Time to back off and let South Korea defend herself

By Bonnie Kristian

“Suppose you have a dangerous neighbor with a gun,” said a prominent South Korean legislator, Chung Mong-joon, in 2013. “You have to take measures to protect yourself. And being a gun control advocate isn’t going to help you.”

Chung was arguing in favor of Seoul getting the bomb, an option South Koreans increasingly support as a means of deterrence for their dangerous neighbor to the north. That’s an unlikely development for the near future, but one America should not take lightly. Still, Koreans’ broader interest in self-defense should be noted—and encouraged—by the United States.

After more than half a century of substantial U.S. military presence in South Korea, that relationship is overdue for a rethink. American hand-holding has ceased to be necessary to keep South Korea safe, and it remains an expensive over-extension of our military, which hinders U.S. defense.

Seoul now capitals a wealthy, technologically advanced nation that boasts a substantially more powerful and modern army than Pyongyang. North Korea has more soldiers, true, but they are miserably underfed and stunted by malnourishment; numbers here do not equate to strength. “Pyongyang’s troops lack fuel, spare parts, even food and clothing,” while the “South Korean military is one of the most advanced in the world.”

Prudently, South Korea has deployed and is expanding a U.S. missile defense system, and that technology will provide the southern half of the peninsula protection that U.S. bodies cannot. As Maj. Christopher Lee, a Foreign Area Officer for the Northeast Asia region, has argued, “An enduring and capable U.S. military presence on the peninsula cannot stop a sporadic nuclear launch by North Korea.” Moreover, relieved of the longstanding threat of American presence in the DMZ, it conceivable that North Korea’s madman dictator, Kim Jong-un, would find himself able to walk back his saber-rattling without losing face among his subjects, even if his tone remains ridiculously defiant.

While South Korea’s capacity for defense has grown, some adjustment to the mutual defense treaty has already been made. The United States returned peacetime operational control (OPCON) to South Korea in 1994, a move that was supposed to be followed by a similar transfer of wartime OPCON, which would pave the way for responsible withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula.

During the George W. Bush administration, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld emerged as an advocate of moving those troops out of the demilitarized zone. South Korea “has all the capability in the world of providing the kind of upfront deterrent that’s needed,” Rumsfeld said, and a strong South Korea is likewise a key check to a rising China today. In Rumsfeld’s plan, some American forces would move to a more flexible “air hub” or “sea hub,” while others would just come home.

Rumsfeld’s reasoning was that there was no need to put Americans so directly in harm’s way on behalf of a country that is perfectly capable of taking care of itself. Plus, he added, greater autonomy was what South Koreans themselves preferred (and still prefer today). “We still have a lot of forces in Korea arranged very far forward where it’s intrusive in [South Korean] lives,” Rumsfeld explained, and keeping those troops in Korea means “they really aren't very flexible or useable for other things” like defending the United States herself. That matters even more today with a widely reported readiness crisis within our military. “The taxpayers of the United States can't have one military for the United States and another that's only useable when country A, B, C or D allows,” he said.

2009 was Rumsfeld’s suggestion for giving wartime troop control back to South Korea. In 2007, that timeline was bumped to 2012, and then delayed again until December of 2015. Now, it’s not expected until the mid-2020s.

That foot-dragging is a mistake. “It is time for the U.S. to end its status quo policy and force the handover,” as Lee contends. “U.S. conventional forces no longer hold the same tactical value as they did during the Cold War, and America’s fragile economy cannot continue to withstand the financial drain.” Indeed, it is time to back off and let South Korea defend herself.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

This piece was originally published by Rare on August 24, 2016. Read more HERE.