Washington has defense pact obligations as well as a deep moral responsibility to see that Seoul is ready for its own defense against Pyongyang before abrogating its duties.
A number of Korea observers are now raising the subject of why North Korea is the problem of the U.S. On the surface, it seems to be an excellent question, since there is a great physical distance between the two countries and the current U.S. administration favors a “What’s in it for America?” stance.
Non-interventionism, another name for the Jeffersonian school of foreign policy, is generally an admirable stance, one that prevents the U.S. from getting embroiled in affairs that (1) are arguably none of its business, or (2) tend to be wicked problems with few, if any, good solutions. There are, however, clear exceptions to this, and this essay will argue that Korea is one such exclusion.
In support of arguments that North Korea is not Washington’s problem, North Korea and its sympathizers often claim that the U.S. has been threatening the North for years, as if to say it is America that is responsible for Pyongyang making raids on the South Korean presidential residence or promising to turn selected American cities into seas of flames. The logic seems to be that if Washington would only remove its roughly 29,000 troops and associated war materiel from the peninsula, everything would be just fine.
However, just to be clear, it was only after the U.S. withdrew its forces from South Korea in 1949 that Pyongyang attacked, initiating war with the South in 1950. All of this, however, is a bit irrelevant to the question of why the defense of South Korea is a problem of the U.S.
The position of this essay regarding U.S. – South Korean relations is that the United States has an obligation, a duty that comes about for two very distinct reasons, each one of which is sufficient in and of itself to mandate that Washington cares about what happens on the Korean Peninsula.
The Origin of the Problem
In the run up to World War II, American interests in Asia did not include the Korean Peninsula, an omission that came about due to a failure to understand the history of Northeast Asia. The Korean Peninsula, that finger of land jutting down from Manchuria between the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, was seen by Japan as early as the 1590s as a stepping-off point for invading mainland Asia. Likely out of a sense of psychological projection, Japan also saw the peninsula as a launching point aimed at itself. Despite this, the U.S. remained unaware of – or at least unconcerned about – the geopolitical significance of Korea.
As the conclusion to World War II approached, the Allies were caught totally off guard. The new atomic bomb actually worked. But while the Allies knew that the Soviets were obligated to enter the Asian theater within three months following the defeat of Germany in the European theater, suspicions in the West about Soviet intentions were already building.
Knowledge of Russian history would have revealed that Moscow coveted a warm-water port in Northeast Asia and that Korea was the perfect spot. Adequate intelligence would also have alerted the West to the fact that the Soviets carried a grudge against the Japanese for having been defeated by them in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.
Consequently, there should have been little doubt that the Soviets would be quite happy to invest a bit of blood and treasure in contributing to the defeat of a still defiant Imperial Japan in order to collect a share of the spoils of war. Moscow entered the war against Tokyo on the very day that a second atomic bomb was used on Japan, and Tokyo capitulated six days later. The subsequent offer by the Americans of half the Korean Peninsula to the Soviets was a rather cavalier gift, paid for at the great expense of the Korean people.
Had the West been doing due diligence, despite the end of the conflict in the Pacific Theater coming to an end with unexpected speed, we could have – should have – had plans for that end-game. And we certainly ought to have had better intelligence on Soviet progress in Far East Asia, for their advances were not so great that the U.S. couldn’t have easily taken control of most of the peninsula.
A common response to a previous article of mine on this subject is that this is nothing more than Monday morning quarterbacking, a case of 20-20 hindsight. Well, of course it is – and that is precisely the point. The purpose of parsing significant historical events is to learn lessons. We should have known. That failure to know has affected nearly all Koreans in the South to some degree and it continues to affect all Koreans in the North in far worse ways.
Recall the sign often displayed in shops that sell delicate goods: “You break it, you own it.” Well, an ignorance of Northeast Asia history plus a failure to look far enough ahead coupled with a lack of good military intelligence led to a callous decision to partition the Korean Peninsula at the 38th parallel. The U.S. broke the country into two pieces. America owns the problem because it was the one that created it.
Stop the World, I Want to Get Off
The second reason Washington is tied to Seoul concerns defense agreements. Regrettably, it seems to be quite acceptable these days to unilaterally withdraw from covenants that are deemed to be inconvenient. While doing so may facilitate easier paths to short-term objectives, rarely in the long run do such abrogations of responsibilities result in optimum end-states.
If the U.S. arbitrarily abandons its legal obligation to defend South Korea, how will that play in the eyes of the rest of its allies? Already, many are questioning the integrity – and hence, the reliability – of Washington as a transactional American president insists on making America great again, irrespective of the cost to others.
A non-interventionist might shrug that off, saying that does it not matter when America comes first. Unfortunately, there are times when ignoring a problem does not work, particularly so in today’s interconnected world. We are all parts of a greater whole, cogs – some larger, some smaller – in a vast Hamiltonian system. Believing that a nation can avoid international troubles by disengaging is an artifact of child-like innocence – some would say ignorance – that, as history shows, will likely cost even more blood and treasure at some point in the future.
Jeffersonian Ideals, Jacksonian Principles
It is good to have Jeffersonians who want to avoid war at all costs, if only to counter Wilsonians who want the U.S. to ride to the rescue of all the downtrodden and subjugated peoples of the world. And going to war for purely commercial interests as Hamiltonians would justify is mercantilism at its crassest. Having said that, this then becomes one of those moments when Jacksonians ought to hold sway in demanding that we honor our word and live up to our obligations. Washington must accept the duties it has incurred through the signing of defense pacts, in addition to mitigating as much as possible the mistakes it made at the end of World War II.
Nonetheless, in continuing to look at the current state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula through Jacksonian eyes, one simultaneously recognizes that there is also a bedrock belief in self-reliance, the willingness to take care of one’s own needs. This is a potentially sensitive concept that has not been brought up with regard to South Korea – until now. Given the election of a new South Korean president who wishes to take a different tack with regard to North Korea and who has stated that it is time Seoul takes responsibility for its own fate, perhaps it is indeed appropriate to consider relinquishing responsibility of South Korea’s defense to Seoul.
In light of Seoul’s economic strength and its numerically smaller but technologically superior military might, it may be appropriate for Washington to negotiate a new relationship with the new administration in South Korea. That could include the eventual withdrawal of most U.S. forces with reliance only upon the American nuclear umbrella as a defense against North Korea.
If the new South Korean administration has indeed learned to say “no” to Washington, then perhaps that ersatz shrimp among whales is more grown-up than anyone has perceived. Even so, agreeing to have Seoul continue relying on that American nuclear umbrella – which would of necessity include Japan – is a better alternative than the sure to follow rush for nuclear weapons by others in Northeast Asia.
Is it irony or kismet that there is a Confucian analog of Jacksonian self-sufficiency? Regardless, it probably is time for Washington to allow its peninsular protégé to assume responsibility for its own destiny, just as Seoul has articulated. However, the United States cannot arbitrarily and unilaterally decide to abrogate its defense obligations with South Korea. This must be decided in full cooperation with the South Korean administration. It is the only honorable way.
A New Deal
However, with Pyongyang having undeniably demonstrated that it possesses ICBM capabilities by its latest missile launch, that no longer unbridgeable distance between North Korea and the U.S. becomes an issue – or does it? The question is whether that truly changes anything. The answer is that, despite all the hand-wringing by doomsayers, it changes very little.
Nearly everyone knew that the North was going to develop the capability of reaching American soil eventually – though some apparently thought it would be much later than it happened. But whether or not Kim Jong Un can reach out and touch the U.S. does not affect the nascent need to redefine the relationship between Seoul and Washington.
South Korean President Moon’s desire for independence from American interference in dealing with Pyongyang remains steadfast, and he intends to follow his own instincts. What is more, U.S. President Trump’s inclination to leave the hard work regarding North Korea to others has not changed, for he has no meaningful policy of his own. Therefore, quite unavoidably, a new South Korea – U.S. relationship is required.
Image: General Joseph P. Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, met August 14, 2017, with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea to discuss North Korea’s missile-test provocations. Photo credit: Bae Jae-Man/Yonhap, via Associated Press.