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U.S. Should Stop Reassuring South Korea: Status Quo is Brain Dead

Candidate Donald Trump caused tremors in South Korea when he criticized America’s security commitment. The possibility of having to do more in their own defense shocked South Koreans. Now Defense Secretary James Mattis has visited the Republic of Korea and offered the usual “reassurances” that American defense welfare will continue. 

The U.S.-ROK alliance is “obsolete” as the president referred to NATO. The former was created at the end of the Korean War in 1953 to protect a ravaged country from conquest by a totalitarian state backed by the Soviet Mattis in South KoreaUnion and People’s Republic of China. 

That world is gone, however. South Korea has raced past the North and enjoys 40 times the GDP, twice the population, and vastly more foreign friends. Both Moscow and Beijing do far more business with the South than with the DPRK and would not back the latter in war. 

Only in military terms is the North ahead. However, its conventional forces are decrepit. Seoul is well able to construct a force capable of deterring and, if necessary, defeating North Korea’s military. 

South Koreans have many excuses for underinvesting in the military. For instance, they devote a larger percentage of their GDP to the military than do most of America’s other defense dependents. Obviously, the latter aren’t spending enough either. That doesn’t justify Seoul’s behavior, however. 

The South provides more “host nation support” than other allies. Again true, but the major cost for America is raising additional forces to meet its extra commitments. Unfortunately, Seoul has not offered to pay the cost of recruiting military personnel, purchasing military equipment, organizing units, and more. 

Further, many South Koreans don’t want to spend more on the military. That’s their decision, of course. But it isn’t the job of Americans to protect people who don’t believe in protecting themselves. 

Pyongyang’s incipient nuclear arsenal poses a different kind of threat. But so-called “extended deterrence” is a bad deal for America, entangling the U.S. in Northeast Asia’s web of antagonisms and potential conflicts. 

Some Koreans are discussing the possibility of creating their own nuclear deterrent. It’s a controversial idea, but American policymakers should consider whether the U.S. would be safer exiting the Northeast Asian imbroglio. 

In any case, Washington’s garrison in the South does not protect against a DPRK nuclear strike. Rather, putting U.S. forces within easy reach of North Korean WMDs creates thousands of nuclear hostages, making America more vulnerable to Pyongyang. 

The South benefits from Washington’s defense welfare. But what do Americans receive in return? 

The U.S. borrows more money to take on an additional defense dependent, embroiling itself in the bitter struggle between the two Koreas. But with the end of the Cold War the geopolitical relevance of the Korean peninsula has ebbed. 

The ROK is a valuable trading partner. The Rand Corporation’s Chang Booseung justified U.S. defense subsidies for the South by citing “the $129 billion in annual trade” and resulting U.S. jobs. Of course, by Chang’s logic, the South should be helping to protect America to preserve all those jobs created in the South through its trade with the U.S. 

Anyway, trade is no reason for Washington to pay for another nation’s defense. Seoul should invest its financial gains in its own defense. 

A renewed Korean conflict would be a humanitarian tragedy as well, but that’s no reason to enhance the horror by involving American forces. South Korea should take responsibility for preventing such an occurrence. 

War also would destabilize the region, but would not end Asian trade with America, as Chang suggested. Anyway, adverse regional impact is a good reason for the Koreas’ neighbors to do more. 

Chang contended that America’s garrison plays a “counter-proliferation role” as the “Kim Jong-un is working hard to put the U.S. mainland on his target list.” But Kim is doing so because America is “over there,” so to speak. Washington backs the DPRK’s adversary, which ensures that America will be a target if North Korea eventually creates an accurate ICBM. 

Finally, Chang doesn’t even trust his own country: in his view the U.S. must restrain its ally from starting a war. Actually, the best way to “restrain” Seoul would be to make clear that the ROK is on its own militarily. 

The U.S.-South Korea alliance has outlived its usefulness. Instead of reassuring Seoul, Secretary Mattis should prepare to renegotiate the alliance, creating a looser but more equal cooperative military relationship. South Korea should take on responsibilities commensurate with its capabilities.

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