My Lowy Debate on whether the US should Retrench from South Korea, part 2: No

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North Korea 2012 131

This is a re-up of the second part of a couplet I wrote for the Lowy Institute on whether the US should retrench from South Korea. Part one is here; the original Lowy version of part 2 is here. And that pic is me doing what I really went to North Korea for…

My friend Dave Maxwell responded to part one by suggesting that I am not really laying out core US realist or national interests in Korea. Instead I got sidetracked going after liberal internationalists and neocons over the alliance and interventionism. Here is his reply. He says I come down on the side of retrenchment. Hmmm…

First, if you don’t know Dave’s work on Korea, you should. Go follow his blog. He’s way better on Korean security than I am. For example, his piece on a possible insurgency in post-unification north Korea is really valuable. I can’t think of anything else on that topic. Until I had read it, I must admit that I hadn’t really even thought of that scenario.

In response, I guess I would say that I am not sure what direct national interest the US has in ROK security today. I get it that South Korea is a liberal democracy facing off against the worst tyranny ever. But that’s a liberal argument, not a realist one. And I get it that North Korea is horrible, worse-than-1984 state which we should push into the dustbin of history as soon as possible. But that’s also a liberal/humanitarian argument.

I also get it that South Korea is important for the US position in Asia and dealing with/hedging/containing (or whatever it is we’re doing with) China. But that’s more a neocon argument in which US hegemony, instantiated in our global basing network, is an end itself. But if hegemony means allied free-riding (see: NATO) and getting chain-ganged into conflicts with states like North Korea or China, then realists would say hegemony should be scaled back, because it is not serving the national interest. American hegemony is only valuable if it serves the national interest; it is not an end in itself. (Daniel Larison makes this argument a lot.)

Finally, I get it too that a North Korean destruction of South Korea would be a horrible tragedy, a humanitarian nightmare, a boon to autocrats and tyrants everywhere, give new life to the worst regime on earth, and so on. But those reasons are so big and ‘metaphysical’ that they violate the realist demand that the national interest be something direct, tangible, immediate, and so on. It cannot credibly be the purpose of US foreign policy to stop tyranny or humanitarian catastrophes everywhere in the world. However morally attractive, that’s a sisyphean task that means perpetual war by the US all over the planet. This was thrust of Bush’s soaring second inaugural – which just about everyone derided immediately as an impossible flight of crusading fancy.

So, what, exactly, are the US national interests in South Korean security? North Korea is not going to invade the US. The Cold War is over, so South Korea is not a domino about to fall as communism chews its way through the Free World. South Korea doesn’t export anything that the US absolutely has to have, like oil which keeps the US tied to the Persian Gulf no matter how much we want to get out. There’s no anti-American terrorism problem out here.

And I don’t say all this to be testy or contrarian. My own gut-feeling is to keep the US in Korea – probably because I think North Korea is just about the worst place on earth. I am open to being convinced on this, and I kinda want to be. I imagine a lot of people instinctually feel the same way. But that’s not a replacement for clear, obvious need for us to be here. As I said in part one, this is the big hole in the conversation. We’re in the Middle East because of oil and terrorism. We’re in the Caribbean littoral states, because they’re our neighbors, and their problems become our problems. We’re in Japan, because China is a genuine emergent hegemonic challenger to the US. But Korea? I’m not sure. Even the reasons given in this post below are kinda vague, nothing is as crystalline as, say, helping Mexico defeat its super-violent drug cartels so that they don’t penetrate the US.

So give me your best shot. I’m open to it.

The essay follows the jump:

Christopher Lee and Tom Nichols took up the issue of a US withdrawal from South Korea at War on the Rocks in the last few weeks. This post series expands on this little discussed possibility. Yesterday, I laid out the arguments for a US withdrawal from South Korea. Today, I lay out the arguments for staying.

This topic is rarely discussed. In the United States, the foreign policy consensus for hegemony, forged between liberal internationalist on the left and interventionist neoconservatives on the right, remains strong. It has only just recently come under sustained criticism, likely due to the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan. That consensus takes the US position in Korea as a given. A US withdrawal has not seriously been mooted since the Carter administration, when it indeed would have been a large mistake.

So what are the benefits of staying:

1. US Forces Korea (USFK) insures that the US retains a strong regional ally in region the US now deems central.

If the pivot to Asia (or ‘rebalance’ or whatever we are supposed to call it) is to take-off, the US will need regional allies. Japan of course is the central US ally in the region. And others are being pushed toward the US by China’s belligerent behavior in the East and South China Seas. But India and the southeast Asian states are not so much pro-American as anti-Chinese. By contrast, Korea has been a staunch US ally since the 1950s. It has deep inter-operability now with the US military. It has never rally wavered from the US camp. It even sent soldiers to fight in the Vietnam War to demonstrate loyalty. It is not the ‘reckless driver’ that other allies, most notably Israel, have been. While it spends less than it should on defense, the RoK free-rides far less on US power than Europe or Japan. As a percent of GDP it spends around double what the average US ally does on defense.

The looming unknown question is whether South Korea will line up with the US in a Sino-US or Sino-US/Japanese war. The primary purpose of the pivot is to militarily hedge China (openly contain it if you’re Chinese). South Korea is wary of this. China is its largest export market, and both Seoul and Beijing share a disturbingly bitter loathing for Japan. Will that draw Seoul and Beijing together? Thankfully, probably not.

2. China will almost claim that the US has ‘fled’: once the US goes somewhere, it can never leave.

This is the worst possible argument for a US commitment – credibility: staying some place for no other reason than that staying sends a good ‘signal.’ But it is pretty clear now that the Sino-US relationship is “sliding from engagement to coercive diplomacy,” as David Lampton puts it. As East Asia slides toward bipolarity, a zero-sum logic will increasingly kick-in in which a US retrenchment will happily be read by China – one can always count on the Global Times – as a US capitulation. Whether the US wants to stay in Korea or not, now it can’t leave. It’s stuck.

Indeed this is one of the great unseen costs of US interventions: once in, the US can almost never leave anywhere without provoking a crisis of confidence about its credibility and commitment. In this vein, the time to withdraw from Korea was in the 1990s, at the peak of the unipolar moment, before the Chinese challenge to US power in the western Pacific, and when North Korea was wobbling. That window has probably closed.

3. South Korea standing alone might slide toward a semi-democratic national security state like Pakistan.

This cost is almost never reckoned by those advocating withdrawal from Korea. Most advocates of retrenchment from Korea, such as Cato’s Doug Bandow, assume Korea to be a stable market democracy that can carry the costs of a head-to-head competition with North Korea. This is so economically, but I am not so sure politically. For thirty years the ‘republic’ of Korea was more like a prussianized barracks-state dictatorship than a republic, with one dictator, Park Chung-hee, who genuinely seemed like the Korean version of Mussolini. (Park’s repression was the big reason President Carter wanted to withdraw from Korea as part of his human rights emphasis in US foreign policy.) So thorough-going was the mccarthyite propaganda of dictatorial Korea about the ‘reds’ to the north, that many older Koreans will tell you they actually believed that North Koreans had red skin.

Long, enervating national security competitions, like the between Pakistan and India, or North and South Korea, are corrosive to democratic and liberal institutions. South Korea’s dictators used to justify repression and illiberalism on precisely these grounds. It is a huge achievement for South Korea that it managed to create real democratic and liberal institutions under the gun of North Korea. It would have been easy for South Korea to stay a militarized faux-democracy like Egypt today, or Turkey and Indonesia earlier on. A US withdrawal that pushed up South Korean defense spending to 7% of GDP might threaten the South Korean experiment with liberalism and democracy, one of especial importance in the future as a model in Asia against the authoritarian ‘Beijing Consensus.’

4. A US withdrawal might in fact encourage the North Koreans to try again.

A common assumption, particular on the South Korean left and among more dovish commentators (me included), is that North Korea has no real interest in unification. Unification means the elimination, if not extermination, of the Kimist elite and their privileges. North Korea, we assume, knows it will lose a war. The (North) Korean People’s Army (KPA), while very large, is based on Cold War-ear technologies. And like many communist militaries, its force structure is based around a repeat of World War II: the KPA has many tanks, armored personal carriers, and infantry. It could fight and win the 1943 battle of Kursk. It is however unprepared and unequipped for the sort of modern warfare practiced by the US – C4ISR, overwhelming airpower, stand-off strikes facilitated by space power, the rapid destruction of command-and-control, and so on. As such, the KPA would lose a war with combined allied forces. It knows this; hence Pyongyang built nuclear weapons. They are the ultimate deterrent for an otherwise outdated military.

But it is precisely these ‘networked battlefield’ technologies that the South Korean military lacks. The ROKA (Republic of Korea Army) is still configured around infantry and traditional homeland defense. It lacks many of the high-tech capabilities of the US military, particularly in the air. The US would indeed ‘tank-plink’ the KPA and rapidly dissociate its units from each other and Pyongyang by destroying command-and-control. Can the ROKA do this? As the never-ending debate over the reversion of OPCON (‘operational control’) to the ROKA in wartime suggests, most are skeptical. If not, the KPA might actually hold together in the field in a conflict.

The question is very tough: if the US left South Korea, would North Korea see an opportunity for victory, to absorb a successful economy and bail-out its own decrepit system? Would they try, say, a tactical nuclear first strike to destabilize the South, and then launch a desperation blitzkrieg to try to conquer it? (That is about the only scenario I can possibly imagine in which North Korea conquers the South; I sketch that here.) It’s hard to know just how revisionist the North’s leadership really is. Would they risk a war that would isolate them from everyone, even China, and possibly pull Japan and China back into the peninsula? Hard to know…


In brief, the debate over US forces in Korea is far less clear than many think. The Cold War is over. North Korea is no threat to the United States, and if South Korea ramped up seriously, it could probably win without US assistance (huge question there). On the other hand, US forces are already there. The costs of staying are minimal, and if the pivot is to really define US grand strategy in the coming decades, then South Korea could be a valuable ally if it will tilt against China (another big if).”

Filed under: Alliances, Hegemony, Korea (North), Korea (South), United States

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University





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