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Opportunity for U.S. to extricate itself from Korea

by Doug Bandow

It doesn’t pay to be number two in North Korea. In December the young dictator Kim Jong Un executed his uncle, Jang Song Taek, supposedly Kim’s top adviser. Now Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, who climbed atop Jang’s corpse, has been relieved of his important positions.

Choe’s fall is particularly important because, though he was an aide to Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, he rose rapidly under the younger Kim. Dumping Choe reshapes the political environment of Kim’s making.

While Kim’s dominance in Pyongyang does not guarantee the regime’s survival, it dampens hope for any change outside of Kim. Today’s Korean Winter isn’t likely to give way to a Korean Spring. Moreover, nothing suggests that the North’s communist monarchy is about to give way. Indeed, the elite, at least, are doing better than in years past.

People in the countryside still suffer, but they a revolution aren’t likely to make. Many observers have waited a long time for regime collapse in the North. They probably will have to wait a lot longer.

In fact, given North Korea’s history and Kim’s age, he could rule for another 30 or 40 years. And so far he doesn’t appear to be much interested in reform.

If anything, he appears to be more committed to his government’s nuclear weapons program and confrontational foreign policy than were his predecessors.

North Korea’s policy toward the South has oscillated wildly, but has headed mostly downward. It recently conducted a live fire drill near the disputed Yellow Sea border where it launched a deadly bombardment of a South Korean island back in 2010.

The North also appears to be preparing a fourth and “new form” of nuclear test. North Korea recently test-fired two medium-range missiles, predicting “next-stage steps, which the enemy can hardly imagine.”

The Obama administration obviously is frustrated, and reportedly is considering easing its preconditions for resuming the long-stalled six party talks. However, it’s unlikely that many policymakers believe renewed negotiations will lead anywhere. Which has left the major U.S. response to tie itself closer to its South Korean ally, loudly reaffirming that America will defend it if necessary.

Washington needs to reflect first on why the North is such a problem for America. A small, impoverished, and distant state, even with a handful of nuclear weapons (but no delivery capacity), obviously is no match for the globe’s superpower.

After all, North Korea does not threaten to turn Moscow, Paris, and London into lakes of fire. But the U.S. maintains a defense treaty with and garrison in South Korea, routinely deploys naval and air units around North Korea, regularly conducts military exercises in the South, and constantly threatens war against the North.

Pyongyang can’t very well ignore America. And the best way to deter an aggressive superpower is to build nuclear weapons and missiles, and to threaten to use them.

Thus, going home should be the foundation of U.S. policy toward the Koreas. When Washington agreed to a defense treaty with the South 61 years ago, the latter was in no condition to defend itself from renewed attack. But everything has changed since the end of the Cold War. Today Seoul doesn’t need conventional backup.

Nor does the U.S. military commitment help resolve the nuclear issue. American forces have become nuclear hostages, conveniently placed within striking distance of the North. They also reinforce Pyongyang’s natural paranoia, increasing its perceived need for nuclear weapons.

Washington should loosen military ties with South Korea and extricate itself from a potential Korean conflict. The U.S. should terminate the “mutual” defense treaty, withdraw the permanent garrison, and end the periodic threats.

America should retain a watchful eye on the region, but leave North Korea to its neighbors. Doing so would knock Washington down several notches on Kim’s enemies list. Withdrawal also would reduce Beijing’s perception that the U.S. is seeking to contain China in cooperation with South Korea.

Having demilitarized America’s role on the peninsula, Washington then could engage the North with less controversy — opening simple consular relations, for instance. U.S. policymakers would gain a small window into an alien society, as well as a direct communications channel. South Korea should take over prime responsibility for confronting Pyongyang.

North Korea, so full of human tragedy, marches on with a new communist king at the nation’s head. There’s little any other country can do to bring peace, stability and prosperity to the North.

However, the U.S. could, and should, reduce the possibility of the North interfering with America’s peace, stability and prosperity. By going home. Where America’s soldiers and other military personnel belong.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of “Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World” and co-author of “The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.” A version of this article appeared in the Straits Times.

  • Charlie Sommers

    An early American president, the son of a founding father once said about America,

    “…she goes not go abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force…. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….”
    ~John Quincy Adams

    This seems pretty clear to me and fits the situation well. Perhaps we should pay more heed to wise voices from the past.

  • phu

    This ridiculous argument gets in the way of what might be a good idea. Withdraw support for an ally under the demented oversimplification and assumption that the US leaving is actually going to cause North Korea to stand down on its nuclear weapons program? Assuming that a brutal dictator is going to step back from one of his biggest propaganda tools for controlling his own population and just start living happily and being reasonable, stop threatening the US and suddenly be open to good faith negotiations, because of what they could call a victory over their hated enemy?

    If the US did leave and cancel its defense agreement with the South, it might solve some of its own problems. It would also cause more, because in addition to its existing foreign relations issues, it would now be (quite reasonably) seen as a nation with no qualms about abandoning its allies despite their own serious problems, problems they agreed to help address.

    Perhaps there are good reasons to do this. But those presented here are not among them, and the likely consequences are not ignorable, in addition to the suggested benefits being laughably improbable.

  • afhack62

    To justify and maintain their authoritarian system the North Korea regime has the same need for a strong external enemy as the Iranian Mullahs. The US could completely pull out and Nork policy and propaganda wouldn’t change and its repression of North Koreans would continue as would its belligerence toward the South.

    But even with that said we should pull out of South Korea exclusively for our own
    reasons and there are plenty of them.

  • afhack62

    The North Korea regime has the same need for a strong external enemy as the Iranian Mullahs. The US could completely pull out and Nork policy and propaganda wouldn’t change and its repression of North Koreans would continue as would its belligerence toward the South.

    But even with that said we should pull out of South Korea exclusively for our own
    reasons and there are plenty of them.

  • bm124

    The US can withdraw easily from Northeast Asia, but only after allowing Japan and South Korea to have their own nuclear deterrent.

    Both countries are stable democracies with 3 undemocratic nuclear powers nearby. Their getting nuclear weapons sets no precedent whatsoever for other countries not so threatened. With a nuclear deterrent, they can indeed stand on their own feet.