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The Cost of Free-Riding

Ted Galen Carpenter

As Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Seoul this week, he
called the U.S. commitment to South Korea “iron-clad and
immutable.” That might sound good to South Koreans, but their
dependence on the American military is something they may come to
regret.

South Korea has long been a notorious
free-rider
on U.S. security efforts. Although the country has
an economy by most estimates 40 times larger than North Korea’s,
Seoul persists in underinvesting in its own security. Despite
Pyongyang’s repeated menacing behavior over the years, South Korea
still spends an anemic 2.5 percent of its GDP on defense. While the
South Korean military has some significant capabilities, it remains
heavily dependent on the United States in crucial areas, especially
air and naval power.

Such free-riding has saved South Korean taxpayers a great deal
of money, and a succession of governments have resisted U.S. calls
to adopt a more robust military effort. Instead, Korean officials
have made economic development and other domestic programs a higher
priority. One South Korean security expert candidly conveyed the
thinking of his country’s political and policy elites at a security
conference in Seoul when he rejected an American participant’s call
for South Korea to take more responsibility for its defense. “We
have domestic needs,” the South Korean
responded
.

Beyond the obvious financial benefits in having another country
subsidize Korea’s defense, it is diplomatically and psychologically
reassuring to have a superpower as a protector. But there is also a
major downside to such dependence. The principal drawback is that
crucial decisions about national security are not in the hands of
the protectorate’s political leadership. In the case of the
U.S.-South Korean alliance, Washington has always dominated the
decision-making process. That should be especially worrisome to
Korean leaders and the public when, as in the current environment,
a military crisis surfaces.

Why South Korea may come
to regret its dependence on the U.S.

The underlying danger of dependence should have become evident
decades ago. The most telling case occurred in 1994 when Washington
saw growing evidence that Pyongyang was processing plutonium for a
nuclear-weapons program. Bill Clinton’s administration reacted in a
thoroughly militant manner. In his
memoirs
, Clinton stated that “I was determined to prevent North
Korea from developing a nuclear arsenal, even at the risk of war.”
He had Secretary of Defense William Perry convey that message in
the strongest terms to various audiences on multiple occasions,
“even saying we would not rule out a preemptive military
strike.”

It was not just bluster. Perry later conceded that the
administration seriously considered conducting “surgical
strikes
” against North Korea’s embryonic nuclear installations.
Fortunately, former President Jimmy Carter enticed Clinton to let
him approach Pyongyang and conduct talks to resolve the crisis
peacefully. But it was a close call. And at no time during the
episode did Clinton or his advisers even hint that South Korea’s
wishes would have a major influence on Washington’s decision about
launching air strikes. Seoul certainly would not have had a veto
over U.S. policy.

The same problem arising from South Korea’s security dependence
exists with the current crisis. The Trump administration has

stressed
on several occasions that
all options
, including military force, are on the table.
Washington has escalated tensions by sending an aircraft carrier
strike group
to waters
off the Korean Peninsula. Once again, there is no
indication that even vociferous South Korean objections would
dissuade the administration from launching attacks on North Korea,
if it decided to do so.

Yet if North Korea retaliates for a U.S. attack, South Korea
would be the primary victim. Pyongyang has no capability to strike
the American homeland, but Seoul, South Korea’s largest city and
its economic heart, is located barely 30 miles south of the
Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, and it is highly
vulnerable to a North Korean artillery barrage. Civilian fatalities
would number in the thousands or tens of thousands.

Every sensible person hopes that the current crisis will be
resolved peacefully, but even if it is, South Koreans ought to
reconsider whether their alliance with the United States is such a
bargain after all. The financial savings and other benefits from
free-riding won’t mean much if Washington’s rash actions entangle
South Korea in a catastrophic war. Free-riding is not necessarily
free. It may come at a horrific price in both treasure and
blood.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author or coauthor of 10 books on international affairs, including The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.