South Korea Is a Good Place to Start Taking on the "Blob"

F-16 Fighting Falcons during an exercise at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. Wikimedia Commons/

Washington should engage in burden-shedding, not burden-sharing.

Candidate Donald Trump did the seeming impossible: get elected president while speaking truths that shock establishment policymakers. Such as criticizing the defense dole for South Korea, one of Washington’s most sacred cows. However, as his swearing-in nears, he is being strongly pressed to abandon his contrarian views.

During the campaign, Trump accurately diagnosed the problem of nominal allies becoming costly dependents. He declared, “We are better off frankly if South Korea is going to start protecting itself.” Of that there should be no doubt.

He further explained: “We have 28 thousand soldiers on the line in South Korea between the madman and them.” Also true. Moreover, “We get practically nothing compared to the cost of this.” He’s right: it doesn’t benefit America to pay for the defense of nations able to defend themselves.

Alas, Trump fell short when discussing the solution. He argued: “They have to protect themselves or they have to pay us.” The United States shouldn’t hire out its military like a mercenary force. Rather, Washington should turn over defense responsibilities to one of the world’s wealthier nations. Serious, mature countries should protect their own people, rather than beg others to do so.

However, after being elected, Trump appeared to be going on his own apology tour, calling South Korean President Park Geun-hye to promise that America would be “steadfast and strong” with the Republic of Korea. Policy advisers Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro wrote that “Trump will simply pragmatically, and respectfully discuss with Tokyo and Seoul additional ways for those governments to support a presence all involved agree is vital.” If true, then the president-elect will be effectively declaring preemptive surrender.

South Koreans interpreted the forgoing to mean that the good times will continue: no need to worry their own people by matching North Korea’s military efforts. Indeed, Seoul plans to do whatever is necessary to save its defense subsidies. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se assured South Koreans that “the government will make various efforts so the South Korea-U.S. alliance that has successfully developed over the past 60 years will continue to move forward without faltering despite the change in the U.S. leadership.”

If the ROK succeeds in its efforts, it will be apparent that The Donald is not nearly as tough as he likes to portray. “Draining the swamp” will take work, and nowhere is the swamp more impermeable than Washington’s foreign policy community. There is a convenient consensus from liberal interventionist to neoconservative that the United States must micromanage the world, using force whenever necessary to impose America’s will even when the stakes are minimal. As a result, American lives and wealth have been squandered around the globe. President Trump must take on this conventional wisdom, and the various factions that hold it—what President Barack Obama termed “the Blob” in Washington.

South Korea would be a good place to start.

The United States is in the South because it has always been in the South, or almost. American forces arrived in the Korean peninsula after Japan’s surrender in August 1945, when the United States and Soviet Union occupied the then Japanese colony south and north, respectively. In 1948 the ROK and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were established, backed by their respective patrons. The North invaded in June 1950. The United States entered the war to defend the ROK. As allied forces neared the DPRK’s border with China, the latter intervened to prevent Pyongyang’s defeat. The conflict went on until July 1953, when an armistice was signed.

But peace was never formally made. And the United States still has nearly 29 thousand troops stationed in the South, which act as a tripwire to ensure American involvement in any new war. And the ROK always wants an increased commitment. It recently requested that the U.S. station “strategic weapons,” such as the B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers in South Korea.

In its early years the South remained an economic and political wreck, vulnerable to renewed attack by Pyongyang, still led by Kim Il-sung, who launched the earlier conflict. Moreover, the U.S.S.R. and People’s Republic of China continued to back the DPRK.

However, the world has changed dramatically. In the 1960s South Korea took off economically, soon passing the collectivist North. Democracy arrived in the ROK in 1989, when the South’s last military junta passed into history. With the end of the Cold War, Pyongyang lost its most important allies: both Moscow and Beijing recognized Seoul, and neither would back the DPRK in another aggressive war today.