Writing at NK News, Craig Urquhart makes a punchy but powerful case for withdrawing U.S. soldiers from South Korea:
South Korea has been allowed to act like an overgrown child for decades. The U.S. exercised exclusive military command because South Korea could not be trusted not to start a world war, and now resists the American push to transfer operational command. It relies on U.S. protection when it flubs its own diplomatic efforts. It carved out a state-sponsored industrial policy that flouted fair trade rules, but was given a generous pass, and now pretends that this was entirely a South Korean achievement. It received aid from the IMF during the Asian Currency crisis, but has made little headway in financial reform.
The United States has been bailing South Korea out militarily, politically and diplomatically since UN troops landed at Incheon.
The “Miracle on the Han” is indeed miraculous, but it came prepackaged with serious design flaws that South Korea is too smug to address. South Korea was allowed access to foreign markets without reciprocating; sheltering industries breeds inefficiency and creates justified resentment overseas. “Get-rich-quick” economic policies artificially concentrate wealth and power into the hands of a tiny class of fratricidal, laughably dysfunctional and incompetent elites. Favoritism and collusion enables society-wide institutional corruption. “Bbali bbali” (“speed first!”) development encourages a culture of shoddy workmanship and corner-cutting, which, when combined with corruption, actively endangers South Korean society. Rigid, military-inspired corporate cultures stymie the development of creative and knowledge industries, while heavy regulation drowns out domestic and foreign competition, allowing gargantuan family combines, the infamous chaebol like Samsung and LG, to treat South Koreans like indentured laborers and captive consumers. Government interference in the economy makes South Korea more like a nation-sized “company town” than a modern state.
South Koreans are both proud of and enraged by their chaebol. This schizophrenia is a direct result of the economic model spearheaded by South Korea’s 1960s and 1970s dictator, Park Chung-hee. While ostensibly successful, this model was also deeply flawed, yet few will openly admit that the rot was built-in and does not come from pernicious outsiders. Political actors blame vague and sinister-sounding foreign forces for manifestly domestic economic and social issues. They can do this because Korea abdicates responsibility for its own mistakes. [Craig Urquhart, NK News]
Hear, hear. Real patriotism is the companion of national confidence, and as long as South Korea keeps thousands of foreign troops forward deployed near the DMZ, it won’t gain a sense of national confidence, or a sense that it must “own” the consequences of its own policies. One of those policies is the continuation of South Korea’s cuts in its own Army, despite the fact that it lacks the strength to stabilize North Korea in the event of a regime collapse. Another is its policy of sustaining North Korea financially, through projects like Kaesong, which is a de facto subsidy of Kim Jong Un’s misrule.
I’ve also come to believe that USFK’s deterrent effect is dangerously overstated. The presence of U.S. forces gave President Obama a veto against retaliation for the attacks of 2010. That makes U.S. forces more like the opposite of a deterrent against North Korean attacks. I’m not advocating a total withdrawal. Things like anti-missile batteries, air power, and joint naval installations deter attacks and support South Korea’s defense. A large ground component in South Korea, however, is an expensive and counterproductive anachronism.
If you’ve been watching events closely enough, however, there are clear signs that some key policymakers would like to reduce or withdraw USFK. For example, last October, at a news conference in Berlin, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. was “prepared to reduce its military presence in Asia if North Korea rejoins nuclear negotiations and follows through on its denuclearization commitment.” Kerry’s comment drew swift and hard push-back from the South Korean Foreign Minister, Yun Byung-se. Yun “attempted to dilute” Kerry’s comments by saying,“The reduction of the U.S. Forces Korea is an issue that can be discussed in the distant future when the North’s denuclearization is being actualized.” Yun likely has complete confidence that this condition precedent would never come to pass, but it’s less clear that Kerry grasps this. Even so, after Yun talked to Kerry, Kerry was forced to backpedal:
It is too premature to talk about reducing American forces in the Korean Peninsula without “authentic and credible” negotiations with Pyongyang about ending its nuclear program, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday.
Kerry said the United States was willing to restart denuclearization talks with North Korea although he emphasized “there is no value in talks just for the sake of talks.” [….]
“The mere entering into talks is not an invitation to take any actions regarding troops or anything else,” Kerry said after meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se. “If anything, it would be way too premature to have any thought or even discussion of such thing.” [Reuters]
Behind the scenes, Republican and Democratic administrations have been trying to extricate U.S. forces from Korea since the great wave of anti-Americanism of 2003. Kerry’s exchange with Yun came shortly after the Pentagon had agreed to an indefinite pause on the OPCON transfer. The following month, however, the Pentagon decided to withdraw and deactivate the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team of the Second Infantry Division from Korea, a/k/a the Iron Brigade, which had been posted in Korea since 1965. To keep the force numbers at the same level on paper,“similarly sized, fully trained units would be rotated into South Korea for nine-month tours,” although this move would clearly give the U.S. more flexibility to refrain from entering a renewed conflict in Korea.
Kerry’s speedy retreat (from withdrawal!) is understandable to anyone who knows the power of South Korea’s influence machine in Washington. Through the Korea Foundation and other groups, it gives generously to a number of influential think tanks here, which in turn are funded by South Korea’s corporate conglomerates. Ordinarily, rational people don’t throw money at goals that don’t serve their interests. Obviously, those donors believe that it serves their interests to sustain the status quo. Whether that serves America’s interests is an entirely different question. Frankly, I doubt that it serves the interests of ordinary South Koreans, much less the interests of the North Korean people. This suggests a second reason for reducing USFK’s presence — that the scale of this alliance, and the influence machine it has spawned, inhibits the emergence of a more clear-eyed approach to North Korea.