North Korea may be planning another missile launch. Otherwise unremarkable for little except its eccentricity and brutality, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may soon acquire the capability to attack the United States with nuclear weapons. Washington should disengage and leave the North Korea problem where it belongs, with the DPRK’s neighbors.
American involvement in the Korean peninsula dates back more than a century, but Japan’s absorption of the small kingdom ended any official relationship. After Tokyo’s surrender in 1945 the United States and Soviet Union divided the former Japanese colony, leading to the creation of two competing states and ultimately war in 1950.
Only Washington’s intervention prevented the DPRK from conquering the Republic of Korea. For years the impoverished and authoritarian ROK was vulnerable to a renewed North Korean attack, especially if backed by Moscow and Beijing. So U.S. forces created a military tripwire.
But that threatening world disappeared long ago. South Korea began its economic take-off in the 1960s, racing past the North. The 1972 U.S. opening to the People’s Republic of China reduced tensions between the two Koreas’ respective patrons. The collapse of Soviet communism and Maoist madness meant Pyongyang would fight alone in any future conflict. Today both Russia and China have far greater economic relations with the South than the North.
Moreover, the ROK has surpassed North Korea on every significant measure of national power other than military. Even so, South Korea possesses a qualitatively superior force and “is now strong enough to take on [the DPRK military] without outside assistance,” as argued by the National Interest ’s Dave Majumdar.
Seoul’s military deficiencies reflect not lack of resources but reliance on America for defense. Why devote scarce resources to the armed forces which instead can be used for economic development and other purposes? Seoul consequently is looking beyond defense to develop a blue water navy and become a space power.
Which means America’s role in protecting the South should have ended years ago. Foreign policy should be adapted to circumstances. None of the original reasons for protecting South Korea remain relevant. The claim that a security commitment created more than six decades ago remains as relevant as before is absurd on its face.
In any case, the United States should threaten war only for very significant, even vital, interests, and when there is no alternative means to achieve America’s ends. Washington helped set up the circumstances leading to the 1950 invasion, which was widely seen as beginning a much broader communist push for world domination. The ROK was incapable of defending itself, in part because American officials denied Seoul American heavy weapons. The Truman administration could ill afford to stand by and allow its young client state to be overrun.
Today the Korean Peninsula remains one of Asia’s chief flashpoints. Yet the peninsula is no longer critical for U.S. security. The Koreas no longer play a part in an overarching global struggle. An intra-Korean war would be tragic but would not threaten U.S. security. Such a conflict would matter much more to neighboring states, especially China and Japan, which have a corresponding incentive to do more, absent American intervention. Humanitarian concerns would be real, but would not warrant war.
In any case, the alternative to Washington providing defense welfare to the ROK would be Seoul using a little more of its extraordinary wealth to create an armed forces capable of deterring and, if necessary, defeating the North. The South’s advantages are dramatic: it possesses one of the world’s largest and most advanced economies, upwards of 40 times the size of the DPRK’s economy. South Korea has twice the population and a large international support network compared to essentially none for Pyongyang.
Yet today America remains entangled in Korean affairs and worried about threats from a small, distant, and impoverished state which under normal circumstances shouldn’t even register in Washington. Indeed, despite its manifold commitments around the world, Secretary of State John Kerry recently promised the United States would do “whatever is necessary” to defend the ROK. The Pentagon plans to deploy an extra armored brigade to the South. Some analysts, such as Alexander Kim with the American Foreign Policy Council , would further deepen U.S. involvement by returning U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula.
With cause, some policymakers believe the DPRK poses the most significant security challenge for the next administration. Although no one knows North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, they clearly are advancing. Pyongyang has accumulated sufficient materials for as many as 20 nuclear weapons today and by 2020 could have 50 to 100 devices, thereby joining second tier nuclear powers Israel, India, and Pakistan. No doubt the Kim regime is working to miniaturize warheads, which would allow their use on missiles. And the North is making progress, despite occasional well-publicized failures, in developing long-range missiles capable of targeting North America.