Making Dangerous Enemies

June 11, 2003

Making Dangerous Enemies

 Even on his worst day, Saddam Hussein's Iraq paled as a threat compared to Kim Jong-Il's North Korea .

 Even on his worst day, Saddam Hussein's Iraq paled as a threat compared to Kim Jong-Il's North Korea .  The former's conventional forces were a wreck and unconventional forces were either nonexistent or ineffective.  The latter has a robust conventional force, substantial chemical and biological weapons, and a nuclear capability.   Pyongyang also has a soft target in convenient range: South Korea 's capital of Seoul .   While Hussein was on his best behavior, trying to deter U.S. military action, Kim continues to play a game of brinkmanship, including violating South Korean territorial waters and buzzing an American reconnaissance plane.  

Even before he had disposed of Iraq , President George W. Bush said the "military option" is definitely on the table for North Korea .   He refused to back away from possible war during South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's visit to the United States . Washington subsequently announced a troop redeployment that looks suspiciously like preparation for a preventive strike against the North.

But why is the U.S. worried about the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea ?  The DPRK is distant and poor, surrounded by powerful states, an economic irrelevancy, and a diplomatic nonentity.  Most important, it has no effective means to attack America .      

The only genuine threat to the U.S. would come from plutonium sales to rogue states or terrorist groups.  However, a multinational package of carrots and sticks, not Washington 's military presence in the South, is the key to deterring that prospect.  Indeed, America 's existing deployments actually provide Pyongyang with another inviting military target while discouraging surrounding countries from confronting the problem state.  

North Korea should be an issue for other nations-- China and Russia , the most important regional powers, and Japan and South Korea , America 's closest regional friends.  All have more at stake in the North than does the United States .       The only reason Washington is entangled in the Korean peninsula is inertia.  The U.S. has defended South Korea for more than 50 years.  

Yet South Korea is beginning to look away.  During his campaign last fall President Roh suggested that his nation "mediate" in any war between America and the North and called for "concessions from both sides."  Indeed, he added:  "we should proudly say we will not side with North Korea or the United States ."  President Roh has since sought to reassure Washington , but this hardly sounds like a serious alliance.  

Although North Korea 's nuclear program, like a hangman, has understandably garnered Washington 's attention, requiring equal attention is America 's relationship with the South.  The nuclear controversy grows out of Washington 's unnatural military presence on the Korean peninsula and no solution is likely as long as the U.S. remains.  Well before the present contretemps, it was evident that the presence of 37,000 troops in the South was a Cold War artifact that had lost its raison d'être.  

Washington 's commitment to the ROK resulted from the post- World War II division of the peninsula by the U.S. and Soviet Union , North Korean invasion, and Chinese intervention.  The Cold War is now over; Beijing and Moscow are friendlier with the South than the DPRK.   China and Russia trade far more with the South; the latter has become a significant investor in the People's Republic of China .  Although both former North Korean allies retain ties with the communist state, both have far more at stake in the peninsula's continuing stability and South Korea 's continuing prosperity than in a DPRK "victory," whether political or military.  

Nor does Pyongyang have any other allies of note.  It is an insignificant economic player.  Whatever goodwill was generated from its recent diplomatic initiatives has dissipated; the U.S. will talk about nothing else until the nuclear issue is resolved.  Moreover, the South has left the North far behind economically, possessing forty times the GDP, twice the population, and an overwhelming technological edge.  In 2000 the ROK enjoyed a GDP of $462 billion, making it the world's 12th largest economy.  In contrast, North Korea is an economic basket case, whose economy is estimated to have shrunk by half between 1993 and 1996 alone.  Food production is down 60 percent over the last 15 years.  Much of the country is enveloped in darkness much of the time.  It is estimated that as many as two million people starved to death during the 1990s.  

Only in the military sphere does the North retain any advantage.  But, reports Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Bruce Bechtol:  "the North Korean military is one that is using antiquated 1950s and 1960s vintage weapons while the South Korean military continues to strengthen itself with dynamic new programs such as the building of brand new F-16s.  In addition, the South is superior in other key aspects of military readiness, such as command and control and training."   Moreover, South Korea has begun a space program and unveiled plans for a blue water navy, one more obviously directed at Japan and China than North Korea .  Observed Army Lt. Col. Carl Haselden:  "As the perceived threat from the NKPA [North Korean People's Army] has diminished, the ROK military has looked ahead and attempted to develop military capabilities to reduce its dependence on the United States and to meet future security challenges."  

To the extent that the ROK's military continues to lag behind that of its northern antagonist, it is a matter of choice, not necessity.  Nothing prevents Seoul from building a larger force.  Rather, the American tripwire discourages it from needing to do so.  As the South acknowledges in its own defense reports, it long chose to focus on economic development at the expense of military strength, secure in America 's protection.  

Although the South needs no help to defend against its shell of a neighbor, American soldiers seemingly are everywhere.  Some number of fights, traffic accidents, and crimes are inevitable.  The acquittal last fall by a U.S. military court of two soldiers who ran over two children sparked widespread public demonstrations and boycotts and occasional physical attacks on American soldiers.  Before taking office President Roh promised not to "kowtow" to the U.S. and called for a more "equal" relationship.  All of the presidential candidates, including conservative Lee Hoi-chang, favored by Washington , demanded a change in the status of forces agreement (SOFA).  

Alas, the nations will never be equal as long as America is defending the ROK.  One of the most important attributes of sovereignty is defending oneself.  If Seoul instead puts its security into Washington 's hands, it is giving Washington authority make the decisions.  South Koreans cannot expect the U.S. to risk war on the South's terms.  And as long as Seoul wants an occupying garrison, it must expect to be treated like an occupied country.  That means American forces appropriately receive special protections, especially when anti-Americanism is rampant.  

Placing even greater pressure on this unequal arrangement is the disagreement about policy towards North Korea .  Some 24 million people, roughly half of South Korea 's population, live in the Seoul-Inchon metropolitan area.  Yet Seoul sits barely 25 miles from the border, vulnerable to artillery and Scud missile attack.  Thus, the costs of mishandling the North would be horrific for the ROK.  Says President Roh: War "is such a catastrophic result that I cannot even imagine.  We have to handle the North-South relations in such a way that we do not have to face such a situation."  

Washington , in contrast, has been almost casual in its consideration of plunging the Peninsula into war.  Former President Bill Clinton admits that his administration prepared for a military strike against the DPRK during the first nuclear crisis, without consulting the South.  President Roh complains, "We almost went to the brink of war in 1993 with North Korea , and at the time we didn't even know it."  

Upon what can Seoul rely to avoid a new conflict in the future?  President Bush explicitly refuses to rule out any option, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the Kim Jong-Il government a "terrorist regime," offering an obvious justification for action, and it is hard to find anyone who speaks with administration officials off-the-record who believes their professed pacific intentions.  

Indeed, some hawks flaunt their lack of concern for Seoul 's views.  Opines Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.):  "while they may risk their populations, the United States will do whatever it must to guarantee the security of the American people.  And spare us the usual lectures about American unilateralism.  We would prefer the company of North Korea 's neighbors, but we will make do without it if we must."  Apparently U.S. allies should gaily commit suicide at Washington 's command.  

No policy band-aids will save the relationship.  Moving the Yongsan base or cutting a few troops ignores the basic issue.  Secretary Rumsfeld's decision to pull U.S. troops back from the DMZ merely exposes the deployment's lack of purpose.  A tripwire in Pusan is no tripwire, at least not one with any value.  Indeed, such a step may be interpreted in both South and North as a prelude to war, an American decision to shift its troops out of harm's way before striking the DPRK.