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Posts Tagged ‘Syngman Rhee’

Why Are American Forces Still Guarding the Korean Peninsula? – Original

Posted by M. C. on June 29, 2020

Last week’s 70th anniversary of the Korean War sparked a spate of conferences and commemorations. Many participants expressed wonder at the fact that the alliance had lasted so long. The fact that it has not changed despite the dramatic transformation of the Korean peninsula, region, and world actually is a problem. The seven decade-old pact is obsolete, making the US less safe.

Seven decades ago Americans found themselves at war in a country most people couldn’t locate without a map. That included two young army officers, Charles Bonesteel and Dean Rusk, a future Secretary of State.

On August 10, 1945, the Pentagon tasked them with determining a convenient division of the Korea peninsula. Since they knew nothing of Korea, then a Japanese colony, they consulted a National Geographic map and settled on the 38th parallel, or latitude.

World War II was rapidly heading to a close, with Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s surrender announcement just days away. The Soviet Union had entered the war and Red Army units were heading for Korea. There were no American troops nearby, but when Washington proposed that the two governments split the peninsula’s occupation Joseph Stalin surprisingly agreed. He probably thought that would encourage the U.S. to allow the U.S.S.R. to share in the occupation of Japan. He also might have believed the concession would encourage the Truman administration to be more cooperative in Eastern Europe.

Some Koreans blame America for the peninsula’s division. However, the alternative would have been for the entire peninsula to be occupied by the Soviet Union and then turned into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Without the threat posed by another Korean government, backed by America, the communist state might have evolved differently and perhaps slightly less brutally. However, its rulers never exhibited any liberal instincts. One Korea very likely would have just meant a larger totalitarian horror.

The 38th parallel turned out to be a propitious choice for a border. It cut the peninsula in half but placed the capital and almost two-thirds of the population under American control. The original expectation was that the country would be reunited when considered ready for independence, but the deepening Cold War resulted in development of two separate Korean states. In 1948 both the US and Soviet Union withdrew their troops.

Moscow anointed the young anti-Japanese guerrilla commander Kim Il-sung to run the Soviet zone. Despite being barely 33 when tapped as leader in a society which revered age, he demonstrated a talent for consolidating and wielding power. He also benefited from surplus Soviet military equipment and returning Korean personnel who had fought with the Chinese communists.

The US military returned nationalist exile Syngman Rhee to the South over the objections of the State Department, which had refused to issue him a passport. Alone among those Koreans contending for power he spoke English, which gave him an enormous advantage with the occupying Americans, ignorant of all things Korean, including language. Irascible, authoritarian, difficult, and stubborn, he took control of what became the Republic of Korea. The ROK was freer than the North, but his government did not hesitate to jail, torture, and even kill opponents, especially accused communists.

Both leaders threatened to forcibly reunify the peninsula and border incidents were common. However, Washington, afraid that “its” Korea would start a war, refused to provide heavy weapons. Once both occupation forces withdrew an opportunistic North Korean invasion probably was inevitable. Kim repeatedly lobbied Joseph Stalin for permission to strike. Moscow finally agreed but wanted to remain in the background. The Soviets drew up invasion plans and provided pilots who flew North Korean (and later Chinese) planes but contributed no ground forces. Stalin did not want war with America.

DPRK forces poured across the border the morning of June 25, 1950. The South Korean forces were routed, Seoul was abandoned, and Rhee, along with broken military units and masses of civilians, fled south. Truman decided to intervene militarily. Secretary of State Dean Acheson had treated the ROK as outside of America’s “defense perimeter” and even Gen. Douglas MacArthur judged the Korean peninsula to be of minimal strategic importance. However, Truman feared the global impact, especially the effect on European nations still recovering from World War II and sheltering behind US troops. And allowing destruction of a new nation that Washington helped establish just two years before would have been widely seen as an act of bad faith.

The Truman administration won United Nations backing since the Soviet Union was boycotting the organization to protest its failure to seat the People’s Republic of China. However, the administration did not go to Congress; instead, Truman famously called intervention a “police action.” By failing to follow the Constitution, stage a public debate, and win legislative approval, he ensured that popular support would wane and congressional criticism would rise when troubles arose.

Ill-prepared occupation troops from Japan were rushed into combat, to poor effect. Nevertheless, US forces held on in a close-run battle for Pusan in the peninsula’s southeast. MacArthur then staged a risky but successful landing at Inchon, near Seoul, well behind the North’s lines, and a reverse rout ensued. By late October the allies had captured North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang and some troops had reached the Yalu, bordering China.

MacArthur confidently predicted that allied forces would be home by Christmas, but the PRC had other ideas. Lacking diplomatic relations with America, the Beijing government attempted to send warnings indirectly, through India, for instance, that it would not tolerate allied forces on its border. Alas, Washington was not listening. Around Thanksgiving hundreds of thousands of Chinese “volunteers” hit the divided allied armies. Yet another rout occurred, with Seoul again captured. But the US and allied forces rallied, recapturing the ROK capital. Then the lines stabilized near the 38th parallel, leading to another two years of war. In July 1953 an armistice was signed, but a peace treaty was never signed.

China soon withdrew its forces. America never left. Initially the South would not have survived without US support. The country was ravaged by war and lagged economically behind North Korea. Rhee ruled arbitrarily and undemocratically. In any renewed fight the DPRK could easily draw on support from its two giant neighbors. However, in the 1960s South Korea took off economically, speeding by a largely stagnant North. Democracy finally arrived in the ROK in the late 1980s. After Mao’s death and the Soviet Union’s dissolution Pyongyang lost its military allies, which recognized Seoul diplomatically and began dealing even more with the latter economically.

At this point Washington should have set a timetable for shifting defense responsibility to the ROK and withdrawing US forces from the peninsula. (It would have made equal sense to do the same in Europe after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact dissolved.)

Foreign and military policy, including alliances, should reflect circumstances. In 1945 Washington was able to bloodlessly secure at least half of Korea from long-term tyranny. In 1950 Washington had become captive to circumstances leading to war which it had helped create. When the war ended deterrence was a better policy than abandoning a weak state to a bloody fate.

All that was over by the early 1990s, however, given the growth in the South’s advantages. Today the ROK possesses roughly 53 times the economic strength and twice the population of the North. South Korea also enjoys a vast lead in technology, industrial resilience, and international support. Seoul’s military is smaller – a matter of choice, not financial necessity, obviously – but better equipped and trained. The gaps in the South’s existing force that result from reliance on the US could be remedied in cooperation with Washington.

South Korean officials often indicate that they would prefer not to spend more on the military. Once while visiting Seoul I was informed that the ROK had health and education needs to meet: so did America, I responded, but no one was willing to fund its defense. The South obviously could outspend and outbuild the North to create whatever military Seoul believed to be necessary. After all, the DPRK has difficulty feeding its own people – a half million or more North Koreans died of starvation in the late 1990s.

The response of the “alliance-forever” caucus in both capitals is that the relationship now goes far beyond just protecting the ROK from North Korean conquest. However, Washington and Seoul could cooperate to advance shared interests without Americans paying for South Koreans’ protection. Security commitments should be a means to an end, not an end, to be preserved forever irrespective of changing circumstances.

There also is lots of talk about how the “mutual” defense treaty and American troop deployment have “dual uses,” being ready to confront other regional contingencies. Again, creating a tripwire against the North is distinct from whatever other missions Washington and Seoul might jointly contemplate. Even if the US was inclined to undertake all manner of dubious interventions elsewhere for no good reason (say, invading Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam, or Indonesia) Washington could station its troops elsewhere, on Guam, for instance, or bring forces from the U.S.-less convenient, but feasible. And the US could negotiate with the South for emergency base access even if America did not underwrite the ROK’s defense.

Of course, what most Washington policymakers mean by this argument is treating South Korea as part of a containment system for the PRC. However, Seoul has consistently sought to avoid turning Beijing into a permanent enemy. South Koreans know that China will always be their neighbor. And the PRC is likely to have a long memory. Joining with the US against China – turning the South into a potential platform for war – would make the ROK a target. Seoul would do so only to defend South Korea from attack. US officials routinely complain that the South is soft in its dealings with the North, reluctant to participate in the THAAD missile defense system, careful in its criticism of Beijing for human rights abuses, and more. A request for co-belligerency would receive an even more hostile response.

Which leaves the nuclear issue. Washington currently claims to extend a nuclear umbrella over the South. That seemed to entail little risk when America was purporting to deter Moscow and Beijing, which had no interest in using nuclear weapons on the peninsula. However, the North’s development of nukes – perhaps 20 or 30 bombs, with the potential to make a similar number from existing nuclear material – transforms the balance. Now America’s commitment to go to war for the South against the North risks incineration of US forces in Korea and nearby, in Guam and Okinawa, for instance.

Worse, Pyongyang’s development ICBMs may and probably will eventually put the American homeland in danger. Members of the Kim dynasty – we are on the third generation – have proved to be risk averse, preferring to enjoy their virgins in this world rather than the next one. So they won’t attack the US without good cause, meaning in response to an existential threat to their rule and nation. But that could result from a conventional conflict. In 1950 Beijing saved the DPRK. That wouldn’t happen in the future. However, if Washington pressed on to defeat North Korea the regime could threaten use of nuclear weapons unless the US retreated to the status quo ante. There is nothing at stake in the peninsula that would warrant taking such a risk.

This possibility is best met by American disengagement from the peninsula. The South should purchase and develop conventional weapons capable of maintaining deterrence. And it should consider creating a countervailing nuclear arsenal. Park Chung-hee began such a program, which he abandoned only under great US pressure. Today a majority of South Koreans say they favor acquisition of nuclear weapons. And some defense intellectuals and political figures favor the idea as well.

Doing so would result in obvious downsides. Nevertheless, knowledge that the ROK could go down this path would encourage China and Russia to put greater pressure on the North to reach a non-nuclear modus vivendi with its neighbors and Washington. Moreover, a South Korean bomb – especially if matched by Japan and perhaps other East Asian states – would constrain potential Chinese adventurism. The US need not give its assent to such a course. All Washington would have to do is get out of the way.

At least the issue should be debated. The usual Washington establishment paladins casually insist that Americans should risk Los Angeles, Seattle, and many more cities, if necessary, to protect Seoul. They should have to publicly defend that policy, rather than simply assume it into being. In fact, enforcing nonproliferation against allies looks more self-evidently wrong than right. Washington’s prime duty is to defend the American people which it represents. It should not put them in great danger to protect others, especially when the others are capable of defending themselves.

Last week’s 70th anniversary of the Korean War sparked a spate of conferences and commemorations. Many participants expressed wonder at the fact that the alliance had lasted so long. The fact that it has not changed despite the dramatic transformation of the Korean peninsula, region, and world actually is a problem. The seven decade-old pact is obsolete, making the US less safe.

Americans and South Koreans still could and should be friends. Washington and Seoul still could and should be partners. But the relationships and responsibilities require drastic change. Now is the time to plan a different future.

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We Should Celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War by Leaving | The American Conservative

Posted by M. C. on June 27, 2020

Today America’s presence looks ever more anachronistic. South Korea enjoys more than 50 times the GDP and has twice the population of North Korea. The South has one of the world’s largest economies and is known for its technological prowess. It is internationally engaged and respected. So why can’t it defend itself from the impoverished, backward, and isolated North?

Of course, many South Koreans want to keep their defense subsidy. Being protected by the world’s sole superpower has obvious advantages.

The U.S. doesn’t need to protect the south any longer.

U.S. President Donald Trump attends with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Observation Post Ouellette at Camp Bonifas on June 30, 2019 in Panmunjom, South Korea. (Photo by Handout/Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)

Barely five years after World War II ended, the Korean War began. On June 25, 1950, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea launched a full-scale invasion of the South, drawing in both the U.S. and China. The conflict ended essentially where it started, with an armistice. American troops still remain on station against the now nuclear North.

Until recently, U.S. involvement in a second Korean War would have meant horrendous conventional combat, but the damage would have been limited to forces on the Korean peninsula and nearby. Today, however, America’s homeland could be targeted by a nuclear attack. Nothing at stake is worth that risk. With the Republic of Korea capable of defending itself, Washington should formally end the conflict, drop its security guarantee, and bring home its forces.

As Japan surrendered in World War II, the allies viewed Korea’s status almost as an afterthought. Moscow and Washington split the Korean peninsula into occupation zones divided by the 38th Parallel. Two separate nations quickly evolved, threatening each other with war. But only the Soviet Union armed its protégé with heavy weapons. After securing support from Moscow and Beijing, the DPRK’s Kim Il-sung launched an invasion of the South.

The Truman administration won United Nations support, since the Soviets were then boycotting the Security Council—to protest the continued membership of Chiang Kai-shek’s government—and rushed U.S. troops to the ROK’s rescue. However, as allied forces neared the Yalu River and North Korea’s complete defeat loomed, the People’s Republic of China intervened, creating what U.S. commander Douglas MacArthur called “an entirely new war.” The battle lines soon settled near the original border and a couple years of static combat ensued. An armistice was signed in July 1953.

However, American forces remained to protect a devastated country ruled by the aging, irascible, unpopular, and authoritarian Syngman Rhee. He was ousted by a popular uprising that eventually led to a military takeover and Park Chung-hee’s ascension to the presidency. In the 1960s, Park oversaw the South’s economic takeoff, during which the ROK raced past the DPRK, removing an important justification for America’s continued presence on the peninsula.

After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, China moderated its hostility toward Washington. Democracy came to South Korea in 1987. The Cold War ended as the 1980s closed; the Soviet Union formally dissolved in 1991, after which Russia, and then China, recognized Seoul. The case for a continuing American military presence on the peninsula dissipated, but Washington kept its forces in the ROK to advance its status as the world’s “unipower.”

Today America’s presence looks ever more anachronistic. South Korea enjoys more than 50 times the GDP and has twice the population of North Korea. The South has one of the world’s largest economies and is known for its technological prowess. It is internationally engaged and respected. So why can’t it defend itself from the impoverished, backward, and isolated North?

Of course, many South Koreans want to keep their defense subsidy. Being protected by the world’s sole superpower has obvious advantages. However, there are costs as well for the South: Washington does not treat its allies as equals, only as minor partners. The U.S. often finds it difficult to take no for an answer. Still, at only a modest sacrifice of its sovereignty, Seoul spent less on the military and devoted more to economic development, which proved highly profitable over the years.

America’s interest in turning the ROK into a defense dependent is less clear. Members of Washington’s foreign policy elite generally believe the U.S. should run the international system. Infantilizing allies enhances Washington’s dominance even while increasing the costs and risks faced by Americans, especially those serving in the military. Those who extoll the U.S.-South Korea alliance celebrate a system in which Washington, not Seoul, takes the lead in dealing with North Korea, decides on sending “the armada,” as President Trump called it, off the North’s coast, chooses to ban commerce with Pyongyang, and maintains operational control of the South Korean military in wartime.

And Washington, not Seoul, decides when South Korea will go to war to support other American objectives. At least, Washington imagines that it gets to make that decision. Only here is the alliance perhaps ready to break down. Americans routinely speak of the relationship having dual uses. That is, it defends against the North and other regional threats, which in practice means containing China.

However, South Korean officials seem unlikely to allow the U.S. to drag their nation into a war with China, turning it into a military target of a country with a very long memory, to back American objectives of little if any importance to the ROK. Which means anything other than defense of the South from a North Korean or Chinese attack.

Seoul has long been wary of U.S. aggressiveness. President Kim Young-sam claimed to have blocked Clinton administration plans to attack the North’s nuclear facilities. Roh Moo-hyun publicly insisted that his government’s approval was necessary for Washington to employ facilities in the South. Even a future conservative South Korean administration is unlikely to allow the U.S. to use ROK bases in a conflict with China over Taiwan or other East Asia-Pacific contingencies.

If not, then Washington is defending South Korea for nothing.

Some Americans imagine the military cost to be negligible, since Seoul contributes toward American basing costs. That issue, of course, is currently tied up in a bitter dispute over the so-called Special Measures Agreement. However, the main expense of the Korean commitment is not deploying units in the ROK but raising additional units for use to defend the South if necessary. Every additional security guarantee requires a larger military. Adding permanent force structure—men and materiel—is not cheap. If Washington didn’t promise to protect much of the known world in both Asia and Europe, it could rely on a much smaller military to protect America.

The U.S. is blessed with oceans east and west and pacific neighbors north and south. America’s missiles, navy, and air force ensure that no other nation can reach the U.S. without facing devastating retaliation. In fact, deterrence is relatively cheap. Power projection is far more costly. For this reason the bulk of the Pentagon’s efforts perversely are devoted to protecting other nations not essential to U.S. security, such as South Korea.

The ROK mattered during the Cold War: America faced a hegemonic threat, the Soviet Union, for a time allied with the newly created PRC. With a global contest for influence, even smaller conflicts could have outsize consequences.

That was then, however. Today the Korean peninsula has no particular security significance for America: a war would be disruptive and destabilizing, but of far greater concern to surrounding states. It would be a humanitarian tragedy, but not that much different than terrible conflicts involving the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Liberia, Syria, and Sudan in recent decades. In none of them did Washington see any reason to intervene militarily. Most important, the ROK is well able to defend itself. Whatever its importance, there is no need for Washington to protect the South.

That was the case even before the North began developing nuclear weapons. Today Pyongyang is commonly estimated to possess 20 to 30 nuclear weapons and enough fissile material to make another 20 to 30 bombs. The DPRK almost certainly could hit American units stationed in South Korea and throughout the region, including on Guam and Okinawa. North Korea also has been developing ICBMs capable of targeting cities in the continental U.S. If it is successful, America’s defense commitment to the ROK will become prohibitively expensive. For nothing at stake in Korea is worth risking one or several U.S. cities.

And they would be in danger even in an initially conventional conflict. In 1950 American and South Korean units pursued the broken North Korean military toward the Yalu river, the border with China. Defeat seemed imminent, at which point the PRC intervened. Today Beijing almost certainly would not save the Kim dynasty. However, if faced with defeat Pyongyang would have an incentive to threaten nuclear war unless Washington pulled back. Of course, America could respond with ruinous retaliation. But since conventional defeat also would mean the end of the regime, it would have little to lose. A credible threat of nuclear war could save the regime without triggering nuclear war.

Which necessitates that the U.S. avoid involvement in any future Korean conflict. The South should develop a conventional deterrent capability and consider creating its own nuclear arsenal. The Park government began researching nuclear weapons in the 1960s, before abandoning the program under pressure from Washington. However, this time the U.S. should leave the decision with Seoul. Proliferation is not a good solution, but it still might be the best option. And it would offer another important benefit: helping to restrain China as well. Surely an independent ROK nuclear deterrent is better than having Americans promising to risk nuclear war on South Korea’s behalf.

The Korean War was a tragedy but perhaps an inevitable outgrowth of the Cold War. Today the ROK has won the competition between the two Korean states. Threats remain, but ones which Seoul is able to confront.

Washington should mark the anniversary of the Korean War by opening discussions with the South over returning defense responsibility to South Korea. America’s defense commitment is an anachronism. Equally important, the U.S. faces extraordinary challenges at home: it is time for Washington policymakers to focus attention and resources on meeting Americans’ needs.

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