As the Bush administration prepared for war in Iraq, North Korea steadily raised the nuclear ante, restarting its mothballed reactor and threatening to produce a regular supply of plutonium. As Gulf War II wound down, Undersecretary of State John Bolton declared that North Korea should "draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq." Pyongyang then agreed to talks that included China, while Washington abandoned its precondition that the North eliminate the uranium enrichment program that touched off the crisis. The road ahead almost certainly will be filled with disappointments, frustrations, and threats, with no guarantee that an agreement will be reached.
But why is the U.S. worried about the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea? It's a distant and poor country surrounded by far more powerful states; it is an economic irrelevancy and a diplomatic nonentity. Most important, it has no effective means to attack America. North Korea should be a problem for other nations -- for China and Russia, the most important regional powers, and for Japan and South Korea, America's closest regional friends. All have more at stake in the North than we do. Indeed, the only reason Washington is entangled in the Korean peninsula is inertia: The U.S. has defended South Korea for 50 years.
The alliance with the Republic of Korea -- actually a one-sided security guarantee -- has been America's most consistently dangerous commitment since World War II. The nearly 34,000 deaths in the Korean War have been supplemented by further flare-ups, such as the North's 1968 seizure of the USS Pueblo and its 1976 murder of two U.S. soldiers cutting down a tree in the demilitarized zone. Reports of other, unpublicized incidents abound, including full-fledged firefights between American forces and North Korean soldiers entering the South. The Korea Defense Veterans of America estimate that 1,500 Americans have been killed by Northern forces since the Korean War ended.
Yet South Korea is beginning to look away. During his presidential campaign last fall, eventual victor Roh Moo-hyun suggested that his nation "mediate" in any war between America and the North and called for "concessions from both sides." He even added, "We should proudly say we will not side with North Korea or the United States." Before leaving office in February, President Kim Dae-jung attempted to chart an independent course between Washington and Pyongyang. The head of Roh's transition team, Lim Chae-jung, developed a proposal that sought "a concession" from both America and North Korea. This is an alliance?
Although North Korea's nuclear program has understandably attracted Washington's eyes, America's relationship with the South requires equal attention. The nuclear controversy grows out of the unnatural U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula, and no solution is likely until that presence is removed.
Well before the present contretemps, it was evident that the 37,000 troops in the South were a Cold War artifact that had lost its raison d'être. Washington's commitment was a result of the post�World War II division of the peninsula, the North's subsequent invasion of the South, and China's intervention on the Northern side. After the war ended, South Korea had an unpopular, authoritarian government and a primitive economy. But for Washington's promise to go to war, backed by an occupying garrison, Seoul likely would not have survived another attack.
The Cold War is now over, and Beijing and Moscow are friendlier with Seoul than with Pyongyang. China and Russia trade far more with the South, and the latter has become a significant investor in the People's Republic of China. Russia has even paid off debts by shipping weapons to South Korea. Although both nations retain ties with North Korea -- indeed, both have competed a bit for influence during the last couple of years -- they have far more at stake in the peninsula's continuing stability and the South's continuing prosperity than in the North's "victory," political or military.
Nor does Pyongyang have any other allies of note. With a trail of bad international debts and barely 1 percent of the South's foreign trade, the North is an insignificant economic player. Despite a recent charm offensive that led to official ties with a number of Asian and European nations, the renewed nuclear crisis has brought that diplomatic effort to a halt. Whatever good will North Korea's summit with Japan generated has dissipated; the U.S. will talk about nothing else until the nuclear issue is resolved.
Moreover, the South has left the North far behind economically: It has 40 times the gross domestic product (GDP), twice the population, and an overwhelming technological edge. It took a significant economic hit in the 1997 Asian economic crisis but since then has recovered its status as one of Asia's tigers. In 2000 it enjoyed a GDP of $462 billion, making it the world's 12th largest economy. It significantly outproduces not just North Korea but Russia.
The North is in no position to compete. It is an economic wreck, with an economy that South Korean analysts estimate to have shrunk by half between 1993 and 1996 alone. Its subsequent "recovery" is thought to have pushed per capita GDP to about $700, roughly 40 percent of the 1990 level. Food production is down 60 percent during the last 15 years. Much of the country lacks electricity much of the time. Life expectancy fell 10 percent during the 1990s. During the same decade hundreds of thousands of people -- perhaps as many as 2 million -- starved to death. Approximately six in 10 North Koreans are malnourished. The country has been reduced to begging for millions of tons of food aid.
Only in the military sphere does the North retain any advantage. Even there, its forces are large, but its weapons are ancient, with the newest ones dating to 1990. There is no money for spare parts, and training is nonexistent. Pyongyang's dramatic attempt to launch a satellite in 1998 failed. "The North Korean military is one that is using antiquated 1950s and 1960s vintage weapons," reports Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Bruce Bechtol, "while the South Korean military continues to strengthen itself with dynamic new programs such as the building of brand new F-16s. In addition, the South is superior in other key aspects of military readiness, such as command and control and training."
Although South Korea's ground forces are smaller, they would be fighting on the defensive -- a military advantage -- with superior air and naval support. Indeed, in the initial stage of any war, South Korea would have to rely primarily upon its own military for ground forces, irrespective of America's defense commitment. It would take the U.S. weeks to deploy heavy armored and mechanized reinforcements, depending upon events elsewhere and available lift capabilities.
Moreover, South Korea has begun a serious space program, launching a three-stage liquid-fueled rocket, produced at home, last November; it hopes to launch a satellite in two more years. Seoul also has unveiled plans for an ocean-going navy, one more obviously directed at Japan and China than North Korea.
To the extent that the South's military lags behind its antagonist's, that is a matter of choice, not necessity. Nothing prevents Seoul from building a larger force. Rather, the American tripwire discourages it from doing so. As the South acknowledges in its own defense reports, it chose to focus on economic development at the expense of military strength -- a plan it can follow securely as long as America protects it.
Unfortunately, while the South needs no help to defend itself against its shell of a neighbor, American soldiers are everywhere: arriving at Seoul's international airport, based at the 630-acre Yongsan Army Garrison in downtown Seoul, and on maneuvers around the country. Some number of fights, traffic accidents, and crimes are inevitable. Last fall, when a military court acquitted two soldiers who ran over two children, demonstrations broke out across the nation. Koreans jeered, ostracized, barred from stores, and in a few cases physically attacked their supposed protectors. One American soldier was even kidnapped by a mob after a serviceman refused to accept a leaflet attacking the U.S. over the deaths of the two girls. Some Koreans are boycotting American goods.