It seems almost heretical to question the merit and durability of the U.S. alliance with South Korea. Yet recent events in Seoul—huge anti-American protests, a reluctance to join with the United States in facing down the North Korean nuclear threat—should prompt just such a reconsideration. South Korea may soon have to decide whether it stands with the United States, which is responsible for much of Seoul’s present security and prosperity, or whether it will take another path.
While American attention has been focused on problems in North Korea and Iraq, a troubling shift has taken place in our relationship with South Korea. On December 19, Roh Moo Hyun was elected president after promising in his campaign to distance South Korea from the United States. Roh capitalized on long-smoldering anti-American sentiment: Some Koreans still blame America for the division of Korea after World War II; others insist that the current tensions with North Korea are the result of the Bush administration’s hard line on nuclear proliferation; still others object to the presence of 37,000 American troops on Korean soil. In his quest to win election, Roh suggested that South Korea may stay on the sidelines if war were to break out between the United States and North Korea.
Our relations with South Korea began to fray under the country’s previous president, Kim Dae Jung, particularly after the Bush administration rightly made the North a member of its “axis of evil.” Kim’s Sunshine Policy of closer ties between the two Koreas depended in large measure on North Korean goodwill. During the final months of his presidency, Kim, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his breakthrough with the North, was confronted with the chilling fact that, during his five-year term, North Korea was hard at work developing a secret uranium enrichment program. When the cover on this program was blown by the United States in October, the likely basis for his “breakthrough” was exposed. Nevertheless, Kim, eager to preserve his legacy, pressured Washington to be “reasonable” with North Korea.
In the process, Seoul has stepped into the neutral zone and now pretends to a role of mediator between Pyongyang and Washington, declaring that both sides must make “concessions.” The cynicism of this act constitutes a serious breach of faith. Moreover, it has invited the North to try to drive a wedge deeper into the American-Korean relationship by appealing to regional and ethnic solidarity against the United States.
Of course, the South Koreans are entitled to pursue whatever policies they wish and are free to continue to prop up a ruthless regime with large-scale investments by Hyundai and other enterprises. But they must now consider that this course will alter the type of security that the United States has provided—at enormous expense to itself—for the last five decades.
Certainly, there is room for some differentiation in South Korean and American policies toward the North. After all, a conflict on the peninsula would claim many lives, and the unfortunate geostrategic location of Seoul is the main deterrent to dealing with North Korea on military terms. If Seoul were, say, 150 miles to the south and the border region were sparsely populated, the situation would be different.
There’s also an economic imperative. North Korea has one of the cheapest labor markets in the world—doing business there is key to helping the South restore its economic competitiveness.
Still, South Korea’s position is vexing, particularly because its people are divided on the issue of reunification and the huge financial burdens that would come with it. From conversations with Korean government officials, I know that Seoul took a hard look at the reunification experience of Germany and made up its mind to keep a secure border with the North. Judging from the scant practical steps its government has taken, nobody in South Korea seems to expect reunification to happen anytime soon.
The Sunshine Policy, which I once supported, had an outside chance of changing the course of North Korean policy. But it has only increased the dependence of the donor on the recipient. South Korea pumps more money into the North than does any country but China.
Fine. Then let United States support go elsewhere. Among the modifications Washington should now consider is the continued presence of 37,000 U.S. troops in harm’s way, especially now that the harm can come from two directions—North Korea and violent South Korean protesters. We must make clear to the South that while we will honor the terms of our mutual defense treaty, which means that we will respond to any aggression by the North, we will not stay where we are not wanted.
The first step should be to reduce our military presence on the peninsula by 25 percent by the end of 2004. After that, we should pull out roughly 10,000 troops a year for the following three years. If Seoul is serious about neutrality, then it can plan to assume eventual responsibility for its own frontline defense with its more than 600,000 well-armed troops. The gradual withdrawal of American troops will be neither destabilizing nor provocative, especially if combined with a reaffirmation of our security commitment to South Korea. Some will say this is a strategic blunder, sending the wrong signal in a fragile region and robbing our forces of an important training ground. But the United States will continue to have a large presence in Asia, and our troops will be able to get experience elsewhere.
China, as North Korea’s main provider, is said to hold the trump card but shows no sign of playing it any time soon to ease the situation, preferring to use North Korea as a lever against the United States. We have our own cards to play, not least in guiding Japan to a sensible policy of considering arming itself with nuclear weapons should North Korea persist.
President Bush sees no merit in rewarding Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s leader, for stopping what he pledged not to do in the first place. Bush has said he will talk but not negotiate with North Korea. Now he needs to make clear to South Korea that staying in the neutral zone will not be without cost to the bilateral relationship.