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The U.S.-South Korea Alliance: Outdated, Unnecessary, and Dangerous, Cato Foreign Policy Briefing No. 90

The U.S.-South Korea Alliance: Outdated, Unnecessary, and Dangerous, Cato Foreign Policy Briefing No. 90

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Published by Cato Institute
The United States has had a military relationship with the Republic of Korea (ROK) for 65 years. American forces partitioned the peninsula at the end of World War II, established the ROK as a new nation in 1948, rescued South Korea from invasion in 1950, and deployed as a permanent garrison after the conflict ended in 1953. U.S. troops remain to this day.
The Cold War ended long ago. Neither Moscow nor China is likely to back the socalled Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in any new aggressive war. The ROK has raced past North Korea on most measures of national power and become a global economic leader. The entire raison d'ětre of the alliance has disappeared.
The recent sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan offers a stark reminder that, because of Washington's security guarantee, even a parochial quarrel between Seoul and Pyongyang could drag in the United States. The risk to America might have been warranted when the ROK was unable to defend itself and the Korean confrontation was tied to the Cold War, but there no longer is any cause to maintain a defense commitment that is all cost and no benefit to the United States.
The United States has had a military relationship with the Republic of Korea (ROK) for 65 years. American forces partitioned the peninsula at the end of World War II, established the ROK as a new nation in 1948, rescued South Korea from invasion in 1950, and deployed as a permanent garrison after the conflict ended in 1953. U.S. troops remain to this day.
The Cold War ended long ago. Neither Moscow nor China is likely to back the socalled Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in any new aggressive war. The ROK has raced past North Korea on most measures of national power and become a global economic leader. The entire raison d'ětre of the alliance has disappeared.
The recent sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan offers a stark reminder that, because of Washington's security guarantee, even a parochial quarrel between Seoul and Pyongyang could drag in the United States. The risk to America might have been warranted when the ROK was unable to defend itself and the Korean confrontation was tied to the Cold War, but there no longer is any cause to maintain a defense commitment that is all cost and no benefit to the United States.

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Published by: Cato Institute on Jul 08, 2010
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The U.S.-South Korea Alliance
Outdated, Unnecessary, and Dangerous
by Doug Bandow
 Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, heis the author of 
Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World
(Cato Institute) and co-author, with Ted Galen Carpenter, of 
The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations withNorth and South Korea 
(Palgrave/Macmillan).
No. 90
The United States has had a military relationship with the Republic of Korea (ROK) for 65 years. American forces parti-tioned the peninsula at the end of WorldWar II, established the ROK as a new nationin 1948, rescued South Korea from inva-sion in 1950, and deployed as a permanentgarrison after the conflict ended in 1953.U.S. troops remain to this day.The Cold War ended long ago. NeitherMoscow nor China is likely to back the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in any new aggressive war.The ROK has raced past North Korea onmost measures of national power andbecome a global economic leader. Theentire raison d’être of the alliance has dis-appeared.The recent sinking of the South Koreannaval vessel
Cheonan
offers a stark reminderthat, because of Washington’s security guar-antee, even a parochial quarrel betweenSeoul and Pyongyang could drag in theUnited States. The risk to America mighthave been warranted when the ROK wasunable to defend itself and the Korean con-frontation was tied to the Cold War, butthere no longer is any cause to maintain a defense commitment that is all cost and nobenefit to the United States.
 July 14, 2010
Executive Summary 
 
Introduction
One of East Asia’s ancient civilizations,Korea became a political battleground amongChina, Russia, and Japan during the 19th cen-tury. Korea eventually lost its independence toTokyo, which turned the former into a colony in 1910. Japan’s defeat in 1945 led the UnitedStates and Soviet Union to divide the peninsu-la along the 38th parallel. The DemocraticPeople’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and theRepublic of Korea (ROK) emerged in 1948. TheDPRK’s Kim Il-sung attempted to unify thepeninsula by force two years later. Subsequentintervention by the United States and China ledto military stalemate and an armistice in 1953.
1
In that year, Washington initiated a “bilat-eral” security treaty, in reality a unilateraldefense guarantee, and established a perma-nent troop presence. The DPRK has remaineda malignant international actor. Over the yearsthe Kim regime initiated a variety of military and terrorist attacks on both South Koreanand American targets. However, since thedowning of an ROK airliner in 1987,Pyongyang has largely eschewed blatant actsof war in favor of diplomatic brinkmanship.The
Cheonan
sinking may represent a worri-some change in strategy. Although U.S. administrations reduced thenumber of troops stationed in South Korea over the years, the basic military commitmentremained unchanged. American and ROKofficials often promised greater South Koreandefense self-reliance, but always in the future—a future that only resulted in additionalpromises.
2
The United States even retainswartime operational control of the CombinedForces Command, in which the vast majority of forces would be South Korean.The ROK remains dependent on theUnited States today, despite vastly changedcircumstances. Aggressive, hegemonic com-munism is gone. The North cannot count onsupport even from China in war, and SouthKorea is far stronger economically.While continuing to rely on Washingtonfor its own defense, South Korea has begunpreparing its military, particularly the navy,for broader regional and even global contin-gencies. One of its core security objectives now is “enhancing competence and status interna-tionally.”
3
The ROK has become an active par-ticipant in international peacekeeping mis-sions. As a result, the South has consideredupgrading its current relationship with theUnited States to a “strategic alliance” devotedto international problems.
Back to Defense Basics withthe
Cheonan
 And yet, while officials in Seoul have beenplanning to exercise greater global influence,Pyongyang apparently remains willing andable to threaten war. The sinking of the
Cheonan
, a 1,200-ton corvette, on March 26demonstrated that South Korea’s most seri-ous security challenges remain closer to home. After considering the possibilities that the
Cheonan
suffered from an accident or hit a mine, the ROK, in consultation with interna-tional experts, concluded that the cause wasa Chinese-made torpedo fired by a NorthKorean submarine.
4
Why would the Northsink a South Korean ship now?It could be part of a campaign to redraw the contested boundary in the Yellow Sea.
5
Itmight be Kim-sanctioned retaliation for a naval clash last November in which a NorthKorean vessel apparently was damaged.
6
Itcould be an unauthorized military action, car-ried out by either rogue elements within or anincreasingly influential leadership of theDPRK military, intended to prevent resump-tion of negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclearprogram. It might be an attempt by Kim Jong-il to frighten Seoul into renewing economicties and aid reduced by the government of LeeMyung-bak.
7
It could be intended to demonstrate thatNorth Korea can strike with impunity. It mightbe a reward from Kim for the North Koreanmilitary, allowing embarrassed naval leaders to
2
The sinking of the
Cheonan
, a1,200-toncorvette, onMarch 26demonstratedthat SouthKorea’s mostserious security challengesremain close tohome.
 
avenge their loss last November, as he attemptsto install his young son as his successor.
8
Itcould be an attempt to disrupt the South’seconomy and interfere with upcoming SouthKorean elections. Perhaps Pyongyang hoped toachieve several of these objectives.When it announced its conclusion thatNorth Korea sunk the
Cheonan
, Seoul offeredno opinion as to why the North acted as it did.The ROK took its finding to the UnitedNations Security Council, banned North-South trade, and barred DPRK vessels fromSouth Korean waters. The North respondedwith threatening rhetoric and announced thatit planned to close the Kaesong industrialpark, in which roughly 120 ROK firms wereoperating and 40,000 North Koreans wereemployed. So far Pyongyang has held off act-ing against Kaesong, but relations between thetwo Koreas nevertheless remain at their mosttense level in years.
The Negative Impact of theAlliance on South Korea
Throughout the controversy Seoul hasconsulted closely with Washington, as onewould expect of alliance partners. The mutualdefense treaty was negotiated in 1953, suppos-edly to make both the United States and theROK more secure. Today, however, the alliancemakes it more difficult for both countries toprotect their interests when they see theirinterests differently.South Korea is the most obvious beneficia-ry of the security relationship. However, whenthe South places its defense in Washington’shands it also places decisions over its defensein Washington’s hands. That arrangementworked well for Seoul in the past, when theROK could not survive independently of theUnited States. It will work far less well in thefuture, when the two nations’ preferred poli-cies are likely to increasingly differ. After the
Cheonan
sinking, the Obama administration reportedly urged caution andrestraint on Seoul. Such a posture wasinevitable since the United States, with muchof its military tied down in Afghanistan andIraq, could ill afford another war. FromWashington’s standpoint the Obama adminis-tration had reason to
insist 
on a peacefulresponse. It would be folly for the United Statesto go to war over the sinking of the
Cheonan
.It didn’t matter that the act was criminal; itdidn’t matter that the deaths have greatly pained South Koreans; it didn’t matter thatSeoul might calculate the costs and benefits of a tough response differently. Washington’s toppriority is avoiding another conflict, one thatlikely would be costly, brutal, and bloody—andof no conceivable benefit to Americans.Of course, the ROK has even greater rea-son to avoid war—its territory would be thebattlefield. A number of South Koreans alsoappear to retain some sympathy for theNorth, despite its dismal record on humanrights and most other issues.
9
In fact, pollstaken after the incident show that a majority of South Koreans oppose military retalia-tion.
10
Moreover, some analysts point to evi-dence of regime weakness in North Korea.
11
That preserves the hope, so far forlorn, of a peaceful collapse of the Kim regime.Nevertheless, the Seoul government couldhave reasonably believed that a larger conflictwould ultimately become more likely if it didnot respond militarily to the
Cheonan
sinking;to exhibit weakness in the face of the North’sprovocation could be more dangerous than a continued downward spiral in relations. If theKim regime believed that the South wouldagain give way, even after the sinking of a South Korean warship, Pyongyang might betempted to stage additional and more danger-ous military strikes. The risk of war would riseeven more if the Kim regime found itself in cri-sis and various factions battled for control. Although risky, there were numerous retal-iatory options—seizing North Korean mer-chant vessels and bombing a North Koreannaval installation are two obvious alternatives.Obviously, Seoul could decide that a military counter-strike would not be the best or evengood policy. However, the alliance discouragedthe ROK from considering such an approacheven if the South Korean government and peo-
3
After the
Cheonan
sinking, theObamaadministrationreportedly urgedcaution andrestraint on Seoul.

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