington retains an overwhelming deterrent capability, Pyongyang as yet has no means of reaching the American homeland, and even if it were capable of doing so, there is no evidence that Kim Jong-il, or his likely successors, are suicidal.
Other advocates of the alliance make the "dual use" argument, that American forces stationed on the Korean peninsula are useful for purposes other than defending South Korea. But an army division and assorted other forces have little useful role in promoting regional stability, whatever that means in practice (invading Burma or preventing the dissolution of Indonesia?). And minimal ROK support for other U.S. objectives, such as providing a small troop contingent to a safe sector of Iraq (which Seoul plans on withdrawing by year's end), is not worth today's one-sided alliance.