5 Things South Korea Can Do to Wrest Control from Washington

U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korea's President Moon Jae-in hold a joint news conference at the Blue House in Seoul, South Korea November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A glance at a map of the Korean Peninsula shows why the interests of Washington and Seoul diverge when it comes to preventive war.

I have never met South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in; nor am I likely to have the opportunity. Even if that were to happen somehow, the most I could expect is a handshake and a perfunctory exchange of pleasantries. He certainly wouldn’t ask me for foreign-policy advice. South Korea does not lack for savvy experts on statecraft, and he would, and should, turn to them. Ultimately, South Koreans must decide their country’s policies.

Still, as the crisis on the Korean Peninsula has been heating up, I have had extended conversations with South Korean friends and officials, current and former. I have a learned a great deal from them, but I have been reluctant to opine on what their government should—and should not—do. They understand the significance of North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons better than I, and it would be presumptuous for an outsider to provide unsolicited advice. But my interlocutors haven’t always let me off the hook. Some have said, in effect, “We’ve provided our assessment. Now tell us what precisely you would do in our circumstances.”

Here is how I have responded:

First, South Korea requires an independent strategic vision that corresponds to its considerable strategic weight and isn’t essentially an extension of American preferences. Some context to clarify what I mean: South Korea has made enormous advances since the 1950s. Back then it was a poor country. Its per-capita GDP in 1957 was roughly equal to Ghana’s GDP. Not only has South Korea left Ghana far behind, it has become a wealthy society. It has a per-capita income of nearly $40,000—ahead of New Zealand, Spain, and Italy, and edging toward Japan, Britain, and France. Its $1.93 trillion GDP ranks fourteenth in the world—ahead Canada, Spain and the Netherlands. Its exports total nearly $512 billion, placing it fifth; only China, the United States, Germany and Japan export more. Whether it’s automotives, ships, computers and telecommunications, advanced electronics, or nuclear power plants, South Korean firms have made their mark in western markets—something unimaginable in the 1950s. South Korea is also a major military power. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, South Korea’s defense spending was $37.27 billion in 2016 and ranked eighth internationally. (Incidentally, that figure exceeded North Korea’s entire Gross National Income: $32.76 billion according to the widely-cited estimates of South Korea’s Central Bank.) Even careful studies conclude that assaying the military balance between the two Koreas is complicated, especially because of the many unknowns (what Clausewitz called “friction”) that shape the outcome of wars. Tallying the number of armaments (tanks, artillery, aircraft, warships, submarines and missiles) misleads by highlighting the North’s numerical edge and obscuring the South’s overwhelming qualitative superiority. Which competent general would choose Seoul’s state-of-the-art military over Pyongyang’s outmoded, shopworn counterpart? At minimum, the standard story that South Korea would be overrun without the backing of American troops is questionable.

Despite this strategic heft, when it comes to national security South Korea remains an American dependency. Under the UN Command System created during the Korean War and the Combined Forces Command arrangement established in 1978, South Korea’s armed forces were placed under the command of an American general. That arrangement was changed in 1994: South Korea gained control of its military in peacetime. In the event of war, however, command reverts to the United States.