The United States has defended South Korea for 50 years. The alliance with the Republic of Korea (ROK)--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 more recent, occasional acts of war by North Korea: The Korea Defense Veterans of America organization estimates 1,500 American dead over the years. (1)
Yet South Korea is beginning to look away. Newly elected President Roh Moo-hyun suggested that his nation "mediate" in any war between America and the North and called for "concessions from both sides." (2) Indeed, he advocated: "We should proudly say we will not side with North Korea or the United States." (3) Whatever value the US-ROK alliance once appeared to have is fast disappearing.
Although recent attention understandably has focused on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, an equally important issue is the future of America s relations with South Korea. Indeed, the nuclear controversy grows out of Washington's unnatural military presence on the Korean peninsula, and no solution is likely until that unnatural presence is removed. Well before the present contretemps it was evident that the presence of 37,000 American troops in the South was a Cold War artifact that had lost its raison d'etre.
Washington's commitment to the ROK resulted from the post-World War II division of the peninsula and subsequent Chinese and Soviet support for North Korean aggression. Today the Cold War is over, and China and Russia are friendlier with Seoul than with Pyongyang. Moreover, the South has raced ahead of the North economically, enjoying 40 times the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), twice the population, and a vast technological edge. In 2000 South Korea had a GDP of $462 billion, making it the world's 12th largest economy. In contrast, North Korea is an economic wreck, whose economy is estimated to have shrunk in half between 1993 and 1996 alone.
Only in the military sphere does the North retain an advantage. Its military is large, but decrepit. Reports Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Bruce Bechtol: "The North Korean military is one that is using antiquated 1950s and 1960s vintage weapons 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." (4) To the extent that the ROK's military lags behind that of its northern antagonist, it is a matter of choice, not necessity. As the South acknowledges in its own defense reports, it chose to focus on economic development at the expense of military strength, which it could do secure in America's protection. (5)
Although no US forces are needed to guard against the bankrupt North, they are ubiquitous. Thus occur incidents from traffic deaths to violent altercations. After the recent acquittal in military court of two soldiers charged in the accidental deaths of two children, demonstrations erupted. Americans have been barred from restaurants, jeered, and in a few cases physically attacked.
Placing even greater pressure on this unequal arrangement is the disagreement about US and South Korean policy toward North Korea. A misstep regarding Pyongyang would be bothersome for the United States; it would be disastrous for South Korea. Says President Roh: War "is such a catastrophic result that I cannot even imagine. We have to handle the North-South relations in such a way that we do not have to face such a situation," (6)
Yet, relates former President Bill Clinton, he prepared military options for use against the North a decade ago, with nary a nod to the South Koreans (or Japanese). (7) President Bush has explicitly refused to rule out any option, and some hawks are unconcerned about Seoul's views. …