There is the potential for some serious fallout from the conviction of impeached South Korean president Park Geun-hye. Just as often happens in American elections, voters could very well react by electing a liberal candidate, one more inclined to revert to the Sunshine Policy tried in the past. This time, however, the stakes will be much higher if the political pendulum swings too far to the left.
There has been talk of engaging more with the North in an effort to transfer South Korean capitalism through osmosis, one of the justifications for the Kaesong Industrial Complex. And there are people in favor of a peace treaty with North Korea. One South Korean educator has even suggested that the Demilitarized Zone is a barrier to this and thus must be done away with.
U.S. OBLIGED TO DEFEND
With a new U.S. administration conducting a review of its North Korea policy, it is fitting to examine why Washington is concerned with a country half a world away. U.S. involvement in Asia has created its obligation to the entire Korean Peninsula – not only by treaty commitment, but from a moral responsibility as well. As I have argued before, the U.S. owes all Koreans its best defense and support since it was American ignorance that facilitated the division of the Korean Peninsula in the concluding days of World War II.
To briefly remind readers, I point out that if Washington had recognized the strategic value of Korean Peninsula, it might have included that piece of real estate in its sphere of Asian interests prior to World War II. Then, during the war itself, allied commanders in the Pacific Theater might have made more effort to have better intelligence on Soviet progress in the Far East as the war came to its cataclysmic end.
The U.S. owes all Koreans its best defense and support
The Soviets had not advanced as far as assumed, and the Allies might have instead been able to free most – if not all – of the entire peninsula, rather than capriciously dividing it with the Soviets at the 38th parallel. Due to a lack of knowledge about the area, ill-informed American military officers made a defective decision that condemned more than half of the country – the portion rich in natural resources and thus a synergistic match for the agricultural lands of the South – to first a communist dictatorship and now a dynastic tyranny.
Clearly, beyond the treaty responsibilities of the U.S. that guarantee the security of South Korea, there is a moral duty there as well.
ARE OBLIGATIONS FOREVER?
The U.S. responded to that obligation after Pyongyang attacked the South to start the Korean War. Ever since the armistice, Washington has maintained a large contingent of American service personnel in the southern portion of the peninsula to deter the North from a second such attack. Although those numbers have been significantly reduced over the years, there are still roughly 28,500 U.S. troops in the country.
But how long is the United States obligated to put its own blood and treasure at risk? There are two short and overly simplified answers: (a) until Seoul has the capability on its own to fully counter the threat from Pyongyang, or (b) until Washington can rectify its mistakes revealed above, whichever comes first.
If South Korea decides upon a far more liberal course with regard to North Korea, that would counter or significantly hamper U.S. defense efforts
As for South Korea being capable of deterring or defending itself against the North by itself, that would almost certainly require that Seoul possess its own nuclear arsenal to include survivability for a second-strike capability.
Further, Seoul would need the means to reach Pyongyang with its own missiles from well-protected sites or on highly mobile transporter-erector-launcher vehicles. The South does not currently have nuclear weaponry, and may not yet have the ability to knock down the vast number of rockets and missiles that the North could launch.
So, just how would the United States clean up the mess it is responsible for having created? After failing to capitalize on many opportunities, including at least three decades of non-productive diplomatic efforts, the inescapable conclusion is that Washington cannot get the job done. That puts the burden on South Korea – but is the region ready for an arms race?
THINKING THE UNTHINKABLE
Furthermore, there are compounding contingencies. Consider what would happen if South Korea decides to greatly increase its economic or political engagement with Pyongyang, arrangements that could strain Seoul’s relationship with Washington. For example, if South Korea decides upon a far more liberal course with regard to North Korea, that would counter or significantly hamper U.S. defense efforts.
When voters in South Korea elect their next government, they ought to be aware that decisions regarding North Korea by any new government will necessarily have a crucial bearing on their own safety and well-being. Dubious decisions on North Korean policy, particularly regarding extended economic and political cooperation, could result in undesirable outcomes.
A democratic nation is, of course, free to choose its own path, and outside advice is rarely welcomed – people must want what they are offered for it to be of any value. Even so, if the next South Korean administration attempts a significantly expanded – read: riskier – version of the unproductive Sunshine Policy from the past, the North would eventually reveal its true intentions, likely with disastrous consequences for the South.
Were that to happen, it would be time for Washington to reevaluate its involvement on the peninsula. It is not possible to save a society from itself, despite the best of intentions. There should be no American lives lost in a second Korean War facilitated by ill-advised decisions by Seoul.
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Featured Image: 2014.3.31. 한미해병대 연합상륙훈련(쌍룡훈련) March. 31st. 2014. ROK-US Marine Combined Amphibious Exercise (SSang Yong) by 대한민국 국군 Republic of Korea Armed Forces on 2014-03-31 10:01:51