This coming Tuesday will not only see a new presidential election in South Korea. It may also mark the day when a second big wheel flies off of America’s grand strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, and in particular off its approach to addressing the North Korea nuclear weapons threat.
For now on top of the United States’ loss of escalation dominance on the Korean peninsula – which I’ve written about for more than two years and which has needlessly exposed the American homeland to the risk of nuclear attack – the U.S. ally supposedly facing the greatest threat from Kim Jong Un’s heavily armed dictatorship could wind up defecting from the anti-Pyongyang coalition. It would be hard to concoct a scenario that would be less defensible strategically and politically, and more utterly absurd.
Of course, the results of the South Korea election haven’t yet come in. The front-runner, veteran left-of-center politician Moon Jae-in, is by no means anti-American. And as with so many politicians, he may govern very differently from how he’s campaigned. But as made clear by coverage of South Korean politics by my good friend Tim Shorrock – who has written on the country for decades – Moon believes that the United States and North Korea’s neighbors need to start putting much more emphasis on reopening negotiations with the North and much less on threats of military action or more effective economic sanctions. At least as important, many of his compatriots clearly agree.
Moon and his supporters could well be right – if only because they’ve been so close to the situation on the peninsula for so long. (Tim strongly believes this to be the case.) Nevertheless, they could be wrong as well. After all, their very proximity to the North might be denying them valuable perspective. Their views may be influenced too strongly by shared ethnicity. And they may, like classic free-riders, be assuming that the American nuclear umbrella will ultimately bail out the South if they’re wrong.
But although the merits of the Moon case are uncertain, the implications for the United States are anything but. If South Korea’s “doves” are right, a more durable peace could indeed be created in Korea (meaning, specifically, that the Korean War would finally come to an official end more than 60 years after an armistice halted the fighting in 1953). As a result, Northeast Asia, one of the world’s major economic dynamos, would be stabilized. And the prospect of the United States being drawn into a nuclear war with North Korea would be greatly diminished.
But it can’t be forgotten that the (mounting) nuclear risks posed by North Korea to the United States stem entirely from the American commitment to defend South Korea – and more specifically, it stems from the longstanding U.S. decision to try to deter a North Korean invasion of the South by stationing nearly 30,000 troops right at the Demilitarized Zone. They couldn’t possibly halt the North’s conventional forces, but their deaths would almost surely provoke an American nuclear strike on the North. This prospect that has certainly helped keep Pyongyang at bay – which was arguably an acceptable risk to run when Pyongyang lacked any means to hit back at American territory. But soon, pursuing this strategy could result in the North successfully launching a nuclear missile at an American city – or two or three.
Even worse from an American standpoint, a prime reason that the South relies on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for its defense is its failure to field adequate conventional forces itself. Despite living right next door to one of the world’s most heavily armed and unpredictable countries, South Korea only spends 2.7 percent of its entire economy on its armed forces. By comparison, the United States – which has no neighbors that are either powerful or hostile, let alone both – spends 4.3 percent.
All of which means that if the South Korea doves are wrong, the American people could pay a fearful price largely because one of the world’s leading economic powers has chosen to skimp on its military, and because its (new) leaders insisted on a diplomacy-first policy that gave Pyongyang yet more time to strengthen its nuclear forces. That’s a heckuva downside. And let’s not forget the chaos that would result from the United States and South Korea splitting in public and pursuing two dramatically different policies toward the North.
Supporters of the strategic status quo in East Asia are right – America’s longstanding policies have brought impressive benefits. But they’re wrong in insisting that the benefits for the United States have even remotely approached those for the East Asians themselves, including South Korea. And the emergence of a credible North Korean nuclear threat to the American homeland has skewed the relationship of costs and benefits much further against the United States.
I can’t think of a more unacceptable situation from America’s vantage point. Even before these South Korean political trends had become so prominent, it was clear to me that the best strategy for the American people was to recognize the North Korean challenge as the responsibility of North Korea’s (very wealthy and powerful) neighbors, and to withdraw the U.S. forces whose presence is bound increasingly to endanger the security of the United States itself.
The election of a South Korean dove would turn current U.S. strategy positively looney and even more dangerous to Americans – clashing strongly with the stated views of the presumed chief beneficiary’s new leader, and less able than ever to turn up the screws on the North.
I hope instead it causes America’s ossified bipartisan foreign policy establishment to realize finally that Washington can’t be placed in a position ostensibly of caring about South Korea’s security more than the South Koreans, and that if their new leaders disagree with U.S. priorities, that’s their sovereign right. By the same token, this ally can’t expect to have its cake and eat it, too. Bottom line? President Trump should let President-to-be Moon and his backers know that if they want to engage with North Korea, they feel free to give it a whirl – and that in the true spirit of an America First diplomacy, the United States will be wishing them the very best from safely on the sidelines.