Does Korea Need Us Now?

The war is long over, South Korea's economy is flourishing, democracy is on the rise…it's time to make a graceful exit.


Thirty-eight years ago this June, North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel. Within three days Seoul fell and the South Korean forces were soon almost destroyed. U.S. troops, along with small foreign contingents under the auspices of the United Nations, intervened, later followed by hundreds of thousands of "Chinese People's Volunteers" on the other side. The front eventually stabilized near the original boundary, and the combatants signed an armistice in July 1953. The war cost America 54,000 dead and at least $75 billion—5.6 percent of the aggregate GNP between 1950 and 1953.

When discussions over a permanent peace proved fruitless, the United States initiated a mutual defense treaty with the Republic of Korea. The agreement does not itself guarantee military assistance, but the presence of 40,000 American soldiers acts as a tripwire, making U.S. engagement automatic.

While his predecessor proposed withdrawing American forces from the peninsula, President Reagan has strengthened official ties to Seoul. U.S. troops, pledged Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in 1983, will remain in South Korea "as long as the people of Korea want and need that presence."

Yet is such a permanent military guarantee really in our interest? The security commitment is expensive—the United States not only maintains an infantry division in South Korea but also earmarks forces located elsewhere in the Pacific for Korea's naval and air defense. All told, the United States spends nearly $25 billion annually to defend South Korea, according to defense analyst Earl Ravenal.

Moreover, the tripwire threatens to suck the United States into another bloody conflict far from home. The Korean border, marked by a heavily fortified "demilitarized zone," remains one of the most hostile in the world: almost one-and-a-half million troops face one another across a 155-mile border, in contrast to only two million soldiers across the entire 4,600-mile Sino-Soviet border. The two Koreas are still technically at war, and small but deadly military clashes are common. Since 1953, 90 Americans and more than 1,000 South Koreans have died in border skirmishes. Tensions between North and South flared most recently over the North's bombing of a South Korean airliner.

There is also a political cost to stationing U.S. troops in South Korea. Though the country appears to be moving successfully toward democracy, the U.S. record there has not been a good one: "It's not that we don't like Americans," said one demonstrator last summer, "but for 37 years you've been supporting the wrong guy here." Only as demonstrations swept South Korea did the Reagan administration soften its support for the military-backed government of Chun Doo Hwan, pressuring it to hold elections.

Thus, despite many positive developments over the last year—particularly a relatively free election, greater press freedom, and increased civil liberties—many student activists remain committed to expunging American influence from their nation. Even many members of the middle class blame the United States for Chun's original military coup and his brutal suppression of a student insurrection in the city of Kwangju in 1980. And if the military again seizes power, the United States inevitably will be seen as collaborating with the oppressors.

Finally, there is no reason to believe a U.S. pullout would lead to a Communist conquest of the South. The disaster of 1950 occurred because the country was not prepared for war. Today the South has twice the population and five times as large an economy as the North; Seoul's military is strong and will eventually outstrip that of Pyongyang.

World War II is the backdrop of U.S. involvement in Korea. It left that nation, like Germany and Austria, divided between East and West, and efforts to unify the peninsula were opposed by South Korean strongman Syngman Rhee as well as the Soviets. So on May 10, 1948, the Republic of Korea was established, followed by the Soviet-backed Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the North. Like Rhee, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung claimed authority over the entire peninsula.

In 1949 the Truman administration withdrew its troops and, in part in reaction to Rhee's increasingly repressive rule and his threat to liberate the northern "lost territories," refused to sell the South tanks, antitank weapons, and other heavy equipment. In January 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson explicitly excluded Korea from the U.S. defense perimeter; five months later the North invaded the South.

The Korean War, a "police action" in Truman's words, was not a popular conflict in the United States, coming so soon after the end of World War II. But U.S. intervention and the succeeding defense treaty flowed naturally from America's position as the world's dominant anti-Communist power. That position also led to defense commitments to some 40 nations, maintained through a global network of 1,600 military installations, 493,000 troops aground, and another 245,000 afloat.

Several decades later, however, the public appears ready to reconsider America's global military role, particularly the commitment to Korea. While a 1986 Chicago Council on Foreign Relations poll found that 64 percent of opinion leaders would send troops to defend South Korea, only 24 percent of the public backed military intervention. Indeed, more people supported going to war to help China against the USSR and to defend Saudi Arabia from Iran than to assist Seoul.

This skepticism is fully warranted. Extensive U.S. involvement around the world may have been the only alternative when an exhausted Europe could not have prevented the Red Army from sweeping to the Pyrenees mountains, when Japan had been disarmed, and when South Korea's military was little more than a domestic constabulary. But the world has changed.

The most important contrast between then and now—which makes the likely consequences of withdrawing U.S. troops so very different today—is South Korea's development. After the war, much of that country lay in ruins. Per capita income was barely $134 a year. Today, its per capita income of $2,300 places South Korea near the top of the developing world and is three times that of the North.

South Korea's economy grew an astounding 12.5 percent in 1986 and 12.2 percent last year; the North's economy has been essentially stagnant since 1970. And while South Korea is one of the world's leading trading nations, running an annual surplus with the United States of some $7.6 billion, Pyongyang has defaulted on $800 million in foreign loans and suffers from severe economic bottlenecks and shortages. Moreover, the South's population, 43.3 million, is more than twice that of the North's 20.5 million.

True, North Korea is stronger militarily. Like most Communist nations, it has invested a disproportionate share of its resources in defense. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, its military totals 838,000, compared to 598,000 for South Korea, though the South's reserves are larger. Pyongyang also maintains a substantial numerical edge in aircraft, combat naval vessels, tanks, and other equipment.

These statistical differences, however, "are usually overstated, almost always misleading, and often meaningless," warns Stephen Goose, a congressional staffer for Rep. Robert Mrazek (D–N.Y.). For South Korea is not without its own advantages, including its mountainous terrain. In 1950, the South was so poorly prepared to fight that its topography mattered little; today, with its military capabilities well developed, South Korea's geographical characteristics significantly improve its defense.

According to a 1980 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study, the terrain "is such a dominant factor in assessing the military balance between the two Koreas that conventional measures of military strength do not fully apply." Geography would greatly constrain Pyongyang's use of armor, for instance. The CBO estimates that North Korea could only bring about half of its tanks immediately to bear in an invasion, and the South, given its extensive fortifications, could achieve as much as a three-to-one kill ratio.

Moreover, the South's weapons are generally newer, more sophisticated, and more reliable than those of the North. This factor, says Goose, is "the single most important aspect" of the military equation. South Korea's soldiers are also better trained.

In any case, the South's quantitative military deficiencies are an understandable result of the U.S. defense commitment. After all, South Korea has let U.S. forces carry much of its defense burden: the 40,000 American personnel on the peninsula and additional naval and air contingents from Japan, the Philippines, and Guam would enter any conflict almost immediately, followed by large numbers of ground troops from the continental United States and possibly Europe. Moreover, some South Korean analysts, like Sang Woo Rhee, director of the East Asian Studies Center at Sogang University, contend that the United States has for political reasons consistently blocked South Korean attempts to acquire more-advanced weapons.

Indeed, recent events clearly show that South Korea is not locked into a position of inferiority. Its military spending grew sharply following limited troop withdrawals from the peninsula initiated by President Richard Nixon. The South has outspent the North militarily since the mid-1970s, with outlays climbing from $558 million in 1974 to $3.5 billion in 1984. And over the last decade Seoul has devoted twice as many resources as Pyongyang to procurement: South Korea, which could not even produce rifles little more than a decade ago, is now manufacturing F-5 aircraft, howitzers, AIM-9 missiles, and rocket launchers.

In fact, last year Seoul's defense minister, Lee Ki Baek, told a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that his country expects to achieve military balance with the North within two to three years. Equally optimistic is Eulkwon Kim of the Ilhae Institute. "There's a maxim in military strategy that if you have only 70 percent of the enemy's objective capability, you can defend against him," Kim says, "and within the next two years, South Korea will have reached that level."

Moreover, it will be almost impossible for North Korea to maintain its military edge in the years ahead. A 1985 Rand Corporation study estimates that the North would have to devote 36 to 42 percent of its GNP—more than twice the current share—to the military to simply match an expenditure of 6 to 7 percent of Seoul's GNP. In addition, the South's advantages will increase as its economy expands at an annual rate several times that of Pyongyang. Concluded the Rand study: "South Korea's economic, technological, and military capabilities can be expected to grow substantially relative to those of North Korea during the next decade. The resulting balance should increasingly and predominantly favor the South." In short, there is no reason South Korea could not defend itself, given time to remedy its current military weaknesses and assuming no direct intervention by either the USSR or China.

And their involvement in any conflict is highly unlikely. The Soviets did provide Pyongyang with weapons and appear to have done nothing to discourage North Korea's aggression in 1950. China, while not involved in the initial attack, essentially took over the North Korean war effort when the allied army neared the Yalu River. The attitudes of both the Soviet Union and China have changed dramatically since then, however.

China now places a high priority on the peninsula's stability, in keeping with its own extensive reform program. Beijing has indicated that it would not support a North Korean invasion; in 1983 China began pressing Pyongyang to take a more flexible position in reunification talks. Moreover, China and South Korea have initiated a variety of cultural, sports, and academic exchanges. Trade between the two nations runs some $1.5 billion annually—more than between Beijing and the North—and the governments have successfully defused several potentially serious confrontations involving Chinese defectors. Last year South Korea's assistant foreign minister, Park Soo Gil, said that "it isn't a matter of if we're going to have closer relations with China, but when."

In contrast, the Soviet Union has done little to improve its relations with South Korea, which were frozen after the 1983 shoot-down of the KAL 007 flight. Nevertheless, while the USSR has been strengthening its relationship with North Korea and supplying Pyongyang with advanced weaponry, U.S. aid to Seoul has been three times that of combined Soviet and Chinese assistance to the North. More important, there is no evidence that the Soviets would like Pyongyang to start a war over which they would have no control. Indeed, though the USSR publicly supports the North's claim to be the peninsula's sole legitimate government, it has privately encouraged Kim Il Sung to follow the two-Germany model.

Even if the Soviets wanted to directly support a North Korean invasion, it would be difficult for them to do so. According to the Congressional Budget Office, "the territory is so constraining" near the 10-mile Soviet/North Korea border "that the operation would have to be considered very risky." Given the short border, the irregular terrain, and the presence of only two potential supply routes, added the CBO, "a Soviet invasion would require the acquiescence of China for both the initial troop movement and subsequent supply convoys—an unlikely prospect." Such geographic and political realities undoubtedly have contributed to a climate in which, says one U.S. diplomat in Seoul, "none of us"—China, the United States, or the Soviet Union—"wants war on the Korean Peninsula."

Moreover, a militarily revitalized Japan could provide a major counterweight to Chinese and Soviet influence on Korean affairs. Tokyo has an interest in preserving Korea's stability, since part of the Korean Peninsula is only 35 miles from the Japanese islands. In fact, over the years the Japanese government has provided South Korea's government with substantial amounts of economic aid, including $4 billion in loans in 1983 alone.

In the future Japan could help redress any military imbalance created by an American pullout. Japan's military outlays last year, roughly $32 billion, placed it third in the world, according to Katsuro Sakoh, president of the Institute for Pacific Studies. And Japan's armed forces—470 combat aircraft, 52 destroyers and frigates, 3,700 tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery pieces—may lag behind those of the leading military antagonists, but they are not insignificant. Moreover, Japan has typically spent less than 1 percent of its GNP on defense; only last year did the government break what had been an informal postwar limit. Japan is capable of doing far more and would have a powerful incentive to do so if the United States brought its troops home.

Even with the changed circumstances between 1950 and 1988, dare the United States risk reducing its military role in East Asia? Yes, for the integrity of the South Korean government is simply not critical to this nation's security. Former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke claims that the loss of Korea "would be the end of our position in the entire Pacific," but government officials are far too promiscuous in declaring foreign countries to be vital. While a friendly government in Seoul is obviously helpful, this country's defense posture would not be materially worsened without the Asian outpost.

Indeed, American intervention in 1950 resulted more from outrage over what was seen as a Communist attempt to swallow a helpless friend than concern about U.S. security. Not only had the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared the Korean Peninsula to be strategically unimportant, but before the North's invasion even Gen. Douglas MacArthur said that it was not necessary for the United States to defend Seoul.

The peninsula is, of course, the center of great power rivalries, but the United States will never be able to match the pressure that both China and the Soviet Union could place on what is for them nearby territory. The sea lanes adjoining South Korea are vital for the USSR and China, not for us. (More important to the United States, in Sakoh's view, is the Soya Strait, which lies between Japan's Hokkaido Island and the Soviet's Sakhalin Island; control of the Korean peninsula does not help protect this channel.)

Communist control of the South might extend the reach of the Soviet Far Eastern Fleet, but China would be more threatened by that development than would the United States. And in any case, North Korea has jealously guarded its independence, permitting no foreign bases.

Japan would certainly feel less secure if Pyongyang controlled the entire peninsula, but even in the late 1940s neither the Joint Chiefs nor General MacArthur believed that preservation of South Korea was necessary for Japan's defense. That country is already within range of Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean forces and could meet any increased danger after a U.S. withdrawal through greater defense expenditures of its own. After all, no one in Asia doubts the military prowess of the Japanese.

We do have other interests in Korea—economic and cultural, as well as the desire to help prevent a semi-free country from being swept into a Stalinist dark age—but they hardly warrant an American promise to go to war. This nation should reserve military intervention for instances where its own survival is genuinely threatened.

In the light of all these considerations, the United States should announce its intention to cancel the mutual defense treaty at the end of, say, five years. The infantry division would be removed within two years; the air force units located in Korea would be brought out at the end of the five-year period. The troops would be demobilized, since dropping a military commitment should result in a concomitant reduction in forces.

During the transition the United States should sell to South Korea any nonnuclear military equipment that is desired, including the heavy weapons used by departing U.S. troops. Doing so would avoid repeating the original blunder of refusing to help equip the South Korean military before withdrawing our troops in 1949. South Korea has both the money to purchase new weapons and the people to man them. Moreover, the United States would benefit economically as Seoul used some of its $7.6-billion trade surplus to buy the equipment necessary to make it militarily independent.

The United States should also encourage South Korea and Japan to enter into a bilateral security arrangement. In any case, however, at the end of the transition period South Korea would have graduated from the U.S. military safety net, and its defense would be its own responsibility.

For 35 years the United States has sought to deter a repeat North Korean invasion. It's now time to turn that responsibility over to the South Koreans. A withdrawal would still allow the United States to maintain a significant presence in the Pacific, if desired. But dropping this commitment, and thus the potential for unnecessary military involvement, would increase our own security.

Moreover, it would improve our political relations with Seoul, since our reputation would no longer be held hostage to the vagaries of South Korea's volatile domestic politics. In the short run, a pullout might leave the U.S. government less able to influence any given Korean policy. In the long run, however, U.S.-Korean relations would likely be more stable and productive.

Of course, disengagement would not be risk-free: North Korea's Kim Il Sung might decide to march south, U.S. influence abroad might suffer, and the USSR might become more aggressive. All of these are possible, though not likely. But no foreign policy is without costs. American citizens now pay a very high price to ensure the safety of a nation that is now capable of defending itself. Chancing a few unlikely foreign "losses" would be a small price to pay for the very real benefit of strengthening our own economy, enhancing peoples' freedom, and reducing the likelihood of war.

Contributing Editor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He formerly served as a special assistant to President Reagan.