WASHINGTON – North Korea just conducted its fifth nuclear test. The North is likely to be one of the worst headaches, or maybe nightmares, for the next U.S. president. He or she “must find a way to neuter Mr. Kim’s outlandish and frightening peril,” intoned The Washington Post.
Of course, four successive presidents have sought to do so. Yet nothing they tried worked. Experience suggests that “neutering” Pyongyang is beyond the power of the U.S. president, at least at a cost Americans are willing to bear.
The United States should try a different approach. Washington should withdraw from the Korean vortex. Then North Korea would be primarily a problem for its neighbors, who have the most at stake.
Washington was blissfully unconcerned about the Korean Peninsula until the end of World War II. Although Korea did not directly figure in the conflict, that land could not be left to Japan.
America ended up joint occupier alongside the Soviet Union. Out of the Cold War came two separate, antagonistic countries, the Korean War, and an American security guarantee, backed by permanent troop deployments.
Yet Washington’s military presence is an anachronism. Today South Korea outmatches the North on every measure of national power save military, and the latter deficiency is a matter of choice.
With twice the population and around 40 times the GDP, the South could do whatever is necessary to deter and defeat its northern antagonist. Seoul doesn’t do so because America continues to spend the resources and risk the lives of its citizens on South Korea’s behalf. That made sense during the Cold War, but no longer. The U.S. is militarily stretched, economically embattled and fiscally endangered. It no longer can afford to subsidize the defense of prosperous and populous friends.
Absent its military commitment to the South, America would be of no concern to the latest Kim scion to rule over the impoverished land to the north. As it is, scarcely a week goes by without a new insult or threat emanating from Pyongyang directed at America.
For instance, Kim Jong Un was recently quoted expressing his “great satisfaction” with the test of the mid-range Mudusan missile. As a result, he explained, “We have the sure capability to attack in an overall and practical way the Americans in the Pacific.”
Even more dramatic have been tests, most recently in April, on a long-range missile capable of hitting North America. This missile has no value for a conflict on the peninsula or even nearby. It is useful only for threatening the U.S.
At the same time the North is thought to be continuing to expand its nuclear capabilities. The Institute for Science and International Security recently estimated North Korea’s arsenal at 13 to 21 weapons. It may be adding four to six weapons a year.
Yet North Korea’s threats do not occur in a vacuum. Pyongyang is targeting America with weapons as well as rhetoric because America is over there. In contrast, Kim does not spend his time denouncing Mexico or threatening to turn Toronto into a lake of fire. If Washington wasn’t threatening his nation with war, backed by forces based only a few miles south of his country and around the region he wouldn’t waste his breath on America.
This doesn’t mean Kim is a victim or innocent, of course. Nevertheless, in this case he is behaving rationally.
The U.S., which enjoys an overwhelming military advantage and imposes regime change whenever convenient, does threaten his rule. Washington’s attack on Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, which had negotiated away its missile and nuclear programs, demonstrated that American officials cannot be trusted. A nuclear deterrent is the most obvious and perhaps the only sure defense.
Which raises the obvious question whether Pyongyang would behave so provocatively if America was not on the scene. No one should expect a kinder, gentler Kim to emerge. But his “byungjin” policy of pursuing both nuclear weapons and economic growth faces a severe challenge. With the U.S. far away he would have more reason to listen to China, which long has advised more reforms and fewer nukes. Since nothing else has worked, an American withdrawal would be a useful change in strategy.
The justification for U.S. troops in South Korea disappeared decades ago. Bringing them home and shrinking America’s military accordingly would ease an increasingly unaffordable defense burden.
Moreover, getting out of South Korea would undercut Pyongyang’s justification for its overwhelming military spending. It’s rare to find such a win-win policy for the Korean Peninsula.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He frequently writes on military non-interventionism and 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.”