The Skeptics

The North Korea Crisis Is Coming to a Boil. It's Time for Fresh Thinking.

What to do? The two nations’ presidents could regularly get together and hug one another, proclaiming that all is well. Or the countries could consider a more controversial response.

For instance, Washington could phase out its troop presence and security commitment. After more than six decades, it is time for the South to take over responsibility for its defense. South Korea has forty times the GDP and double the population of the North—it should have left America’s defense dole long ago.

More important, U.S. disengagement would take America off of North Korea’s target list. The North is seeking to deter the United States by threatening retaliation, not attract it by planning aggression. Indeed, the simplest way to end fears of a North Korean missile targeting the U.S. homeland is for Washington to exit the Korean confrontation. America would no longer loom large in Pyongyang’s affairs.

While Seoul could create a conventional military capable of deterring and defeating that of the DPRK, the latter’s possession of nukes would still give it a dramatic military advantage. South Korea should restart the nuclear program, with America’s backing, in order to create its own deterrent. Afterall, Seoul shut down its nuclear program after U.S. pressure a half century ago.

The situation would be hardly ideal, but the United States would no longer find itself at nuclear risk in between the two Koreas. At the same time, the South’s security would not be dependent on America’s dubious promise to risk the destruction of its homeland. Moreover, the mere prospect of nuclear weapons proliferation to the South, but also Japan, would give China additional incentive to take a more active role in limiting the North’s nuclear arsenal. If that happened, the case for neighborly proliferation would disappear.

The American and South Korean leaders are meeting at a difficult time. Not only are both countries in the midst of unsettling domestic political transitions, but the DPRK has proved itself to be a nuclear power, unwilling to abandon the weapons which have become central to its national identity.

The status quo—an outdated conventional alliance and a risky nuclear umbrella—no longer meets the security needs of both alliance partners. Seoul and Washington need to consider unconventional alternatives. Their discussions should start now.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and coauthor of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.

Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waves to North Korean scientists and technicians, who developed missile "Hwasong-12" in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency May 20, 2017. ​