President-elect Joe Biden knows foreign policy. Unfortunately, he primarily knows what has not worked. And he seems inclined to try the same old, failed strategies yet again. Only he will try harder, meaning he will fail bigger this time.
So it is regarding U.S. relations with the Republic of Korea. Shortly before the election, Biden wrote for Yonhap News Agency: “I’ll stand with South Korea, strengthening our alliance to safeguard peace in East Asia and beyond, rather than extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops.”
Washington foreign policy wonkery is filled with platitudes, none more monotonous nor common than the necessity of “strengthening [fill in the blank] alliance.” Perhaps second to that is opposing any troop withdrawal, no matter how small and no matter which country, ally or not. It is no surprise that Biden proudly and fervently extolls both nostrums.
Yet nearly seven decades have passed since the end of the Korean War. Neither the ROK nor its power balance with North Korea is the same. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is different, as are Pyongyang’s wartime allies Beijing and Moscow. Most momentous of all, so is the overall international environment.
How then can the same old Korea commitment be as important today as then—or even more so, as some Koreaphiles claim?
The Cold War is over. Neither China nor Russia is likely to back Pyongyang in another war. North Korea is a wreck, suffering extreme poverty and constant malnutrition, isolated internationally, and kept weak by economic sanctions. In contrast, South Korea enjoys one of the globe’s dozen largest economies, with more than fifty times the economic strength of the DPRK, as well as twice the population.
Under such circumstances, wouldn’t it make sense to shift more responsibility for South Korea’s defense onto… South Korea?
Of late that issue has been symbolized by negotiations over host nation support, or the Special Measures Agreement. The incoming administration is expected to quickly settle the issue, probably accepting Seoul’s last offer, which fell far short of the Trump administration’s demand but proposed more money than contributed last year.
Yet President Donald Trump only glimpsed a hint of the right goal, focusing on cash rather than responsibility. Treaty guarantees should be designed to advance American security, necessities to protect this nation rather than conveniences to benefit allies or mechanisms to shake down defense dependents. Protecting nations able to defend themselves is essentially providing international welfare, something Washington can ill afford these days. Worse, charging countries for security services effectively treats U.S. military personnel as mercenaries, an insult to their service.
America’s unique strengths for deterring North Korean military action or winning a Second Korean War would, first, be the U.S. nuclear umbrella, and, second, Washington’s land- and sea-based airpower. In contrast, Seoul relies on American manpower because it can do so, not because it must do so. The new administration should shift this responsibility to the ROK and phase out American ground forces.
Doing so also might ease the prospect of winning Chinese assistance to push the DPRK toward not only disarmament but denuclearization, which presently appears to be out of reach. Beijing will not act against its interest. Adding new sanctions and tightening enforcement both risk crashing North Korea and setting up reunification. That would leave on China’s border a united Korea allied with America and hosting U.S. troops, an obvious boon for Washington’s campaign to contain China. This provides a powerful argument against Chinese cooperation on sanctions, which has been on the wane.
The U.S. and ROK should commit to send home all American military personnel upon reunification. Then the Korean peninsula would not be part of any containment network. Withdrawing the 2nd Infantry Division now would demonstrate good faith to Beijing, making increased sanctions assistance more likely, though still perhaps a longshot.
On net, troops withdrawn should be demobilized, not redeployed. Washington’s globe-spanning responsibilities no longer are affordable. The United States faces a looming fiscal crunch as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. America’s national debt already exceeds annual GDP, and, driven by rapidly increasing entitlements outlays, could be twice that by mid-century, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That is well above Greek levels that triggered the Euro crisis which ravaged Greece and unsettled the rest of the continent. Biden also will face pressure to fulfill expansive campaign commitments.
When confronted by the continuing cacophony of demands for American military intervention around the globe, he will have little choice but to begin making difficult decisions and setting tough priorities. Better to adjust foreign commitments now to prepare for budget stringency ahead than be forced into making emergency cutbacks in the midst of an unexpected crisis. The result of the latter would not likely be happy.
The new administration also should balance American security against Washington’s commitment to international nonproliferation. In Korea, the two factors are coming into direct conflict. Although successive presidents have solemnly intoned that the DPRK cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons it does have them. Maybe as many as sixty of them. The Kim regime appears to be nearing the capability to target the U.S. homeland as well as Guam and Hawaii, if it cannot already do so.
When Pyongyang can certainly hold the whole United States at risk, the American promise to defend South Korea, and corresponding military presence, will become untenable. Imagine Korean War II, which begins rather like 1950, with a North Korean attack, after which an allied counterstrike overruns Pyongyang and races northward. This time, there is no prospect of Chinese intervention. Instead, Kim Jong-un announces that unless the U.S. withdraws south of the old DMZ the cities of Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco will be turned into proverbial “lakes of fire.”
What would President Biden do?
Is protecting the ROK, a nation well able to mount its own defense, worth the loss of several American cities? Obviously not. How could it be? South Korea is not only a good friend, but also a capable one—capable of doing whatever is necessary to deter and defeat the DPRK, if necessary. Should it not also meet North Korea’s nuclear threat, as a majority of its people say they favor?
If the commitment is not worth the risk, which seems clear, then the alliance cannot stand. Threatening North Korea with nuclear retaliation is meaningless if the regime already faces conventional destruction. There is no evidence that Kim is suicidal, hoping to depart this world in a radioactive funeral pyre. Instead, he prefers his virgins in this world, not the next. For him, nukes are the ultimate deterrent to America, preventing whatever kind of attack Washington might mount. They are a last resort threat, since they promise the sort of cataclysm, both on regional U.S. assets but most spectacularly on the home front, that America can neither ignore nor assume away.
No doubt, it would not be easy for the president-elect, and especially those serving him, to rethink the many long-held elixirs which dominate foreign policy thinking today. However, more of the same policies guarantees more of the same results. This is something the country cannot afford. The incoming administration needs to consider something different if it hopes to surmount the enormous challenges involving the Korean peninsula that it will face starting on day one.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.