Why the U.S. helps defend South Korea and what can go wrong

by on April 5, 2013 at 10:35 pm in Current Affairs | Permalink

It is not because we need to subsidize their defense per se, to cite one argument which some non-interventionist critics have attacked.  It is so, when North Korea behaves in a ridiculous manner, the South can respond (not respond) with great restraint.  What we are subsidizing is a) a feeling of security, and b) not building nuclear weapons in response.  We do something broadly similar for Japan.

The potential problem is when the same U.S. acts which produce a feeling of security in South Koreans produce a feeling of insecurity in North Korean leaders.  And the broader game we are playing, with numerous allies, means we might end up pushing some individual confrontations  beyond an optimal point (e.g., how would Israel respond with Iran if we wavered on South Korea?)  Might we have to overinvest in the South Korean feeling of security — from a strictly Korean peninsula point of view — to keep Japan, Israel, Taiwan, the Saudis, and others “in line”?

It would be good if the North Korean leadership would read this blog post, as they would then realize that what to their eyes appears to be American “overstepping” is done for the sake of other audiences.  It is problematic for the American government to itself communicate this point.  Imagine announcing “we don’t stand by South Korea as much as it appears, we are just doing this because Israel faces a signal extraction problem and we can somewhat sway their inference toward relaxing about their own security situation.”

It would be bad if the Saudi leadership would read this blog post (or understand this to begin with).  The American government would then have to produce a feeling of security for South Korea all the more.

liberalarts April 5, 2013 at 10:43 pm

One of the most interesting posts of the year for MR, this.

Bryan Willman April 5, 2013 at 10:53 pm

To some extent, the US has a reputation as a “crazy superpower” which sometimes does extreme things (nuking Japan, kicking Iraq out of Kuwait, etc. etc.)

That reputation is only useful to the extent that troublesome opposite parties are deterable – Saddam Hussein apparently was not, apparently in part because he needed to claim WDM to keep his own internal groups in line. Same problem – can’t send different messages to two different audiences in public.

It is also only useful to the extent that it does NOT create a “prize” for the ill behaved political factions in the opposite party. If your prestige is a function of “how mighty your enemies be” then winning a kind of staring contest with the USA circa 2013 has to be about as status enhancing an activity as one could imagine.

In other words, making South-Korea/Israel/Japan feel more secure may make very troublesome parties in North-Korea/Iran/China *more* powerful and give them *more* status inside their cultures. (This seems especially likely in North-Korea and IRAN actually, I sometimes wonder if the thing they fear most is to be publicly ignored by everybody, while subjected to mundane sanctions and bursts of cyber espionge.)

Chris April 6, 2013 at 12:04 am

Nuking Japan and kicking Iraq out of Kuwait seem pretty reasonable in the totality of the circumstances to me.

david April 6, 2013 at 12:38 am

Kicking Iraq out of Kuwait was a reminder that you cannot take the words of US ambassadors to minor states as determinative of American policy (unsurprisingly so, since this has never been the case for any superpower). That’s pretty crazy, in the sense of being so unrestrained as to be able to switch from neutral disinterest to shrieking nuclear-fleet-backed outrage and invasion in the space of five months.

Willitts April 6, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Iraq may very well have misread US intentions based on a few words by April Glaspie, but I’m quite certain they gauged a larger view of US intervention and their expectations about Russia, France, and China on the security council – their top three arms providers.

I agree that US responses in one theater demonstrate commitment in other theaters, but they also pose risks. When we launched operations Desert Shield and Storm, a substantial portion of our forces were held in reserve to respond to any threat or demonstration from North Korea.

Similarly, our commitment to Korea demonstrates our commitment to Taiwan. I’m not as convinced that our commitment to Israel is as effective in Asia since we have committed ourselves to stability in Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Our policies with respect to uprisings in Egypt, Syria, and Libya of late are more muddled, and understandably so given the character of the belligerents. But I don’t think the muddled policy in those cases detracts from our commitments elsewhere.

I’m more perplexed by North Korea. I confess to not understanding the mindset of a cult if personality, but I’m also aware that NK propaganda is not unchallenged. What exactly does Kim Hong In gain from saber rattling and defense/offense spending. Neither the US or ROK would invade if the DPRK unilaterally demobilized. Are they maintaining a national bogeyman in the minds of the NK sheeple or is this a demonstration of their own willingness to suppress any internal threat. In other words, is the fifth grader intimidating the third graders by shouting insults and threats at the eighth graders who are constrained in their actions and indifferent to the heckling?

Enrique April 5, 2013 at 10:56 pm

South Korea is like Taiwan — the US is just bluffing and will not not defend our allies when push comes to shove

Brett Champion April 6, 2013 at 12:35 am

Unfortunately that isn’t true. If North Korea or China were to attempt to invade their respective enemies in South Korea and Taiwan tomorrow, the US would be right there fighting against the North Koreans and Chinese, even though it has no major national security interests at stake in either potential conflict, at least as things currently stand. Would conflict in either area be bad for the US? Yes. But it wouldn’t be so bad as to warrant the possibility of fighting China in one conflict and the certainty of doing so in another.

Doing so in the case of South Korea is especially uncalled for because the ROK would have little problem fending off an invasion by the DPRK, and, while you can at least make some believable arguments regarding Taiwan, there is simply no US national security interest in the continued defense of South Korea. But even if you assume a valid interest in defending Taiwan, even China would have great difficulty in successfully invading there (though it could wreak great havoc on the island by using its rather large arsenal of missiles).

Andao April 6, 2013 at 3:14 am

What is the price of US credibility? If the US fails to defend one of these two, every other alliance looks meaningless. Let’s say China attacks Taiwan and the US does nothing. Japan, SK, and ASEAN would immediately rush to Beijing to pledge fealty. China’s growth will allow it to outspend the US in diplomacy, so the only card the US has to play is the credibility card.

Hong Konger April 6, 2013 at 6:10 am

>Let’s say China attacks Taiwan and the US does nothing. Japan, SK, and ASEAN would immediately rush to Beijing to pledge fealty.

Say what?

AC April 6, 2013 at 10:13 am

Think realpolitik.

Andao April 6, 2013 at 11:27 am

They’d realize that no one is going to come to their rescue if they defy China. So I imagine they’d be rushing to see who can get the best deal from being a friend of China

Willitts April 6, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Japan and SK turning to Beijing? An utterly preposterous proposition. That’s like saying England would turn to the Soviet Union for fealty if the US didn’t respond to an invasion of West Berlin.

Maybe in 100 years if China had true democracy.

Willitts April 6, 2013 at 12:31 pm

A remarkably uninformed and short sighted opinion.

The US is not bluffing in either case. We have the military capability to fully destroy the entire Chinese military in a matter of days and the DPRK military in a matter of hours with conventional weapons.

The only wild card is the use of nuclear weapons, and it is quite clear that neither China nor the DPRK want to put their own resolve to that test. We would, of course, respond in kind.

Joe Smith April 6, 2013 at 2:53 pm

I’m with Willitts. America is not bluffing about South Korea.

Tyler is just plain flat wrong, and dangerously so, about South Korea. If North Korea attacks the South, America will help South Korea accomplish regime change in the North. They will do a side deal with the Chinese to establish a de-militarized zone on either side of the Yalu and Tumen rivers to keep the Chinese out of the fight.

Anon April 7, 2013 at 10:00 am

Lol you actually think the US military is like it is I the movies, they won’t do jack, china could obliterate the US but it doesn’t need to cos it’s already financial secured their takeover and control of US. It took 10 years to make Iraq how it is today and you think they could destroy china in days??? Your drinking your own kool aid mate.

Cliff April 7, 2013 at 10:29 pm

It took what, a few days to destroy Iraqi defenses? Not sure what your point is. The U.S. does not need to occupy China, just defeat it militarily.

Enrique April 9, 2013 at 12:11 am

Three words: bay of pigs …

Bryan Willman April 5, 2013 at 11:14 pm

@Enrique – maybe so – but 20th century history and 21st century so far suggest that’s a very high risk bet. Think about it “they won’t stop us from invading Taiwan!”. Maybe so. But last numbers I saw showed the 7th fleet by itself actually outgunned China in aircraft.
(Part of that whole the “US spends more on arms than the next several dozen countries including our allies – combined.”)
So Taiwan might be on it’s own. Or might have Serious Help. And the PRC could perhaps win regardless. But the opportunity for it to be a career ending and maybe Party ending debacle, well, that would seem to loom rather large. And what’s the real upside if they win? (I’m not Chinese, I can’t grok why the PRC cares at all.)

But again, you might be right. If, say, the nut cases in North Korea become certain you are right, there could well be a great deal of utterly pointless bloodshed.
(Is there such a thing as pointfull bloodshed????)

Bill April 6, 2013 at 12:40 am

“And the PRC could perhaps win regardless. But the opportunity for it to be a career ending and maybe Party ending debacle, well, that would seem to loom rather large. And what’s the real upside if they win?”

The Chinese might invade Taiwan as a rally around the flag war to quell domestic unrest. If the Party’s rule is seriously threatened by rebellion, why the heck not?

Andao April 6, 2013 at 3:18 am

It’s still kind of a dicey proposition. Claiming for decades that Taiwan is part of China, then proceeding to bomb the crap out of it doesn’t make for good “familial relations.” If we’re all Chinese brothers and sisters, why are we shooting each other? Likewise, Taiwan would not be some happily occupied little territory. I’m pretty sure it would not be easy to control without continued brute force.

Joe Smith April 7, 2013 at 12:13 am

“why the heck not?”

Because – oh – Taiwan might have the ability to have and keep air superiority, sink the invasion fleet and burn Xiamen and Shanghai to the ground with conventional weapons.

A Chinese invasion would be a gamble that Taiwan would not be able to defend itsel. If Taiwan inflicted tactical defeats on the Chinese, the government of China could fall. Will the Chinese leadership gamble the country and their own lives for one little province?

Chips April 5, 2013 at 11:18 pm

There are very few people left in government who think in grand, strategic terms like this. Furthermore, the game moves too fast and is far too fragmented these days for the Security Council and State to make actual decisions based on other actors half way around the world.

This is really only about simultaneously 1. Not looking like a pussy locally, and 2. Preventing tens of thousands of deaths in Seoul.

That last point is key: the only real power North Korea has is the missile battery aimed at Seoul.

Millian April 6, 2013 at 5:35 am

“There are very few people left in government who think in grand, strategic terms like this.”

Really? I can understand that GWB would leave strategy fans despondent. But apart from him, the US strategic position in the world has all been to the good since Reagan – after accounting for the relative economic decline of the West, of course. One bad president isn’t enough grounds for despair.

TMC April 6, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Uh, I don’t think he was speaking of GWB.

yang April 6, 2013 at 4:52 pm

One bad president isn’t enough grounds for despair.

I agree, all president won’t be traitorous tards like the scoamf Obama.
Good point. Eventually we’ll have another president who actually studied some economics and didn’t spend his entire career befriending convicted left-wing terrorists.

Bill April 6, 2013 at 8:28 am

Also, Tyler’s game assumes that Korea doesn’t know this…that is, it is provoking now because of Iran. In other words, you could have a game with multiple players, each acting up with the other is. Not surprising. This may be a better argument for multilateral action than unilateral action: Nato can handle this region, some other group can handle the other.

Willitts April 6, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Tens of thousands in Seoul? Perhaps. But there would be a tit for tat response on DPRK defense facilities and that would provoke the next move by DPRK, and that move would already be planned. If that move is nothing, then there would be no attack on Seoul. If that move were atomic bombs, then it steps up quickly to a greater level.

I’m thinking the greatest consideration is hundreds of thousands if not millions in Seoul and whether we would nuke Pyongyang in retaliation.

Plamus April 7, 2013 at 12:39 pm

“…and that move would already be planned.”

Is it though? Or, rather, is it planned realistically? Is it possible that no one in the DPRK military would voice the truth – that their military is an obsolete behemoth that cannot run over the DMZ in a glorious infantry charge, but rather will be pulverized from the air – because of the high probability of an extended vacation for himself and his family in Yodok? After all, by saying this, he’d be calling the previous “Dear Leaders” ignorant and/or liars, which is a big no-no in personality cults (I hesitate to mention too the specifics of East Asian honor perceptions, of which I am aware, but cannot claim to understand). In a social and military system based on fear, information does not necessarily flow freely to the top (or to the bottom, for that matter), making, IMHO, the possibility of a “rational” game plan that is strongly predicated on “garbage in” very real.

prior_approval April 5, 2013 at 11:31 pm

‘It would be good if the North Korean leadership would read this blog post’

Maybe translate it into Korean, to make that into more than a truly pompous sentiment.

Bill April 6, 2013 at 1:07 am

Tyler, you should go to NK and offer them advice. Liveblog your trip too.

Dan Weber April 8, 2013 at 3:16 pm
Boris April 6, 2013 at 8:02 am

prior_approval, of all people, is in no position to be calling anyone pompous.

Jan April 6, 2013 at 10:46 am

I did find that line funny.

Cliff April 7, 2013 at 10:32 pm

Because Korean people don’t know English! Or only search in Korean and can’t find English language documents on Google!

Dave Barnes April 5, 2013 at 11:40 pm

Fuck the Norks

derek April 6, 2013 at 12:06 am

Channelling Kim Jong-un:

it is always about you! I threaten war, break an armistice that has been around for decades, threaten missile strikes on the US, and all you talk about is yourself.

Steve Sailer April 6, 2013 at 12:06 am

The CIA World Factbook lists America as spending 4.06% of GDP on its military while South Korea only spends 2.7%.

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2034rank.html

Both figures are a half dozen years old, by the way. Hopefully, somebody at the CIA knows what the current stats are, but nobody seems to be in much of a hurry to update the public on the numbers.

Rahul April 6, 2013 at 1:44 am

Why should they? CIA is hardly “Transparency International”

gordsellar April 8, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Well, the expenditure differential is hardly surprising.

South Korea saves a lot of money by having a two-year period of mandatory conscription for all male South Koreans (who usually serve between the ages of 20-22), and paying them basically enough to keep the boys in cigarettes during that period.

Meanwhile, the US pays the American soldiers and contractors in Seoul extremely well. (The biggest, nicest, most insanely expensive apartments I’ve ever seen in over a decade of living in South Korea were all the homes of US military personnel.)

Which is not to argue that the South Korean approach is better; the US approach is more expensive, but my experience in Korea has convinced me that universal conscription (at least when done Korean-style) is about the best way to screw up your country’s best and brightest.

Vladimir April 6, 2013 at 12:20 am

US foreign policy since WWII has been predicated on the belief that the defeated nations should be pacified and in return the US will be responsible for their defence. Over time this has meant that West Germany and Japan don’t have to pursue nuclear weapons. So yes preventing countries capable of getting nuclear weapons from feeling they have to has been a cornerstone of American policy. Second US grand strategy is based on a network of alliances. Tyler doesn’t use world credibility but in important ways it is American credibility as an alliance partner that is at stake. Then there is the question as to whether both China and the US are caught up in Cold War era commitments on the Korean peninsula. China would like to see the US leave South Korea. It might be willing to transition toward an honest broker role , and ultimately tilt toward the South. It wants to see the US leave the Korean peninsula after all. Of course this would signal a transition in the balance of power in the wider region and American retreat. The Iranians or the Israels wouldn’t learn any lessons here. Assad didn’t learn much from Libya now did he. The US would like to see China try harder to restrain North Korea. Yet the US doesn’t want to make any commitments now about what its future policy will be in regard towards the Korean Peninsula. It appears to want to retain the “containment” option. If China abandons North Korea what does it get from the South? So the Chinese have tolerated a regime that threatens regional stability and in doing so helps bind America closer to the South and Japan. The wrong result for China. The United States is prepared to go to war to defend a high income country with a large population that should be able to defend itself –against a country which wouldn’t threaten America at all if America didn’t have a commitment to South Korea.

Andao April 6, 2013 at 3:22 am

This is a long-term problem for China. SK polls show the youth consider China to be the biggest threat after NK. In one poll I saw, something like 74% of SKoreans said they still wanted US troops stationed there after reunification. Unless China learns some soft power skills pronto, they’re going to lose another entire generation of potential fans in South Korea.

Mark Thorson April 6, 2013 at 12:30 am

I don’t believe you will do a thing if I launch just one Musudan missile at ROK. Certainly not invade me. But that will get your President to call me.

Mark Thorson April 6, 2013 at 12:32 am

With conventional explosive warhead, of course.

Willitts April 6, 2013 at 4:15 pm

If I were president, I’d call you with cell phones taped to 500 tomahawk missiles, with conventional explosive warheads, of course.

Joe Smith April 7, 2013 at 9:16 am

The counterstrike would be on its way before anyone figures out the original North Korean missile only had conventional explosives.

Mark Thorson April 7, 2013 at 12:35 pm

No, it wouldn’t. I sank a ship and killed a bunch of guys and nothing happened. One unguided missile isn’t going to provoke an invasion. I’m sure there will be statements that you deplore my missile launch. I can withstand that. If you launch one missile back as retailiation, I can withstand that too. That’s what I want. We’ll run the videos of that on DPRK-TV every day for the next year.

Cliff April 7, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Who cares what you run on TV?

Thomas April 6, 2013 at 12:45 am

The South Koreans don’t seem worried. So, yes, they feel secure. But they must believe either that NK has no interest in aggression, or that NK’s interest in aggression is deterred by the US response posture. A US promise of overwhelming response would not make me, if I were a South Korean, sleep particularly well. I think they believe NK has no real interest in aggression.

Willitts April 6, 2013 at 4:11 pm

I agree with your assessment. Unless the North is batshit crazy, they have already wargamed their scenarios and it doesn’t end well for them. I think this bluster is for internal consumption and perhaps to coax some concessions while maintaining status quo. Why not? It has worked for 60 years.

If North Korea launched a major attack, the US and ROK would have the excuse they needed for an invasion that China could not counter on military or moral grounds. The only attack scenario that makes any sense is a simultaneous attack by North Korea and China, but they lose that war too. Things are going too well in China for them to damage its relations with us.

My nightmare scenario is what happens if the DPRK is on the verge of collapse. It might be Jonestown times a thousand. Yes, that means Jonestown thousand.

Mark Thorson April 6, 2013 at 9:53 pm

One Musudan missile hitting a random spot in ROK is not a “major attack”. At least, not the kind that would provoke major retaliation. A proportional response from you guys would be no problem. In fact, that’s what I want — a demonstration to my people that you are on the verge of war and I am their only hope for protection.

Andrew Smith April 6, 2013 at 12:55 am

Doesn’t strike me as a game worth winning, that.

Steve Sailer April 6, 2013 at 2:03 am

War doesn’t pay anymore. Look at the American experience in Iraq: Ten years ago we conquered a country with a huge amount of oil in the ground and we barely stole any. In fact, we ended up handing out briefcases full of cash to the locals to get them to stop killing each other.

aaa April 6, 2013 at 2:22 am

Tyler, I don’t see why you’re speaking in the subjunctive, “if we wavered on South Korea”. North Korea did get nuclear weapons, after all. The US has been playing this game for a long time and nobody in Israel believes any longer that the US can launch a war with Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. If the US administration thinks its posturing in Korea is sending a signal elsewhere in the world, it’s like the child who closes her eyes and shouts “you can’t see me!”.

Andao April 6, 2013 at 5:29 am

Another side effect of this episode is that it allows the US to move more weapons into East Asia, and China can’t counter by claiming it’s containment. The whole “pivot to Asia ” becomes much easier diplomatically when the US can point to North Korea’s crazy rhetoric . That more than anything should persuade the Chinese to take a more forceful stance against NK provocations, but so far it hasn’t. In fact, I saw something last week about the Chinese publicly complaining about the newly deployed missile interceptors in Alaska. I guess they want to have their cake and eat it too.

Shane M April 6, 2013 at 6:19 am

I know very little of foreign policy unlike other posters here, but I agree with this observation. The US actions seem to speak to a power like China – showing them that if they’re unwilling to reign in NK they’re likely to end up with a more militarized SK, Japan and others. Not sure it that’s a good situation or not. If NK goes nuclear can SK and Japan and others not eventually follow the same direction? We’ll probably end there at some point anyway, but maybe by then the inter-dependence will be so great the probability of war will be much lower.

If I was China I wouldn’t be liking what NK is doing at all. It’d be like if one of our neighbors – say Canada – started saying they were going to attack Russia and it caused Russia to militarize more heavily near Alaska. We’d be like “Come on Canada? What’s up with that? What are you really after?”

Conspiracy theories can easily run away with me, but I’m thinking there may be a trade similar to Cuban missile crisis somewhere in the background. China defuses or drops support for NK and US agrees to something China wants in return. I’m not saying the situation is manufactured, but there’s opportunity for players to extract concessions to achieve cooperation.

Shane M April 6, 2013 at 6:33 am

Follow up: Just saw this from NYT

Detecting Shift, U.S. Makes Case to China on North Korea
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/06/world/asia/us-sees-china-as-lever-to-press-north-korea.html

X April 6, 2013 at 6:58 am

Interesting, maybe the US is paying North Korea to make those threats?

Andao April 6, 2013 at 11:31 am

There are lots of fun conspiracy theories you could run with. Maybe SK and/or Japan is involved somehow, so they can justify the need for their own nuclear weapons. Maybe China is planning something secret and is using this as a diversion, to lure all the chess pieces in closer. It’s probably really just as simple as it looks, but who knows.

Millian April 6, 2013 at 5:32 am

Very good, wise post. Of course, the somewhat detached nature of US involvement in the Korean peninsula may itself add to North Korean feelings of security, relative to the “tense South Korea” outcome. The US can more easily choose to limit any potential conflict than South Korea, simply because it’s not existential for them. Imagine two Korean states with nuclear capacity.

Claudia April 6, 2013 at 6:16 am

The post is useful for reminding everyday citizens that the US interests in South Korea go well beyond their local issues….however, the casual hints that those in international relations in other countries don’t know this is silly. The Cold War was chock full of proxy wars and trying to score indirect points in the main conflict. I was taught this stuff as an undergrad poli sci major 15 years ago at a small liberal arts school (I did have an awesome prof, but still), so I guess those quips in the post were humor. Strategery abounds in IR.

For kicks, I think you should post another one from China or Russia’s view on the North Korean side…Kim’s provocations go well beyond land conquest too, why? On the other side I wonder if Kim’s signaling more to his own allies than his allies are signallling to the world.

Need both sides to figure out if the equilibrium is stable. (Kind of looks like a trembling hand perfect equilibrium to me…)

Alexei Sadeski April 6, 2013 at 7:17 am

You provide deep strategy insight into US actions and rhetoric, yet seemingly take North Korea’s action and rhetoric at face value.

Habibullah Khan April 6, 2013 at 8:21 am

There is nothing new here. The US had to stay and fight in Vietnam exactly for the same reason. It has always been interventionist based on the geo-political message it sends to allies.

Bill April 6, 2013 at 8:25 am

There’s a difference between investment and payment.

We can protect them for our investment and they can pay us for it. Otherwise, it is a free good.

Do we need a ground presence if we give them a nuclear umbrella? They can enlist more of their citizens in their own defense.

steve April 6, 2013 at 8:40 am

I think this article is way off the mark. I believe it is a rationalization for why the U.S. is in S. Korea, it may even be the official rationalization. I think, the real superficial reason is that the U.S. just hates to leave anywhere ever, once we are established. Threat or no threat. Yes, we sometimes leave before we get entrenched as in Iraq, but my understanding is we did build large bases there suitable for a permanent residence, but couldn’t reach an arrangement with the Iraqi government.

Earlier I said superficial, so what is the deeper reason. I think its just the great game. More bases in more parts of the world establishes us as a more potent power player in more regions. I believe the generals reasoning runs along the lines of “sure it may have been peaceful for decades, but who knows what tomorrow will bring.” Therefore by that reasoning, any base anywhere is a good thing that should not be abandoned if at all possible.

Andao April 6, 2013 at 11:39 am

I actually think quite the opposite. The US is almost unique in its history of leaving countries after they’ve been conquered or liberated. The US didn’t turn Western Europe into the 51st state after WW2, nor did it do the same to Korea or Japan. After the war the US willingly gave the Philippines its independence as promised. Which other colonial power has simply gotten up and left?

Ironically this strategy is probably really bad in economic terms. The US has tossed billions into Iraq, yet the Chinese get all the oil contracts. Same goes for Afghanistan (where Chinese mine copper under protection of US security). I think it’d make more economic sense if we weren’t always in such a hurry to get out.

steve April 6, 2013 at 2:05 pm

We seem to have a miss understanding. I am not claiming the U.S. conquers countries, occupies and runs them like ancient Rome or Brittian in its golden age, but rather that we simply maintain a forceful military presence anywhere we get established if we can. Nor am I saying we are there against the will of the country in question. Every example you gave Europe (West Germany), Korea (South Korea), Japan all have significant U.S. troop presences. Except the Phillipines where we had 9 bases, but were booted out by the Phillipino government in the early 1990s.

From Wikipedia Japan has 20 U.S. military bases located within its borders comprising army, marine, airforce, and navy bases. Germany was too many to count, a list slightly longer than my whole computer screen and south South Korea has 28. I would characterize each of these examples as a forceful military presence. Look it up on Wikipedia. There are a lot of other countries and a lot of other bases.

The Anti-Gnostic April 7, 2013 at 8:48 am

I am not claiming the U.S. conquers countries, occupies and runs them like ancient Rome or Britain in its golden age

America isn’t really set up for empire, and ‘national interest’ is too tawdry, so we embrace warm, fuzzy concepts like ‘global democracy’ which leads to all sorts of schizophrenic choices, like enabling theocratic jihadists in the Middle East. I would not underestimate the base desire for full-time employment by bureaucrats and military in forming US policy.

steve April 7, 2013 at 11:39 am

I think their is a lot of truth in your full employment for soldiers argument. My grand game theory may just be a rationalization for larger military budgets. I think the reality is some of both. I suspect the upper echelons of the military is a very political enviornment. Like any politician many will be opportunists solely out for larger budgets and more power, while others will be true believers. However, for good or bad, these twin drives produce the same conclusions when establishing military bases all over the world.

Mike H April 6, 2013 at 8:54 am

South Korea is not your average banana Republic. They have a massive armed forces equipped with some of the most advanced weaponry money can buy, their tanks and fighter jets are at least two generations ahead of anything North Korea can hit them with. An average ROKAF pilot has thousands of hours of flying experiences under his belt versus 100-200 hours from the North Korean pilots. Like Israel, South Korea has a 2-year conscription which means that millions of their men can be called into serviced in short order and all of them had gone through extensive (and modernized) military training. The truth is that South Korea will easily defeat any form of North Korean invasion even without help from the US. The new Korean war will most likely be an updated version of Gulf war that quickly ended with thousands of burning Soviet-era North Koreans tanks and downed jets littered across DMZ and minimum military casualties on the part of ROK. Reunification is inevitable following the war and South Koreans will spend their next decade or two helping those 20 million North Koreans back on their feet.

I think one interesting issue Tyler raised is that US acts in a manner that is actually counterproductive to its long-term security interest. By discouraging South Koreans to act militarily against the North and hence preventing their reunification, US is effectively subsidizing a state of continuous confrontation and the existence of an outdated communist regime. There are those who say a divided Korea is more profitable for the US (arm sales, leverage against China etc.) but I fail to see why a united Korea will be any less valuable to the long-term US interest. If anything, a united Korea will make China the biggest loser both geopolitically and diplomatically, while the new Korea will still rely on US for security alliance and trade.

John April 6, 2013 at 9:11 am

That’s an interesting take on the game and a potential solution but it does beg the question, that I’m sure a rational N, Korea would ask, Why not somewhere else? The local excess of security in S. Korea still places N. Korea in a position of risk and with a sense of “the other side building up” the threat level.

Surely all the other players in the game should also understand this and see that our backing down a bit with N. Korea implies we’ll take a stronger position in their support should that be needed.

David N April 6, 2013 at 9:20 am

“Reunification is inevitable following the war and South Koreans will spend their next decade or two helping those 20 million North Koreans back on their feet.”

The South Koreans don’t want to foot the bill for this. They would prefer to wait and hope for North Korea to liberalize its economy and raise its GDP so that when reunification does occur it’s not a humanitarian crisis. This is also what China wants because 20 million starving North Koreans can cross their border too. That’s why the South Koreans sent their President up north with a $200 million dollar bribe, and that’s why China keeps supplying them with oil despite “losing patience.”

Mike H April 6, 2013 at 4:01 pm

What you suggest has already been tried and failed, it was called “Sunshine policy”. There is already a strong consensus among South Koreans that reform is all but impossible as long as Kim and the rest of the North Korean party elites remain in power. Also you ignore the huge economic benefits South Koreans can gain from having 20 million of cheap labors and resources which will easily outweigh the cost of reunification. The Kaesong Industrial Region (which has just been shut down last week) invested by South Korean businesses using Northern labors is a great example of it. Just because Germans failed to develop former GDR through welfare state doesn’t mean everyone have to make the same mistake.

steve April 7, 2013 at 11:43 am

Don’t forget family. Many South Koreans aren’t as concerned about the cost as they are about seeing their grand daughter before they die.

Douglas Leveneq April 6, 2013 at 9:37 am

The US security promise to South Korea is to protect it against another invasion from the North. If that threat were eliminated, the need for the security guarantee would go away.
China’s big interest in Korea is to ensure that foreign troops do not wind up being stationed on China’s borders.
This suggest a solution along the following lines:
1) China, the US and South Korea would agree to merge North Korea into South Korea, with the South Korean Government continuing and the reunited Korea having all responsibility for refugees, etc.
2) The reunited Korea would become a neutral state, the US and South Korea would mutually abrogate the security treaty, and all US troops would be withdrawn to Japan or elsewhere.
3) China would make an offer to the North Korean generals that they couldn’t refuse: accept fabulous pensions and immunity from prosecution and have a wonderful life in Switzerland, or else. The costs of pensioning off the generals would be a few billion dollars – less than the cost of maintaining the US forces in South Korea for one year. The US and/or South Korea would pay these costs.

This solves everyone’s problems. China gets peace in North Asia, no foreign troops on its border and better trade relations with Korea, a vital trade partner, and it gets rid of its biggest foreign policy headache. The US gets peace in North Asia and the end of the need to defend Korea. Koreans get a reunited Korea. The North Korean generals get Swiss chalets.

Andao April 6, 2013 at 11:47 am

This is a rather imperialist mindset, and one I used to share. Yes, it dots all the i’s and crosses all the t’s, but it also completely ignores the wishes of both the North and South Korean people. A liberated North Korea would not be content with simply letting the bad guys retire in obscurity. Try telling them the reason is because China and the US say so.

Likewise, over 70% of SKoreans want US troops in the country even after reunification. Should we just ignore the democratic wishes of a sovereign state because the US and China have some geopolitical game to play? The US could stand to win a lot more by staying the course than by agreeing to your suggestion, in which they win nothing and lose much. Meanwhile China has essentially free reign over a united, weakened Korea.

steve April 7, 2013 at 11:56 am

“Likewise, over 70% of SKoreans want US troops in the country even after reunification. Should we just ignore the democratic wishes of a sovereign state because the US and China have some geopolitical game to play?”

I found this statement to be outrageous. The wishes of a sovereign state democratic or not never have any binding moral or legal claim upon the people of the United States excepting treaties and with regards to their own sovereignty. (i.e. they can boot us out, but they can’t make us stay). I am sure that if a vote were taken more then 70% of the S Koreans would want the United States to pay their taxes as well. My point is S Korean democratic wishes and votes are only relevant to the decisions of S Korea.

prior_approval April 6, 2013 at 1:49 pm

Or the ROK could just follow the lead of occupied Germany when reunified – soldiers from other countries than Germany were not allowed into Russia’s previous occupation zone.

And still aren’t.

Mike H April 6, 2013 at 4:39 pm

US troops in Korea: 28,500. While ROK army along has half a million soldiers. By “foreign troops” I assume you are not even counting those South Korean troops as foreign to China. You really need to get over the biased view that North/South Korea are just some kind of proxy or puppet states stand in between the larger US-China struggle. The two Koreas have been arming themselves to the teeth for the last 60 years just to show the world they can fight each other without getting a “permission” from another continent.

Henry Kissinger April 6, 2013 at 9:58 am

Prof. Cowen

You are so far beyond your competence. Don’t ever play poker, for you have no ability to read anyone. All you are is re-processed Chomsky.

North Korea is not acting out of any felling of insecurity. The country is nothing but a combination extortion racket and unending campaign to maintain a dictatorship. Compare this guy to Stalin or John Gotti or Al Capone, the last fellows around capable of sending people onto a motor range to be executed.

SK is going to have to play Belgium until NK crosses a border. Then we can finally do something we should have done long ago: Nuke NK, sending a clear message to Iran and Islam.

As I used to tell Dick, Avoid the Nuke and you spoil the child. Isn’t that what we have done?

collin April 6, 2013 at 2:16 pm

I glad your comfortable that the American taxpayer is subsidizing the military safety of all the world trade. This is the main reason why I am comfortable with high corporate tax rates because they benefit the most the US military power so companies more willing to invest and outsource in foreign countries. This is the main reason why I don’t vote Republican because American exceptionism is we pay for the safety of the world.

I still say if we want to end the Korea stand-off, John Kerry should simply say the world is to unsafe to insure all the ships coming from Foxconn. That will get action from everybody.

Nathan W April 8, 2013 at 4:55 pm

I think much of the world has had enough of the “subsidy”.

How about set aside a third of military spending to help care for your own (health care), another third to build real bridges around the world, and keep the remaining third of military spending to get in line with a reasonable share of GDP allocated to projecting American military might.

American Classifieds April 7, 2013 at 11:47 pm

NK has been on the brink of war for 60 years ever since the Korean Armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.
Worry is valid if the NK leader is old, sick and dying because anything can happen out of misjudgment or insanity.
The new NK leader is young and was previously educated in the West. He is married and analysts believe he has a child.
All in all, he is looking into long term deals. At the same time, he needs to be aligned with party goals and show some level of leadership. Lets not aggravate and provoke more animosity. Lets give peace a chance and hope NK to emulate China for economic transformation that transformed China 35 years. That would be a great step in peace and mutual prosperity.

Nathan W April 8, 2013 at 4:51 pm

I reckon the relevant folks in NK would be quite embarrassed to find out that the main reason the US pays any attention to NK is just to make sure that NK’s leaders don’t feel so irrelevant as to do something stupid.

Interesting though … it seems obvious once said, but I’d never considered that US strategy on NK would be significantly influenced by how other US allies would judge the strength of the alliance on the basis of actions on the Korean peninsula.

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