My Lowy Debate on whether US should Retrench from South Korea, part 1: Yes

North Korea 2012 113

This is a re-up of a debate couplet on the US position in South Korea, which I wrote for the Lowy Institute. Part one, the reasons for US retrenchment, is here (and below); part 2, the arguments against a US departure, is here. And that pic is me and my North Korean minder at the North Korea side of the DMZ. Note the KWP pin above his breast pocket.

Whether the US should stay or go is a perennial issue, that surprisingly, doesn’t get discussed much. This is probably because if you really supported a US withdrawal, you would not be taken seriously in much of US or Korean foreign policy establishments. US foreign policy is dominated by a hawkish, interventionist consensus of neocons and liberal internationalists for whom the US positions in Japan and Korea have become ends in themselves as symbols of US hegemony (in neocon-speak, that’s read as: ‘global basing means we’re f****** awesome!’). In tandem, the Korean discussion, for all its lazy anti-Americanism, assumes a permanent American presence to the point of irresponsibility. But all this misses the real hole at the center – the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the North Korean conventional threat (and before you say, ‘heh wait, they could blow up Seoul,’ recall that South Korea easily has the resources to ramp up in a big way; it just doesn’t do it).

The essay starts after the jump:


“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 – surprisingly, given the end of the Cold War and the huge margin of advantage in South Korea’s favor. 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 and I are friends) have missed the strongest arguments for a pull-out. Specifically, I think Lee understates his case and Tom will have to work harder to justify staying – although I think it can be done. Today, I want to lay out a more robust case for departure; tomorrow I will lay out the counterargument. 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 many decades. An entire literature within international relations is built around the curious dynamics, such as ‘buck-passing’ or ‘reckless driving,’ that characterize 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’ defense spending. Yet only four NATO states break that marker. This has systematically crippled NATO, forcing the US to take the lead on should-be-European contingencies such as the Balkans wars, Libya, and the Ukraine. Japan is even worse at less than one percent of GDP.

By contrast, South Korea spends 2.6% of GDP on defense. This sounds better, but unfortunately is far from enough given its security environment – 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 spend two or three times as much as it does on defense 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 defense, and counter-insurgency tactics. It is woefully under-prepared to occupy North Korea. It does not draft women, despite a declining birth-rate that is leading to a major shrinkage in the ground force. With a GDP twenty-five to thirty 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 defense far more seriously.

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

I have written about this issue several times (here and here). 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 Korea especially, focus far too much attention on each other, and not nearly enough on the real regional threats. There is a great deal of agonizing 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, either.

3. USFK’s presence ideologically props up North Korea.

One point that neither Lee nor Tom brought up is the obvious propaganda boon to North Korea of the US peninsular presence. Overlooking this is not uncommon. Most researchers on the North tend to assume that its ideology is a lot of empty talk, bunk to fill the airwaves, demonize Seoul, and so on. It is just 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 been bombarded relentlessly there with ideology – is that ideology is actually very important. North Koreans are expected to attend ideology training ‘classes’ at least once a week, and more often for officials and higher-ups. The (North) 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 United States has taken the place of the Japanese invader, and South Korea is the bastardized, globalized ‘Yankee Colony.’ An imminent American invasion symbolized by USFK is the primacy explanation of the regime to its people for their privation and the permanent national security emergency. Take that justification away, and North Korea loses its primary 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 behavior and 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 United States. Personally, I detest this logic; it suggests a breath-taking cynicism about the catastrophic human rights condition of North Korea. That China would callously instrumentalize a state that the UN recently likened to Nazi Germany is just appalling (and goes a long way to explaining way 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 our primary goal here. If a USFK departure, tied to a major Chinese policy shift, could bring that about, it should be considered.

5. 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 – militarized, globalized, interventionist – then this will not appeal. But post-Iraq, there is clear public desire to rein in American interventions, and the normative case for restraint, on liberal democratic grounds, is strong. The costs of hegemony – not just financial, but the regular war-making and killing of foreigners; a sprawling, hugely intrusive national security state; domestic nativism; torture, indefinite detention, rendition, and similar penal abuses – suggest 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.”

3 thoughts on “My Lowy Debate on whether US should Retrench from South Korea, part 1: Yes

  1. Can’t agree enough; particularly point 4 on China. Given its new found confidence and the fact it is still run by the same CCP, Beijing absolutely will not allow itself to have been on the losing side of the (still ongoing) Korean War for which it historically sacrificed a lot. Unless it rebrands itself, the fate of the CCP will remain partially tied to NK.


  2. I keep forgetting to find time to put in a comment on this:

    I think that the biggest problem with this pair of essays is that it is using the wrong approach. Countries do not make decisions on such matters by counting up the pros and cons. Rather, limiting ourselves to rational approaches, they would try to “wargame” the range of probable outcomes and consider how much the gains and losses are worth. Using your points in such an approach might reveal why “if you really supported a US withdrawal, you would not be taken seriously in much of US or Korean foreign policy establishments”.

    For example, Point A1 would be converted to: “By abandoning ‘free-riding’ South Korea, if a war or crisis that America regrets does not break out, the US can save a relatively small amount of defense budget.” That’s a plus especially in these days of “sequestration”, but it is not very large.

    Point A2 might be “Speaking *extremely* optimistically, one possible outcome would be to force Korea and Japan into better relations.” But how much is this really worth to the United States even if this *is* the scenario that comes to pass (let’s face it, America’s lack of action on this front says she finds the current state of affairs rather acceptable). Further, what cost would this arm-twisting incur in terms of Korean-*American* relations? What about other scenarios (such as the United States not being able to sway Japan and Korea’s actions because one of its big levers – providing defence – is gone)?

    Point A3 and A4 can be converted to “North Korea is more likely to collapse and reunification is more likely.” Again, even if we buy this is true, how much is *that* worth to the United States? Does South Korea even really want to swallow that “glut of backwardness” that’s the DPRK in one gulp? The United States is getting away with sending a relatively limited amount of aid to NK (enemy) at the moment. Would this still be true if those people are part of Korea? Even with the advantage of absorbing some population, does the current South Korea really want to have its new borderline touch China’s directly? Is Korean security enhanced by having the 39th and 40th Group Armies as their next door neighbor? Is this a net positive to either the United States or (the current South) Korea?

    Point A5 is … on this front, perhaps the best argument. But the benefits are though potentially large intangible and are unfortunately one s that the State is not very willing to consider, since it might have to think of itself as Bad.

    To go to your Essay 2:

    Point B1 would be “We will lose one of our more loyal allies.” That is frankly no small matter. Further, we might extend this discussion to consider that this “more loyal” ally might choose to go to the Chinese camp. Korea might not *currently* want to go to the Chinese camp. However, should she be faced with the stark choice of becoming a Chinese vassal or spending up to 7.8% of GNP on national defence … as a democracy she would have little choice because democracies find it extremely hard to raise defence budgets without the most imminent threats to their destruction, and the pressure to appease rather than be forced to divert funds to defense is very strong.

    Point B2 concerns an intangible. And it doesn’t really stop there. Once the United States loses credibility, the hidden costs can be surprisingly widespread. To get back to your point A1, a lot of countries “free-ride” on America’s massive defence budget. But America gets a lot of deference out of it. Allies suffer a lot of US pressures (such as sending troops to Iraq so America can pretend its war is well supported internationally) and insults (such as the NSA!) because they believe the States would defend them. When America loses that credibility, would the Allies be that deferent? Would Abe even bother to give a thought to not visiting Yasukuni on America’s advice, or join a TPP that would involve kicking a lot of rice farmers (read: voting base) in the teeth?

    Further, loss of American credibility may lead to less “free-riding” … in other words, more independent defence. However, is that really good for the world’s economy? More independent defence means more funds and national productivity diverted towards arms. Since with the end of the Soviet Union it is agreed that arms are a non-productive industry that is a net drag on the nation’s economy, what we are talking about is the world’s economy getting less bountiful. Is that good for the United States?

    Point B3 is another intangible. To be honest, it doesn’t matter that much to the United States – the US worked and works with a large number of unsavory regimes as long as they are “anti-(the right people)” – the new Ukrainian regime is a prime example of this in action… if anything, the US may prefer this outcome to the other one that a “stable market democracy” may be forced to take. That is, again, becoming a Chinese vassal rather than spending 7.8% of GNP on defense.

    Point B4 would really be a loss for the US and SK, and you are ignoring other possibilities such as Chinese military pressure now that the Koreans are alone.

    In short, the potential advantages to the US are relatively small compared to the potential losses. Arguments to retrench the United States from Korea will have to consider how to mitigate these losses and risks *before* it becomes even competitive.


  3. Pingback: My Lowy Debate on whether the US should Retrench from South Korea, part 2: No | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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