Carpenter and Bandow argue that, even if a war breaks out on the peninsula, it would not harm America’s national interest: “Today, the Koreas are a peripheral interest at best…. There are strong personal and cultural ties between Americans and Koreans; however, the [Republic of Korea] has little security relevance. War on the Korean peninsula would be tragic, but essentially irrelevant to America were it not for the U.S. troop presence.” Though they also argue that the importance of Korean trade to our economy has been overblown, and cite media reports on anti-American sentiment festering in Seoul, the book’s main argument for troop withdrawal is simply the savings it will bring to the Pentagon budget. They also argue that, given violent conflicts in Afghanis-tan and Iraq, it would make sense to reconfigure troop deployments.
Carpenter and Bandow think that South Korea has benefited quite disproportionately from the presence of our troops, while the United States hasn’t gotten much in return. It’s certainly true that the Republic has done well under American protection: Today, South Korea has the 10th largest economy in the world and belongs to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the rich countries’ club, a stark contrast to its $90 per capita GDP in the early 1960s. The Korean Conundrum rightly notes that such economic success was made possible largely by American security guarantees, which let South Korea spend comparatively little on its own defense and focus instead on civil development, building its economic infrastructure.
If our wealthy East Asian security clients, Japan and South Korea, are so worried about staying safe, say Carpenter and Bandow, let them pick up the bill. “Why can Seoul not shorten the process by acquiring U.S. weapons? And why did it not begin to develop new weapons over the last two decades, as economic growth has delivered the necessary resources for increased military investments?” they complain. It’s certainly true that it lies within the means of Japan and South Korea to supply the materiel and human resources for their own defense. But American presence, hence its forward leadership, has been a stabilizing factor throughout Asia. It isn’t only about simple troop numbers.
Moreover, there’s a binary calculus to deterrence these days: Either you’ve got nuclear weapons or you haven’t. North Korea, it seems, now has nukes. So do we. South Korea and Japan don’t. In this crude arithmetic (the same terms in which North Korea seems to understand the fight for peninsular supremacy), fully funded South Korean army divisions and Japanese naval battalions won’t be enough to deter North Korea from invading. They would need to develop nuclear weapons. Even the garrisoned communist cadres north of the 38th parallel understand the real weight of American power.
So what might happen if the United States abruptly withdrew all troops? Sure, Asian countries could and would set the rules after American troops departed. In such absence–while North Korea would still remain dangerous–South Korea could choose to go nuclear, deciding that such weapons are the cheapest and the most effective means of defense. Japan and Taiwan might well follow suit. These CATO scholars actually argue that a nuclear Korea or Japan or Taiwan may not be a bad idea.
But it would be a grave mistake to reverse the process of denuclearization and non-proliferation, thereby enabling any Tom, Dick, or Harriet state to wield dangerous weapons in response to a neighbor’s suspected arsenal. China would certainly be alarmed by nuclear powers popping up in the region. Moreover, what if China, not the South, absorbed North Korea, as some experts predict? Even the authors would be alarmed by the implications of such an event for the United States. The American troop presence in Asia has been a stabilizing force, sobering Japanese ambitions which might boil up should serious American footprints be lacking. So, both Japan and China take some strategic comfort in a continued American presence.
The authors make much of Seoul’s apparent “ungrateful” ill-treatment of America. They argue that many younger South Koreans perceive the United States as a bully, pointing to the massive candlelight vigils and demonstrations against us that took place in 2002 after the United States failed to offer a “proper” apology after two girls were run over by an American armored vehicle. After that incident, “[a]nger spilled out of universities into the middle class and seemed to grow along with the nuclear crisis.” And, again and again, the authors complain that South Korea has been too slow, stingy, and begrudging to send troops to Iraq when the United States has asked for its help: “That is, Washington should continue to defend the ROK; Seoul should do nothing to aid the United States.”
But each of these worries seems misplaced. The demonstrations reflected a passing emotional outburst. South Korea has grown from a society that harbored pervasive and violent anti-American sentiments in the 1980s into one that is critical only of specific U.S. policies or issues. South Koreans would criticize President George W. Bush’s axis of evil rhetoric, unilateral invasion of Iraq, and North Korean policy; they do not hate all of America. (To the point, in a global survey, Koreans had a relatively favorable view toward Bush’s reelection compared to other countries in the world when there were no pressing issues to gripe about.) And it’s hard to see how much more Seoul could have done to help in the Iraq effort–the contingent of South Korean troops sent to an internationally unpopular war was the world’s third largest, trailing only the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s.
The present drawdown of U.S. troops may be the best ultimate outcome. Although phasing out all the troops in the far future may make sense, it does not in the near- to mid-term. If the United States scrapped the 50-year-old alliance and pulled out its troops now, when all Asian nations look to America for leadership, this would pose a fundamental risk to U.S. credibility; i.e., if you don’t support an ally, there is a grave implication that you will not support other allies, either. An American presence in Korea is important to balance China’s growing regional ambition. Moreover, the alliance benefits America, giving it access to much of Asia while at the same time reducing pressure on other U.S. military bases in the region.
Carpenter and Bandow do lauch one good attack against Seoul: South Korea wants the benefit of the alliance but doesn’t want Washington to dictate its terms: “Althou-gh South Korea was not inclined to take over its defense even as it emerged on the international stage as a significant economic player, its evident success led to domestic calls for winning a greater say in the operation of the alliance.” South Korea does need to do more for its own defense and be more responsible worldwide. It has made a responsible start by raising defense spending, and it has reached a pair of smart compromises with the United States, which all eventually draw the number of American troops in country down from 37,000 to 25,000 and move a large military base from downtown Seoul, where the U.S. military presence has created near-constant friction with residents, to a more remote region.
Still, the sides seem headed, in the long term, for a more decisive separation. The Pentagon is convinced that the utility and viability of the U.S.-ROK alliance has gone down. South Koreans disliked Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s handling of the issue of redeployment even if an eventual phasing out of troops should prove of national interest to both parties. That Rumsfeld has been both insulting and condescending in his approach only maximizes resistance and emotional backlash. South Korean officials have been privately upset over the issue as they were merely notified of America’s intention to reduce troops in South Korea, though the United States has since shown more willingness to discuss the matter.
But the proper management of this likely parting of ways–while not letting these petty acrimonies prompt a retreat so quick that it destabilizes this crucial region–remains a point of shared interest. American and Korean strategists need to decide how to balance the growing regional role of China. Will U.S. troops retain the capacity to deploy off the peninsula, as some still argue that they should, or will Korea mature fast enough to play that “balancer” role (smoothing over frictions between China and Japan without necessarily siding with the United States) in the foreseeable future?
This stark, even polemical book may finally prove useful: By raising the possibility of such a dramatic solution, Carpenter and Bandow may force American strategists in Washington and Seoul, within and outside of government to figure out what they really think about the Korean conundrum and push it through to some rational next stage. South Korea and the United States must be honest about where each stands, which they have not done for at least two decades, as the old Cold War centered on Russia is replaced by struggles centered on Pyongyang and Beijing. The issue is beyond what to do with North Korea. The United States should think about what it would mean to have an alliance only with Japan in Northeast Asia while South Korea became more “neutral” and sided even with communist China. And South Korea must think about whether it wants a future without the United States. The alternative, in the near future, seems very risky.