Seoul not the ally that Washington deserves

by Doug Bandow

WASHINGTON — During his Asian trip, U.S. President George W. Bush met with South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun to highlight the two nations’ alliance. The next day Roh’s government announced that it was withdrawing a third of its soldiers from Iraq. Never mind.

The Stockholm Syndrome is when kidnap victims identify with their captors. The Washington Syndrome is when American policymakers identify with prosperous, populous allies that prefer not to bear the burden of defending themselves.

The State Department has never met an alliance that it doesn’t like. As a result, the list of Washington’s foreign policy “welfare queens” is long. Including South Korea.

In 1950 the United States rescued South Korea from an invasion from the North. Today Seoul’s gross domestic product has risen 40 times, and has a vast technological edge over North Korea. But the South continues to rely on America, with Washington’s acquiescence. After the June summit between Bush and Roh, the former opined, “We’re strategic partners, allies and friends.”

Alas, the Washington Syndrome infects Capitol Hill as well. Rep. Dan Burton, vice chairman of the International Relations Committee’s subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, recently sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to other House members extolling the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

“Forged in the heat of battle, the U.S.-South Korean bilateral relationship continues to be one of our most vital and vibrant partnerships,” Burton declared. The congressman cited “the continuing contributions made by South Korea to our mutual alliance — some that are all too often forgotten.”

Actually, they aren’t worth remembering. For instance, Burton pointed to trade. But Americans and South Koreans trade because doing so is in their mutual interest, not because of the military alliance.

South Korea “has been a strong ally in the U.S.-led War on Terror, having committed more than 3,270 troops to Iraq,” the congressman noted. Actually, Seoul insisted that its forces — many of whom will soon be withdrawn — be placed far away from hostilities.

Another “contribution,” in Burton’s view, is Seoul’s taking “positive steps on the question of human rights in North Korea.” But South Korea does not accept North Korean refugees as a favor to America.

Moreover, Seoul has turned markedly frigid toward those fleeing North Korean tyranny. Burton also contended that “South Korea is a key partner in the six-party talks to resolve North Korea’s nuclear issue.” Actually, Seoul and Washington view the issue very differently.

South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong Young has proclaimed that the North is entitled to a nuclear program. South Korea is closer to China than the U.S. in the six-party talks. Moreover, the South is providing substantial economic aid to North Korea without asking for much in return. Incredibly, South Korean public opinion increasingly views the U.S. as a greater threat than North Korea.

Nevertheless, Burton wrote, “South Korea is an important military ally with over 33,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country.” But there’s no justification for maintaining U.S. troops in South Korea.

The South lost most of its strategic value to America after the Cold War. The U.S. garrison performs no useful regional role.

More important, the South Koreans are unlikely to allow the U.S. to use their nation as a launching pad, especially against China. Earlier this year Roh emphasized that his nation would not get involved in a war in Northeast Asia at America’s behest and that Washington could not use its troops based in South Korea without Seoul’s permission. This is an “important military ally”?

Finally, argued Burton, South Korea is now “an indispensable partner in promoting democracy and free market economy.” But the South performs that role naturally as a trading nation with expanded global influence.

As noted earlier, Seoul today is discouraging refugees from the North. South Korea seems more concerned about offending North Korean officials doing the oppressing than aiding North Korean citizens being oppressed.

Burton closed his letter with a call “to strengthen and grow this important alliance.” Then-South Korean Ambassador Hong Seok Hyun cheerfully opined in response that “it has been a personal mission of mine to ensure that our alliance remains vital and comprehensive.”

Vital and comprehensive for what? There remains much that Americans and Koreans, linked by friendship, culture and history, can do together. But maintaining a close military alliance is not one of them. It is time for Washington to focus on the interests of America rather than “allies” that believe Washington owes them a defense.