Time for Trump to Go ‘America First’ on Korean Peninsula
Relationship with South typifies lopsided arrangements that don't prioritize U.S. interests
Preparing for his summit starting today with South Korea’s new leader, President Donald Trump is undoubtedly being pressed by his establishmentarian foreign-policy advisers to reassure President Moon Jae-in of America’s unwavering commitment to this longtime ally’s defense. It’s pressure Mr. Trump urgently needs to resist.
For even before major recent nuclear-weapons advances by North Korea’s belligerent dictatorship, the relationship typified the “America Last” alliance policies that had sacrificed the U.S. public’s main interests for the benefit of foreign countries. With the North rapidly edging toward the ability to launch nuclear attacks on American territory, staying the course is becoming downright — and needlessly — dangerous. And Moon’s favored approach to dealing with his blustery and erratic neighbor is compounding the peril to the United States, and especially to the 28,000 troops still stationed on his country’s soil.
As with its approach to other defense alliances, Washington's South Korea strategy makes sense only if you assume that nothing has changed anywhere in the world since the Cold War's depths in the 1950s. Then, we undertook South Korea's defense to prevent a unified communist world's domination of East Asia, and especially of Japan's vast economic and therefore military potential.
Following the destructiveness of the Korean War, the South was one of the world's poorest countries. The likeliest threat it faced — intimidation or another invasion by the North — could be deterred with U.S. nuclear weapons because the potential aggressor couldn't threaten the American homeland in return. It was also then arguably farsighted for the United States to encourage South Korea to build up its economy by exporting freely to Americans while keeping its own market tightly closed.
By the 1990s at the very latest, these arguments had weakened notably. The geopolitical setting had been totally transformed: Not only had the Cold War ended with the demise of the Soviet Union, but China — which aided the North militarily in the Korean War — was opening to the world economy in order to foster its own development.
Alliance economics had become a big problem, too. Although North Korea remained a formidable military power, the South had economically left the North in the dust. Indeed, in 1996 it joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the global club of high-income countries.
Yet despite this wealth, the South never tried remotely to match the North's capabilities. So it stayed dependent on American conventional and nuclear forces. Adding insult to injury, South Korea remained highly protectionist — regularly confronting even the products of its U.S. ally with official anti-import campaigns.
Worse, a more ominous side effect of South Korea's defense free-riding was emerging: In late 1993, U.S. intelligence agencies judged that the North was well on its way to producing nuclear weapons. Even once deployed, they still couldn't credibly threaten American territory to keep the United States on the sidelines if it attacked the South. But the North was bound to create this capability if permitted to continue its development of missiles for carrying these weapons.
Today, of course, this threat has metastasized. North Korea has already successfully tested missiles that can hit the South and Japan — and the U.S. bases they host. Worse, the head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said earlier this month that Americans "must assume that North Korea can reach us with a ballistic missile." The North still apparently can't put a warhead on such a missile. But how far away could it be?
Though continually obscured by generations of U.S. leaders and mainstream-media coverage, here's why the resulting situation is so completely outrageous and perverse for Americans: For all the talk of North Korea's recklessness or lunacy, Americans aren't endangered by its nuclear forces because its rulers don't have any reason to attack the U.S., or interest in doing so, as such.
Americans are endangered because Washington keeps threatening the use of nuclear weapons to defend a South Korean ally that should be amply capable of defending itself, but which prefers to foist the main costs and risks onto American troops and taxpayers. For good measure, despite a trade deal negotiated by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, South Korea remains a big trade headache for Americans.
Since May, however, Moon's election as South Korea's president has turned matters completely farcical — at least if you believe that U.S. alliances must above all promote American interests. Moon ran as a long-time supporter of dealing with the North's nuclear threat mainly through economic carrots like expanded trade to promote reform, along with "dialogue."
He's also acknowledged the need for some continued sanctions, but seems unlikely to favor their expansion, much less even threats of military action. That's legitimate from the South Korean standpoint, since it's the North Korean opponent that would suffer the most in a new conflict.
For similar reasons, also legitimate are Moon's broader aims of taking the international lead in North Korea policy, along with specific ideas such as building a free-standing South Korean missile defense system plus a national offensive missile force of its own.
But since Americans also will pay in blood if Moon is wrong, what's not legitimate from the American standpoint is his ambivalence about deploying a U.S.-made missile defense system in South Korea. The THAAD system is intended to protect South Korean cities as well as U.S. troops, but it's fiercely opposed by numerous South Koreans and especially by Moon's core voters.
Problematic at best for the same reasons is Moon's insistence on diplomatic leadership. Moreover, after the fading of impulses to paper over differences with Washington to achieve summit "success," expect South Korean public opinion to resume widening the intra-alliance rift — and produce the strategically untenable result of the United States fearing North Korea more than many and even most South Koreans do.
Moon and his fellow citizens look like they're right in doubting a military or even a coercive solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Ditto for China, which agrees for its own reasons. But Washington's efforts to keep trying to square this circle need to end.
After all, Moon's economic approach seems unpromising as well — indeed, it failed 20 years ago. The North Korean threat seems certain to grow for the foreseeable future. And South Korea still is apparently counting on the United States to ride to its rescue if the North strikes. Therefore, it's time for America to put its own interests clearly first, take the hint given by these North Korean neighbors along with Russia, and leave the problem to them. (go to page 2 to continue reading)