Time to Get South Korea Off the Security Dole

Peter Huessy's article (In the National Interest, August 12, 2003, at

Peter Huessy's article (In the National Interest, August 12, 2003, at http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol2Issue32/Vol2Issue32Huessy.html) purports to disagree with my earlier article arguing that China is unlikely to orchestrate the solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis.  Huessy emphasizes that, given Pyongyang's economic dependence on the PRC, Beijing has considerable leverage to induce the North to give up its nuclear ambitions.

But I stipulated as much. The thrust of my argument was that Beijing would be reluctant to utilize its leverage on North Korea because doing so would undermine other important political and strategic objectives. Huessy provides no evidence to refute that point.

Indeed, the primary objective of his article was not to discuss the China issue but to offer a brief for keeping U.S. troops in South Korea in perpetuity.  He is profoundly misguided.  The Korean commitment was obsolete even before the end of the Cold War, and it should have been terminated long ago.  In the new strategic environment--with the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea looming on the horizon--the commitment is not only outdated, it is extremely dangerous. 

When the so-called mutual security treaty was approved in 1954, the Republic of Korea (ROK) was a poverty-stricken country that had been devastated by more than three years of war.  The population was demoralized, and the military (although somewhat stronger than it had been when North Korean troops invaded in June 1950) was still decidedly inferior to its communist adversary in training, equipment, and morale. 

Moreover, Seoul had to confront not only the hostility of North Korea, but the knowledge that Chinese or Soviet forces might support Pyongyang's units in the event of war.  The security treaty with the United States and the U.S. troop presence on the Peninsula were tangible guarantees that the ROK would not have to deal with such powerful enemies alone.  Given the geostrategic realities in the mid-1950s and for many years thereafter, South Korea could not have provided for its own defense.

During the initial decades of the Cold War, there also was a respectable U.S. strategic rationale for keeping troops in the ROK.  Washington understandably wanted to keep that country out of the orbit of a rapaciously expansionist Soviet Union or a hostile and volatile China.  A North Korean takeover of South Korea likely would have heralded a general communist offensive to dominate all of East Asia--a development that clearly would have menaced vital American interests.   In the absence of a hostile, would-be hegemonic power in the region, that danger is no longer a factor.       

Moreover, South Korea is no longer a war-ravaged waif. The ROK has become one of the world's great economic successes. That dynamism and rapid growth contrast sharply with North Korea's stagnation and have given the South an overwhelming economic advantage over its communist nemesis.  South Korea's GDP in 2002 stood at more than $425 billion. Estimates of the size of the North's moribund economy vary widely, but most figures are between $12 billion and $18 billion.  In other words, the ROK has an economy at least 23 times larger--and perhaps as much as 35 times larger--than that of its enemy.  It also has a decisive edge in population-- some 47.3 million versus 24.5 million.   

In addition to such quantitative advantages, the ROK enjoys important qualitative advantages.  Technologically, South Korea is light years ahead of the North.  The ROK is a 21st century country in every respect, while North Korea's technology is generally that of a country in the 1960s or 1970s.

The regional security environment also has changed beyond recognition.  Neither Beijing nor Moscow would back North Korea if it attempted to use military force against the South. Indeed, both governments have spent the past decade strengthening their diplomatic and economic ties with Seoul. Pyongyang has become an anachronistic embarrassment to Russia and China, not a valued ally.

It is absurd to argue that a country with South Korea's enormous advantages cannot defend itself. Yet that is what Huessy and other defenders of the status quo are forced to argue.

The problem is not that South Korea cannot provide for its own defense; the problem is that it chooses not to. South Korea's military budget in 2002 was a meager $14.1 billion.  As a percentage of GDP, Seoul spends less on the military (a mere 3 percent) than does the United States. Yet South Korea is located next to one of the most bizarre and unpredictable states in the world.  Seoul's anemic military spending under such circumstances borders on being criminally irresponsible.  But South Korean leaders know they can get away with underinvesting in defense because Washington has let them get away with it for years.  Huessy and other American enablers of South Korea's security free riding have encouraged such behavior.

When pressed, most defenders of the security treaty and the U.S. troop presence grudgingly concede that the ROK could build the conventional forces needed to defend itself against North Korean aggression.  They increasingly cite another justification for Washington's role as Seoul's security patron: North Korea's nuclear-weapons program.

But that development proves the opposite of what Huessy and other defenders of the alliance argue.  If it were not for the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, the United States would not be on the front-lines of the North Korean nuclear crisis.  The risk exposure of South Korea and Pyongyang's other neighbors is geographic and, therefore, inherent.  Our risk exposure is largely discretionary.