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Should the US retrench from South Korea? Yes



20 August 2014 09:30

Over at War on the Rocks, Christopher Lee (a former officer in the US Forces Korea [USFK]) and Tom Nichols (of the US Naval War College) have gotten into a useful debate on whether US forces should remain in Korea. This issue is not widely discussed, which is surprising given the end of the Cold War and the huge margin of advantage in South Korea's favour.

Although I have taught international relations in South Korea for six years, this idea is almost never mooted in academia or the media here, so I applaud War on the Rocks for broaching it. But I think Lee and Tom (full disclosure: Tom Nichols is a friend) have missed the strongest arguments for a pull-out. Specifically, I think Lee understates his case for withdrawal and Tom will have to work harder to justify his arguments for the US staying. Today, I want to lay out a more robust case for departure. In Part 2 I will outline the counter-argument. In brief, I think that the case for staying just barely clears the bar and that the tide is running against it.

Why could/should the US leave South Korea?

1. South Korea is free riding. It only 'needs' the US because it is doing less than it would otherwise

Free riding is controversial issue, one that has bedeviled all US alliances for decades. An entire literature within international relations is built around the curious dynamics, such as 'buck-passing' or 'reckless driving,' that characterise allies' efforts to shift burdens to other allies, or tie others unwittingly to their own national preferences.

The most acute free-riding problem in the US alliance structure is in Europe. NATO informally benchmarks 2% of GDP as a minimum for members' defence spending. Yet only four NATO states break that marker. This has systematically crippled NATO, forcing the US to take the lead on what ought to be European contingencies such as the Balkans wars, Libya, and the Ukraine. Japan is even worse, spending less than 1% of GDP on defence.

By contrast, South Korea spends 2.6% of GDP on defence. This sounds better, but unfortunately is far from enough given the massive garrison state of North Korea sitting right on top of it. There is no formal spending target (USFK places no such demand on Seoul) but the number I hear widely thrown around is that without the US, South Korea would need to spend two or three times as much as it does on defence now.

Every foreign security analyst I know in Korea thinks the ROK needs to spend a great deal more; South Korea has significantly under-invested in C4ISR, missile defence, and counter-insurgency tactics. It is woefully under-prepared to occupy North Korea. It does not draft women, despite a declining birthrate that is leading to a major shrinkage in the ground force. With a GDP 25 to 30 times that of North Korea and a population more than twice as large, South Korea has the room to make a far greater effort. Where Lee and Nichols spar over the small amount of money the US contributes to Southern defense, the real issue is getting South Korea to take its own defence far more seriously.

2. The US presence in Korea (and Japan) discourages Japan-South Korea rapprochement

I have written about this issue several times. In brief, the US alliance almost certainly inhibits much needed cooperation between Japan and Korea on regional issues, most obviously China and North Korea. Specifically, the US alliance permits 'moral hazard' in both: neither Tokyo nor Seoul suffer any consequences for ridiculous criticisms of the other because the US insures them both against the consequences. Hence Japan and particularly Korea focus far too much attention on each other, and not nearly enough on the real regional threats.

There is a great deal of agonising in the US over how to get these two allies to bury the hatchet and start working together, but no one wants to admit the obvious solution — a genuine threat of abandonment. Hawks will disagree, and there are indeed downsides to abandonment, but let's stop pretending that US regional alliances don't have costs such as this.

3. USFK's presence ideologically props up North Korea

One point that neither Lee or Nichols brought up is the obvious propaganda boon to North Korea of the US peninsular presence. This is not an uncommon omission. Most researchers on the North tend to assume that its ideology is a lot of empty talk, a smokescreen over a degenerate gangster-ocracy whose real 'ideology' is living the high life and hanging onto power by any means necessary.

While the elite's emptiness and cynicism is certainly clear, I think this is too easy. My own sense (perhaps from having visited North Korea and being bombarded relentlessly there with propaganda there) is that ideology is important. North Koreans are expected to attend ideology training 'classes' at least once a week (more often for officials and higher-ups). The official Korean Central News Agency and the three newspapers of Pyongyang exert tremendous 'intellectual' effort on ideological reinforcement. The focus of that ideology, particularly since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism, is anti-colonial nationalism, in which the US has taken the place of the Japanese invader and South Korea is the bastardised, globalised 'Yankee Colony.'

An imminent American invasion is the primary explanation the regime offers to its people for their privation and the permanent national security emergency. Take that justification away, and North Korea loses its raison d'etre. If South Korea is no longer 'occupied,' then why does North Korea need to exist at all?

4. USFK's persistence keeps China from cutting North Korea loose, which would accelerate Pyongyang's collapse

In the same way that USFK perversely acts as an ideological crutch for Pyongyang, so does it act as a reason for Beijing to endlessly prevaricate on North Korean bad behaviour and Korean unification. China is formally committed to Korean unification, but in practice this is a lie. Instead, the Chinese openly refer to North Korea as a 'buffer' between them and the robust democracies of South Korea, Japan, and the US.

I detest this logic. It suggests a breath-taking cynicism about the catastrophic human rights condition of North Korea. That China would callously instrumentalise a state that the UN recently likened to Nazi Germany is just appalling (and goes a long way to explaining why so few in Asia trust China). But that is the situation. However, were the US to retrench from South Korea, the Chinese fear of USFK on its doorstep would be alleviated. Indeed, South Korea could swap a USFK exit plus a promise of post-unification neutrality for a Chinese cut-off of aid to North Korea and pressure for unification.

Hawks in the US and South Korea might not like that, but alleviating the extraordinary suffering of the North Koreans should be the primary goal. If a USFK departure, tied to a major Chinese policy shift, could bring that about, it should be considered.

5. The US is not an empire. Where it can retrench, it should. Commitments should not last indefinitely.

This is an openly normative argument. If one embraces a full-throated version of US hegemony (militarised, globalised, interventionist) then this will not appeal. But post-Iraq, there is clear public desire to rein in American interventions, so the normative case for restraint, on liberal democratic grounds, is strong.

The costs of hegemony are not just financial. They also include the regular war-making and killing of foreigners; a sprawling, hugely intrusive national security state; domestic nativism; as well as torture, indefinite detention, rendition, and similar penal abuses. All this suggests that retrenchment would be good for American democracy and liberalism. Allies may not like that. They will complain of abandonment. But sacrificing America's liberal ideals at home to promote them abroad is strange brew. It is increasingly obvious that hegemony abroad is deleterious to American liberalism at home. Where allies can stand on their own, as South Korea very obviously can, US retrenchment would be domestically healthy.

Photo by Flickr user DVIDSHUB.

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