Just last week, I posted about how U.S. grand strategy in East Asia is heavily reliant on dangerously unreliable allies. So what a pleasant surprise to yours truly that the very day afterwards, polling data was published making clear just how fitting my description is of South Korea – a longtime bulwark of the American military position in the region. Just as important, the findings also confirm both (1) that the longtime strategy – which has largely continued during the Trump years – could result in American troops finding out during combat that forces and facilities they were relying on for support aren’t available after all; and (2) that coddling this fecklessness risks needlessly entrapping the United States into a nuclear war.
Although almost completely uncovered in the American media, the U.S.-South Korea alliance has been nearing a crossroads for months, as President Trump has insisted that the Seoul government pay more of the costs of stationing American forces on South Korean soil, and the South Koreans have responding with a mixture of grudging concessions at negotiations over the subject, and outright indignation. And in a July 23 National Interest post, a team of scholars from Western Kentucky University showed that a majority of the South Korean public feels exactly the same way.
There’s no question that, as a fully sovereign, independent country, South Koreans and their government have every right to hold whatever opinion they wishes about its security relations with the United States. But of course, Americans and their government are entitled to the same views, and it would be entirely reasonable to regard South Korea’s opinions and policies as complete – and dangerous – outrages.
As the Western Kentucky researchers show compellingly, numerous polls, as well as a recent survey of their own, show that strong majorities of South Koreans want the U.S. military to remain in their country because they believe that these forces are crucial to their own country’s security. But they’re also decidedly reluctant to accommodate the U.S. requests to shoulder more of the defense burden.
From an American standpoint, these attitudes would be understandable if any combination of the following conditions still described South Korea – it’s a poor country that can’t afford to defend itself adequately, or it’s already spending on its down defense to the max, or it doesn’t face very serious security threats to begin with. These conditions might also warrant cutting the South Koreans some slack when it comes to their resentment of President Trump’s allegedly heavy-handed approach to the issue – which the polls show tend to increase their unwillingness to pay more of the costs of hosting U.S. forces. After all, no one likes being bullied.
Here’s the problem, though, from an American standpoint: None of these conditions hold. And none are close to holding. For as of last year, South Korea was the world’s twelfth biggest economy, with total output of about $1.63 trillion. The gross domestic product of highly secretive North Korea’s is estimated at about $20 billion. That’s 0.01 percent of the South’s total. (Here‘s a handy source for the data.)
South Korea’s military spending isn’t real impressive, either. Both in absolute terms and as a share of its economy, it’s gone up. But as of last year, it was still only 2.7 percent of its gross domestic product. By comparison, the United States spends 3.4 percent of its economy on the military. (For both figures, click on this link.)
It can still be argued –as the Western Kentucky researchers maintain – that the South Koreans are already being more than generous in funding the U.S. military presence, and that a change in Trump attitude would likely induce more cooperation. But their defense burden-sharing views – as has been the case with so many others – weirdly ignore how the most valid standard by far is not whether the South Koreans (or any other U.S. ally) are paying as much as the United States for their defense or slightly more or slightly less or whatever. The most valid standard is whether they’re paying as much as is needed (adjusted for their capabilities of course) to defend themselves on their own. And the reason could not be more obvious: For all the talk of “common defense,” it’s their security that’s most at risk, not the United States’. (See my contribution to this anthology – from 1990 – analyzing this largely off-base burden-sharing debate.)
And nowhere is this difference starker than on the Korean peninsula – on which South Korea is right next door to a North Korean regime that is widely described as dangerously aggressive or utterly deranged. Yet whatever you think of North Korea, nothing could be clearer than that it poses a much greater danger to South Korea than to the United States.
This observation, of course, brings us to the most completely unacceptable feature of this situation for Americans: It’s precisely because South Korea is flagrantly free-riding in defense matters that tens of thousands of U.S. troops need to be stationed right at the Demilitarized Zone dividing the peninsula, and why nowadays (as opposed to the period during which North Korea had no nuclear capabilities) their presence could well result in the U.S. homeland being hit by a North Korean nuclear warhead.
That’s because, as I’ve repeatedly explained, the mission of these U.S. forces isn’t to contribute a successful conventional military defense of South Korea. They’re too weak – even with the help of the South Koreans. Instead, their mission is to serve as a nuclear war tripwire – to prevent (or in the parlance of strategists “deter”) a North Korean attack in the first place by creating the danger that a U.S. President will respond to their imminent destruction by turning the conflict nuclear. But however important South Korea is, is it really worth the complete destruction of a major American city, or two, that would result from a successful North Korean retaliation?
That this question has been evaded continuously by the U.S. government ever since North Korea’s nuclear forces began nearing intercontinental capabilities is appalling enough. That it’s still being evaded by a President supposedly devoted to America First principles – and now that Americans have had months of experience with the upheaval caused by a virus that for all its dangers can’t directly destroy any of the country’s infrastructure and the rest of its physical plant – is nothing less than masochistic. Indeed, compared with these nuclear issues, America’s legitimate gripes about finances are wildly misplaced, unless they’re seeking to pressure Seoul to become militarily self-sufficient – which they aren’t.
There’s one consideration that could overrule all these objections: If President Trump concluded that South Korea’s security was a vital American interest, and therefore by definition worth putting America’s very survival on the line for. But revealingly, no such utterances of the kind have issued from the administration. And if they had, of course, then the United States would automatically lose all its leverage in the defense costs talks with South Korea, as Seoul could be confident that America would (as so memorably pledged in former President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address) “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” to keep it free – and, incidentally, prosperous.
And here’s the icing on this cake: The public opinion findings presented by the Western Kentucky authors suggest that South Koreans on the whole aren’t so completely terrified by the threat from the North as Americans suppose them to be. For example, the authors’ own survey found that only 70 percent agreed that they were “concerned about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.” And the authors report that “South Koreans were only mildly concerned about North Korea using military force against them ….”
Does this sound like an ally that’s certain to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Americans if military tensions in its own neighborhood approached the boiling point? That would promptly increase the preparations needed for imminent conflict? Or one that would keep hemming and hawing until the shooting actually started – and even afterwards attaching more importance to showing good faith to the North in hopes of halting the conflict than in mounting the most effective defense possible, much less helping the United State seize the initiative when the opportunity came? Anyone who believes that staunch South Korean backing can simply be assumed in any of these circumstances simply hasn’t been paying attention, and would be backing a policy sure either to produce calamitous defeat, or to push Washington to use nuclear weapons as a Hail Mary – and risk North Korean retaliation in kind.
Finally, to return to a point made earlier: South Korea is a sovereign, fully independent country that’s completely entitled to pursue its own policy course. And if it’s not worked up about a North Korea threat to respond enough to give a joint defense of its territory a reasonable chance of success, it’s not for Americans to complain. Instead, it’s for them to either put their collective shoulder to the wheel and commit fully to defend the South come what may – or take the hint, get out of Dodge ASAP, and make sure they don’t have to pay the consequences if South Korea is wrong.