In the wake of the recent sexual assaults on Koreans by US soldiers in Korea, I was asked by the Korea Herald to participate in a debate about whether US forces in Korea should leave. (On the assaults try this and this. For NK manipulation of this as evidence of US “fascism,” try this.) It is terribly awkward in the wake of three assaults to argue that USFK should stay, but ultimately I think Korea benefits enormously from the US commitment.
My op-ed on the subject was published here on Tuesday, and is reprinted below:
USFK is in Korea’s Interest, but US Budget Pressures are Growing Fast
Whenever US soldiers in Korea misbehave egregiously, Koreans naturally soul-search on whether USFK should withdraw. This is proper; soldiers sexually assaulting teenagers is horrific. The debate also usefully signals to the US that Korea not be taken for granted. But in the end, Koreans have always hewn to the US, even after George W Bush famously alienated South Korea by placing NK on the ‘axis of evil.’ South Korea is the overwhelming beneficiary of a very one-sided relationship and terminating the alliance would dramatically weaken Korea in a very difficult neighborhood.
Korean foreign policy is structured by its dismal geopolitics. The traditional saying that ‘Korea is a shrimp among whales’ is accurate. Middle-power Korea is surrounded by three great powers with a history of intervention and bullying, and bordered by one of the worst tyrannies in history. As such, an alliance with a powerful external partner (the US) gives Korea critical leverage where it would otherwise be dominated. For the all US misbehavior in ROK history – from questions around the Kwangju suppression to the personal issues of ‘ugly American’ behavior – no serious ROK policy-maker has ever wavered from the belief that the US partner critically boosts SK autonomy against local encirclement. Because the US alliance gives Korea desperately sought local leverage, the US in turn has significant leverage over Korea. This is a cause of great consternation among proud, nationalist Koreans and explains enduring anti-Americanism, especially on the SK left. Conversely, it is the reason the Korean government so dramatically emphasizes English acquisition and exposure to the US. Americanization of what is otherwise a Sinic-Confucian culture reinforces Korean cultural compatibility with the critical US ally.
The contrast for the US is quite sharp. With the end of the Cold War, the utility of the Korean alliance to America has fallen significantly. A widely unappreciated fact in Korea, almost a willful blindness, is that a NK victory over SK would not dramatically impact US security. As a fellow democracy, the US would of course lament such an outcome, but with the end of expansionist Leninism as a threat to the US homeland, there is no longer an East-West balance in which Korea is a central weight. The Korean division is now a more local problem, to which the US is devoting fewer resources. It is well-known that USFK has shrunk over the years; the Combined Forces Command will be shortly abolished; and USFK is no longer stationed in a ‘hair-trigger’ posture on the DMZ. To Americans, with many global concerns including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, failed states, the drug war, climate change, and so on, Korea is one theater among many. Surveys of US public opinion by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs have found since the mid-2000s that only 40% of Americans want the US to fight in Korea, even if NK attacks first. A major conflict in Korea would be vastly more destructive than the recent war on terror, possibly involve nuclear weapons, and pull the US into a massive, unwanted post-war nation-building project, especially if SK is devastated by nuclear strikes. Given how badly the war on terror has flown off the rails in the last decade, American reticence about getting ‘chain-ganged’ by an alliance into another major war in Asia is predictable.
In short, the alliance is dramatically balance-positive for Korea, but increasingly neutral for the US. It is no longer clear what the main US benefit from the alliance is (this applies to many US alliances actually). Typically, the answer is that Korea is a central node in the American alliance network in Asia. But that just raises the next question of why the US needs a large, expensive Asian military footprint. Typically, the (unspoken) further step is that this will help contain China. But again, why the US should contain China is unclear. From an American national security perspective, China is primarily a local Asian dilemma. States like India, Japan, Australia, and Korea should really be dealing with that first, unless one believes the US should be a semi-imperial ‘globocop.’
‘Globocop’ hegemony may appeal to US allies in tough places (Korea, Israel, Afghanistan, Georgia), and it may be ideologically attractive to US neoconservatives, but is also very expensive, pulls the US into many conflicts of marginal value to US security (Iraq, Vietnam), and, most disturbingly, makes America morally culpable for violence, however justified, around the planet, including the deaths of non-combatants. In short, the US is flirting with empire, and the history of empires is often unhappy – too many wars, too much borrowing, over-extension leading to national exhaustion and institutional decay. Today, the US is on this path. By almost any definition, the US is overstretched. The military has been fighting continuously since 2001. The budget deficit is a staggering 10% of GDP; total debt is $10 trillion. National security spending is 25% of the budget. Post-Great Recession economic growth is anemic. For years the US disregarded its own values and tortured prisoners.
In such an environment, the US will eventually have to make hard choices about foreign commitments. Some measure of global retrenchment will likely happen, if only because the US is dallying with bankruptcy. Those Koreans who would like USFK to leave may be pleased to see the US pushed to the edge of insolvency, with a looming USFK retreat under budget pressure. But far more widespread will be anxiety about whether US relative decline will semi-abandon Korea in a tight neighborhood increasingly overshadowed by Chinese power. Do Koreans want to go it alone?