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U.S.-South Korea Alliance Is Unhealthy for Both Countries

Ted Galen Carpenter

During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, worries proliferated
both in the United States and its alliance partners that Donald
Trump’s election would signal the resurgence of American
“isolationism.” Trump’s statements certainly
indicated that some major changes in Washington’s alliance
policies would be forthcoming. His denunciations of the lack of burden sharing on the part of U.S.
allies in East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East often were quite
pointed. Although most of his complaints were directed against NATO
members, Japan, and other allies, they also applied to South
Korea.

Fears that a Trump administration would repudiate
America’s security alliances proved to be overblown. The new
president and his advisors quickly made statements confirming that
all of Washington’s commitments remained intact. The
president also sent Secretary of Defense James Mattis on a
“reassurance tour” to Japan and South Korea. Mattis
assured the South Koreans that the United States remained determined to protect their country, even as
the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North
Korea) continued to build its ballistic missile and nuclear-weapons
capabilities.

Nevertheless, the U.S.-South Korea alliance is in trouble
— and for reasons that go well beyond standard burden-sharing
controversies. The alliance no longer serves the best interests of
either country. Indeed, it has the perverse effect of increasing
dangers to both parties.

Washington should
reconsider whether perpetuating a Cold War-era alliance is worth
putting the United States on the front lines of crises that would
otherwise have only marginal relevance to America.

The accelerating pace of the DPRK’s nuclear and ballistic
missile programs highlights the growing risk to America that
Washington’s security commitment to South Korea entails.
North Korea’s most recent nuclear test was much larger than
previous versions. Some experts even tend to believe
Pyongyang’s claim that it was a hydrogen bombrather than an atomic bomb
— which would be a major leap in capabilities. The
DPRK’s numerous missile tests over the past year likewise
suggest growing mastery of that technology. The progress has been
so pronounced that most experts conclude that North Korea now has
the ability to strike the U.S. west coast. Following the test in
late November, some experts speculate that Kim Jong-un’s
missiles can reach targets throughout the United States.

Those developments dramatically increase the risks associated
with Washington’s defense commitment to South Korea. It was
one thing to provide such protection when North Korea had no
nuclear capability and the range of its conventional weapons,
including missiles, was decidedly limited. It is quite another
consideration when the American homeland could be vulnerable. A
particularly odd feature of the periodic crises involving North
Korea is that the United States, a nation thousands of miles away,
has primary responsibility for deterring Pyongyang and handling
those crises. In a normal international system, North
Korea’s neighbors — South Korea, Japan, China and
Russia — would take the lead in formulating countermeasures
to deal with the DPRK’s rogue behavior.

The reason the United States is on the front lines of such
crises is because of Washington’s military alliances with
Seoul and Tokyo—and especially the presence of U.S. forces on the
Korean Peninsula. Otherwise, it is unlikely that Kim’s
government would pay much attention to America.

As the risks associated with the security commitment to South
Korea soars, U.S. leaders should conduct the reassessment of the
alliance that should have taken place many years ago. South Korea
is a sophisticated, first-tier economic power that has the
capability to build whatever military forces it needs to deter
North Korea, or if deterrence failed, to inflict a decisive defeat
on the aggressor. Yet as my colleague Doug Bandow has pointed out on numerous occasions, South Korea is a flagrant
security free rider. South Korean leaders have chosen to continue
to rely heavily on the United States for their country’s
defense. Instead of “babying” South Korea by offering
unconditional security assurances, Mattis and other Trump
administration officials should have told the South Korean
government to grow up and accept responsibility for building a more
robust national defense.

South Korean taxpayers have saved tens of billions of dollars
over the decades through free-riding on the United States, and both
the government and people regard a superpower security guarantee as
a great benefit. Ironically, though, it now could prove enormously
costly to South Korea, not only in treasure, but in blood. A
U.S.-North Korean war would cause extensive devastation and loss of
life — especially to Seoul, located just 50 kilometers from
the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.

President Moon Jai-in recently insists that his government has
an “absolute right to veto” a decision by
Washington to attack North Korea. If he believes that, he is being
extremely naïve. Even other South Korean actions belie Moon’s
confident assertion. South Korean officials seem increasingly
nervous about the Trump administration’s intentions as
tensions between Washington and Pyongyang mount. Seoul is now
pressing for the U.S. to relinquish command of South Korea’s
military
during wartime.

The South Koreans have reason to be uneasy. Trump administration
officials stress repeatedly that all options are on the table
regarding North Korea. Even more ominous, they have made it clear
that that there is no possibility of accepting a nuclear-armed
North Korea and relying on deterrence.

If Washington decides to launch military strikes to eliminate
Kim’s perceived nuclear and missile threats to
America’s security, there is no indication whatsoever that
Seoul could veto that decision. Once before, the United States came
close to taking drastic action. Washington saw growing evidence in
1994 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.”

It was not just bluster. Secretary of Defense William Perry
later conceded that the administration seriously considered
conducting “surgical strikes” against North
Korea’s embryonic nuclear installations. Fortunately, former
President Jimmy Carter convinced Clinton to let him approach
Pyongyang and conduct talks to resolve the crisis peacefully. But
it was a close call. And at no time 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.

Today’s crisis is eerily similar. And it is not just
Washington’s militant rhetoric. The Trump administration
continues to deploy more and more military assets to Northeast Asia
— including stealth jets and various nuclear-capable systems. Those moves indicate
deadly serious intent.

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 actions entangle South Korea in a
catastrophic war against the wishes of its government and people.
At the same time, Washington should reconsider whether perpetuating
a Cold War-era alliance is worth putting the United States on the
front lines of crises that would otherwise have only marginal
relevance to America. The U.S.-South Korea alliance is now like a
bad marriage that no longer enhances the well-being of either
party.

Ted Galen
Carpenter
, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy
studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 10 books, the
contributing editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 700
articles on international affairs.