Last month, Defense Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Clinton visited South Korea where they surveyed the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates North and South, announced the joint U.S.-South Korean war games conducted last week, and reaffirmed America’s commitment to South Korean security. This trip should seem familiar for these two secretaries. Iraq and Afghanistan—countries that consume a great deal of energy both in Arlington and Foggy Bottom—are much like South Korea in one key respect: the United States underwrites security for all three at the moment.
American forces arrived in South Korea in 1950 following invasion from the North. Their permanent status was secured in 1953, when an armistice suspended the conflict. Roughly 37,000 Americans died defending South Korea from aggression in the early 1950s, while Seoul became the headquarters of a massive effort to deny communism’s advance. More than 65 years later, however, U.S.-South Korean military commitments are largely unchanged and a one-sided American security guarantee remains in place along with thousands of American troops. As Gates and Clinton reflect on their tour of the DMZ, they should take pause and recognize that America’s nation-building project in South Korea is unfinished and that American troops are unnecessary.
South Korea today is not what it once was and neither is the regime that controls the peninsula north of the 38th parallel. Decades later, South Korea is an economic success story, enjoying a vibrant technology sector and integration with world markets. Their military maintains an arsenal of advanced equipment. And, perhaps most importantly, South Korea’s population is double that of its northern neighbor. All these factors combine to underscore a plain but largely unstated fact: South Korea has the industrial base, manpower, and budget to address its own security concerns.
North Korea, in these intervening years between 1953 and 2010, enjoyed none of these fortunes. Its leaders remain despotic and immune to the charms of free markets. With the ascension of Kim Jong Il to power, the country has transitioned to a pseudo-theocracy with a pervasive dogma, deified leader, and absolute allegiance demanded by the government.
America’s eagerness to defend South Korea—with warnings directed at Kim Jong Il’s regime and security guarantees—is thus a curiosity: South Korea limits the scope of its defenses precisely because the United States promises absolute support, even though the North is no longer an agent of international communism. Furthermore, North Korea’s military strength is uncertain. It maintains a manpower advantage but its equipment is aging fast and is certainly no match for South Korea’s high-tech reserves. The North maintains a nuclear advantage but the South could still win a decisive conflict with conventional means if it expanded its own forces.
For all these reasons it is time to complete the nation-building project initiated in 1950, when the United States intervened along with the United Nations to defend South Korea and secure democracy there.The way forward is simple: the United States must press South Korea to expand its military capabilities, much like it expects Iraq and Afghanistan to ultimately do the same. America’s extrication from South Korea will force it to become a better partner in the future. Faced with North Korea and the prospect of conflict, Seoul will have no choice but to match the threat. If future conflict does arrive—and directly threatens American interests in the region—the United States will enjoy the company of a much stronger regional partner, one that can augment its own forces and contribute more readily.
North Korea will be deterred at less cost to the United States in this case. South Korea’s general strategic concerns (open markets, free seas, an isolated North Korea, and a nuclear weapons-free peninsula) would be unchanged and line up with U.S. goals regardless of American troop levels. Chinese and Russian leaders might be glad to see America’s exit but the United States would still leave behind a partner that shares its strategic vision and enjoys greater independence and military resources. Beijing, it should be noted, is happy to do business with Seoul and Moscow is no longer a sponsor of Pyongyang.
The United States must demand more of South Korea because of its proximity and untapped potential. South Korea’s elected leaders can do today what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan can not: establish a competent security force dedicated to defending their country’s borders, people, and government. Empowering allies like South Korea is the only way to ensure regional and global security. The United States can do this while limiting its profile on the Korean peninsula.
The photo in this article is being used under Creative Commons licensing. The original source can be found here.