Back To Top

Do Koreans want to go it alone?

Whenever U.S. 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 U.S. that Korea not be taken for granted. But in the end, Koreans have always hewn to the U.S., even after George W Bush famously alienated South Korea by placing N.K. 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 U.S.) gives Korea critical leverage where it would otherwise be dominated. For the all U.S. misbehavior in ROK history ― from questions around the Gwangju suppression to the personal issues of ‘ugly American’ behavior ― no serious ROK policymaker has ever wavered from the belief that the U.S. partner critically boosts South Korean autonomy against local encirclement. Because the U.S. alliance gives Korea desperately sought local leverage, the U.S. 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 S.K. left. Conversely, it is the reason the Korean government so dramatically emphasizes English acquisition and exposure to the U.S. Americanization of what is otherwise a Sinic-Confucian culture reinforces Korean cultural compatibility with the critical U.S. ally.

The contrast for the U.S. 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 N.K. victory over S.K. would not dramatically impact U.S. security. As a fellow democracy, the U.S. would, of course, lament such an outcome, but with the end of expansionist Leninism as a threat to the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. public opinion by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs have found since the mid-2000s that only 40 percent of Americans want the U.S. to fight in Korea, even if N.K. 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 U.S. into a massive post-war nation-building project, especially if S.K. 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. Further, S.K. is obviously wealthy enough to defend itself now.

In short, the alliance is dramatically balance-positive for Korea, but increasingly neutral for the U.S. It is no longer clear what the main U.S. benefit from the alliance is (this applies to many U.S. 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 U.S. needs a large, expensive Asian military footprint. Typically, the (unspoken) further step is that this will help contain China. But again, why the U.S. 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 U.S. should be a semi-imperial ‘globocop.’

‘Globocop’ hegemony may appeal to U.S. allies in tough places (Korea, Israel, Afghanistan, Georgia), and it may be ideologically attractive to U.S. neoconservatives, but is also very expensive, pulls the U.S. into many conflicts of marginal value to U.S. 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 U.S. is flirting with empire, and the history of empires is often unhappy ― too many wars, too much borrowing, overextension leading to national exhaustion and institutional decay. Today, the U.S. is on this path. By almost any definition, the U.S. is overstretched. The military has been fighting continuously since 2001. The budget deficit is a staggering 10 percent of GDP; total debt is $10 trillion. National security spending is 25 percent of the budget. Post-Great Recession economic growth is anemic. For years the U.S. disregarded its own values and tortured prisoners.

In such an environment, the U.S. will eventually have to make hard choices about foreign commitments. Some measure of global retrenchment will likely happen, if only because the U.S. is dallying with bankruptcy. Those Koreans who would like USFK to leave may be pleased to see the U.S. pushed to the edge of insolvency, with a looming USFK retreat under budget pressure. But far more widespread will be anxiety about whether U.S. relative decline will semi-abandon Korea in a tight neighborhood increasingly overshadowed by Chinese power. Do Koreans want to go it alone? 

By Robert E. Kelly

Robert E. Kelly is an assistant professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University. More of his work may be found at his website, ― Ed.
Korea Herald Youtube