Over at War is Boring, Kyle Mizokami argues that South Korea’s military spending choices indicate one of two different things, and both of them mean the United States no longer has any business basing troops in the country:
Maybe South Korea believes North Korea is no longer a serious problem and the South can safely strive for regional standing. If Pyongyang is no longer a threat, U.S. troops should no longer be necessary on the Korean peninsula.
The alternative is that South Korea believes North Korea is still a threat, but with Americans defending the South, Seoul can risk turning its attention outward. That amounts to United States subsidizing South Korea’s foreign policy, potentially at the cost of American lives.
Either makes a strong case for pulling U.S. troops from South Korea.
Now, we here at the Marmot’s Hole have been arguing for a withdrawal of U.S. ground troops from Korea for as long as I can remember. South Korea is more than capable of defending itself on its own, and all the United States should be providing is naval, air and logistical support.
The thing is, the arguments for pulling U.S. troops out of Korea were just as valid long, long before Seoul started spending money on amphibious landing craft instead of upgraded missile defense systems.
But before we criticize Korea for taking in interest in things such as a blue water navy and F-35 fighters, it should be noted that Korea – the world’s 12th largest economy, its seventh largest exporter and ninth largest importer – has global economic, security and humanitarian interests that have absolutely nothing to do with North Korea. Since 1993, it has sent over 40,000 troops overseas on peacekeeping missions, including ongoing operations in Lebanon, South Sudan, Afghanistan and off the Somali coast and a recently concluded one-year relief operation in the Philippines. Vessels like the ROKS Dokdo and Aegis destroyers may come in handy in these kinds of operations, which countries like Korea are going to be counted on to undertake more and more in the future.
And frankly, I don’t find this allocation of military resources to be especially unusual. Even during the Cold War, when Western countries were focused squarely on the Soviet threat and U.S. armored cavalry regiments were defending the Fulda Gap, U.S. allies such as Great Britain and France still devoted resources to protecting their interests outside of Europe, such as the Falklands and West Africa. Heck, even South Korea managed to pony up 320,000 of its best fighters to send to Vietnam from 1964 to 1973, a time when Seoul was much, much less capable of defending itself against a much more aggressive North Korean threat.
It should also be noted that the United States has not been unsupportive of Korea’s growing regional and, especially, global role. From the joint communique of 2010’s South Korea-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting:
The Secretary and the Minister reaffirmed the commitment of the U.S. and ROK Presidents to build a comprehensive strategic Alliance of bilateral, regional, and global scope, based on common values and mutual trust, as set forth in the June 2009 Joint Vision for the Alliance of the ROK and the U.S. They also reaffirmed their shared view expressed at the ROK-U.S. Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting in July that the scope of Alliance cooperation should continue to broaden and deepen to encompass both closer security cooperation and more comprehensive cooperation in other areas.
And from this October’s South Korea-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting:
The Secretary and the Minister pledged that the ROK and the United States would continue to enhance close Alliance cooperation to address wide-ranging global security challenges of mutual interest, including through peacekeeping activities, stabilization and reconstruction efforts, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. In addition, the Secretary and the Minister emphasized that the Alliance’s joint response capabilities against various biological threats including disease and terrorism have been continuously enhanced through the Able Response Exercise (AR) and decided to pursue even more active bilateral cooperation on this issue. The Secretary praised the ROK’s contributions to counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden, UN peace-keeping mission in Lebanon, and reconstruction efforts in the Republic of South Sudan. Moreover, the Secretary expressed appreciation for the ROK government’s continued active participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).
I think it’s a good thing that we’re beginning to redefine the Korea-U.S. alliance from a strictly defensive one against North Korea to a broader strategic global partnership. In fact, I’d argue that North Korea won’t be around forever, and if the Korea-U.S. alliance is to have a future, it needs to be based on the defense and promotion of common global interests and values, much in the same way NATO has become. Obviously, South Korea’s ability to contribute globally will be limited for the time being by its unique security situation, i.e., North Korea, but that’s no reason for it not to begin helping out now (as it has been) given the strong state of deterrence it currently enjoys vis-a-vis the North, in part thanks to the United States. And more to the point, we should not be surprised when South Korea starts acquiring the tools it needs to carry out those global missions.
One last point here. While some of Korea’s weapons systems procurements may be of limited use and/or overkill when it comes to the North Koreans – as Mikozami notes, “shooting down obsolete MiG-29s does not require budget-busting F-35s*” (Marmot’s note: shooting down Chinese J-31s in the event of a Chinese intervention would, though). Like many weapons procurements, however, there are political factors at work here, too, one of the most important on the Korean side being “solidifying the Korea-U.S. alliance.” The US$ 7 billion Seoul will spend on the F-35s might not be money spent “on equipment that’s actually useful for South Korea’s main problem, North Korea,” but it is money going to Lockheed Martin. And it’s not like Washington told Seoul, “Hey, don’t buy those F-35s! The alliance doesn’t need them!” In fact, the Americans were quite pleased with the sale, and it strikes me as a bit odd to punish Seoul with reduced security commitments for buying a weapon system we encouraged them to buy.
*Apparently, it’s something of a trend for Asian-Pacific nations with Aegis warships (namely, Korea, Japan and Australia) to also buy the F-35, and the United States very much views this as strengthening, not weakening, its Pacific alliances, including the one with Korea:
Both the Aegis and the Joint Strike Fighter, as well as the interaction between them, demonstrate how America is using military technology to strengthen its worldwide network of alliances. To begin with, the programs are both designed to strengthen the economic interdependence of America’s allies across the globe, with each nation utilizing comparative advantages in producing various parts for the Aegis and JSF, as well as further innovating them.
At the same time, systems like the F-35 and Aegis inherently foster greater interoperability between militaries that use them. This will be especially important for the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific, which currently lacks the kind of collective security mechanisms found in Europe or even the Persian Gulf. Although military systems like the F-35 and Aegis won’t be as effective in integrating regional defense as an organization like NATO, they should help prevent the kind of disasters seen at the Battle of Java should the U.S. and its allies ever find themselves fighting together in an actual conflict.
Photo courtesy of UNC – CFC – USFK