2003 March 07 Friday
Donald Rumsfeld On Force Reductions In South Korea

At the Pentagon Town Hall Meeting on March 6, 2003 US Secretary Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made comments about a possible US force reduction or shift in South Korea.

We still have a lot of forces in Korea arranged very far forward, where it's intrusive in their lives, and where they really aren't very flexible or usable for other things. And here's South Korea with a GDP that's probably 25, 35 times North Korea's, and has all the capability in the world of providing the kind of up-front deterrent that is needed. And we of course have comparative advantages with respect to an air hub or a sea hub and reinforcement. So we are what the new president for Korea, for example, ran and asked that we look at how we might rebalance our relationship and our force structure. So we are -- General LaPorte is engaged in that process, and it's a consultative process with the South Korean government.

And I suspect that what we'll do is we'll end up making some adjustments there. Whether the forces would come home or whether they'd move farther south on the peninsula, or whether they would move to some neighboring area are the kinds of things that are being sorted out.

Both the Chinese and North Korean governments would love to see US forces gone from South Korea. That's certainly an argument against removing them. But in spite of that argument there are strong arguments to be made for a large US force reduction in South Korea. First of all, South Korea can afford to maintain a sufficient ground force to be able to win against North Korea in a ground war. South Korea has twice the population and a massively larger GDP than North Korea. Simply put, South Korea can afford to defend itself and ought to do so. At the same time, a reduction in US forces would eliminate a source of friction and motive for anti-American feeling in South Korea. Plus, heck, if they don't like us why should we do them the favor of defending them?

What South Korea really needs from the US is air power and the ability to enhance South Korean military power with US military technology. South Korea would also benefit from US help if the United States could manage to prevent the North Koreans from developing nuclear weapons. Though a lot of South Koreans are confused on that point.

What the US needs from the relationship is any assistance that South Korea could provide to help prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power and proliferator of nuclear weapons. But since South Korea is essentially being held hostage by North Korea's ability and threat to use conventional and chemical weapons to rapidly kill millions of South Koreans the South Korean government is unwilling to join in pressuring the North Korean regime.

Some critics of Bush Administration foreign policy hold that the Bushies have squandered options for containing North Korea. See, for instance, Martin Sieff's recent pair of articles analysing Bush Administration policy toward North Korea: Analysis: How far will North Korea go? and his second article Crisis in Korea: America's options. The problem with this sort of analysis is that it ignores the longer term trend of developments on the Korean peninsula and the wider world. The United States is faced with a change in the status quo that was begun by North Korea back in the 1990s. North Korea never stopped working on nuclear weapons development after the 1994 Agreed Framework between North Korea and the United States. The spread of weapons technology gave North Korea more regimes with which to cooperate on nuclear weapons development.

Regardless of whether South Korean President Kim Dae-jung had embarked on his "Sunshine" policy of detente with North Korea and regardless of what statements the Bush Administration could have made or not made about North Korea it was inevitable that the interests of United States and South Korea would diverge. North Korea's efforts to develop nuclear weapons were eventually going to advance far enough to pose a threat to the national security of the United States both directly thru North Korea's development of ICBMs and more worryingly thru its likely future willingness to sell nuclear materials and even completed nuclear bombs to other nations and extra-national groups.

The Bush Administration could have played its cards in ways that would cause it to have friendlier relations with South Korea at this point. But those friendlier relations would not have translated into a better ability to prevent North Korea from pursuing its ambitions to develop nuclear weapons. Reporters can find South Korean diplomats and high officials who are willing to blame the deterioration of relations between the US and South Korea on supposedly rash statements made by members of the Bush Administration. But the South Korean officials who point to these statements are rationalising and trying to distract attention away from the basic conflict of interest at the heart of the disagreements between the US and South Korea.

The United States is in a position where it can not pursue an end to the North Korean nuclear weapons development program without placing millions of South Koreans literally at risk of dying. The United States relationship with China is in even worse shape. China is not just unwilling to apply pressure to North Korea. China is willing to help North Korea pursue its nuclear ambitions so that North Korea can serve as a proxy for China in China's attempt to challenge US influence in East Asia. China's willingness to do this places US cities at future risk of radiological and nuclear terrorist attacks conducted by terrorist groups which may be able to get nuclear materials either from North Korea or from Middle Eastern governments that purchase materials and help from North Korea.

It is argued by Sieff and others that the US build-up for the attack on Iraq has given North Korea the opening to pursue an accelerated nuclear weapons development effort. But North Korea already has what it needs to pursue that effort: its ability to hold millions of South Korean lives hostage while China backs it. If the US was not getting ready to attack Iraq now what additional cards would the US have to play against North Korea? South Korea would still be unwilling to cooperate in a preemptive strike against North Korea. The reason for the South Korean reluctance is simple enough: The cost of such a strike might run into millions of South Korean lives if North Korea responded with massive artillery and missile attacks on Seoul and other populated South Korean areas.

The United States is unlikely to get South Korean agreement to try to carry out a preemptive strike against North Korea. South Korean agreement will never be forthcoming unless either the South Korean government comes to believe that an attack against it by North Korea is imminent or if the United States can demonstrate military technology that is capable of knocking out the bulk of North Korean missiles and artillery in a very short period of time (literally minutes).

Without active and willing Chinese cooperation it is not possible to apply enough pressure to North Korea to coerce its regime to abandon its WMD development efforts. At the same time, the South Korean hostages are going to find reason to disagree with any US hardline policy toward North Korea. The US has no good policy option to pursue with North Korea that has any certainty of working.

So what should the United States do about North Korea's nuclear weapons development program? The US has a few options:

  • Conduct a strike against North Korea's nuclear facilities without South Korean agreement. The US might want to withdraw all of its forces from South Korea before doing so as that might decrease the chances that North Korea would respond by attacking South Korea. One problem with this option is that the US might not know where all the North Korean nuclear development facilities are located.
  • Threaten China with trade sanctions if it does not cooperate in an attempt to take down the North Korean regime by cutting off all aid and trade with North Korea.
  • Break the North Korean regime's information monopoly over its own people. Reach the North Korean people with information that will encourage them to overthrow their government.
  • Develop weapons technologies that would allow a very rapid elimination of North Korea's artillery and missile launch capabilites. This writer does not know whether this option is technically feasible.

Diplomatic agreements can not stop nuclear proliferation. Dangerous regimes intent upon developing and spreading WMD technology can only be stopped by changing the nature of the regimes in question.

Update: Could the Bush Administration have done a better job in its handling of North Korea? If the Bush Administration has made any mistake in its handling of North Korea it is probably that it let the North Korean leadership know how much it disapproved of and saw a threat developing in North Korea. Certainly the perception of how the Bush Administration saw North Korea affected the decision making of Kim Jong-il and other top members of the North Korean leadership.

From the very start of its term the Bush Administration instead could have pretended that it did not see any problems with North Korea's behavior. Had the Bush Administration taken that tack the North Korean regime might not have decided as quickly to activate the Yongbyon facility. The US would still have faced a growing threat of nuclear proliferation from North Korea because of North Korea's uranium enrichment program. But if the Yongbyon facility had not been activated as soon then the US would have had more time in which to pursue strategies for dealing with the North Korean threat. For instance, there would have been more time in which to pursue an attempt to break the information monopoly of the North Korean regime in order to speed the regime's downfall.

Of course the North Korean regime might have responded to the attempt to break its isolation by doing the same speed-up of its nuclear program as it is doing now. Similarly, if the Bush Administration had started out at the very beginning of its term to lobby the Chinese leaders to apply pressure to the North Korean regime then it is possible that, again, the North Korean regime might have responded by accelerating its nuclear program.

An argument can be made that an open society's leaders should be honest with its own populace about how it views threats developing in other countries. The need for the populace of a democratic society to know may outweigh other considerations. The ability of the US leadership to build popular support for its foreign policies depends so heavily on communicating with the populace about how the leadership views emerging threats that it may have been necessary for the Bush Administration to adopt the public stance that it took toward North Korea.

One criticism which can probably be fairly levelled at current Bush Administration policy toward North Korea is that the United States does not appear to be making a very big attempt to reach the North Korean people with information about the rest of the world. It is possible that there are covert operations underway to do this that are on a much larger scale than I currently believe. But if there aren't then the Bush Administration is making a big mistake.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 March 07 01:34 AM  US Foreign Preemption, Deterrence, Containment

Tom Roberts said at March 7, 2003 11:00 AM:

Agree on 4, and #3 is hypothetical. #1+2 appear diplomatically unpalatable, and economically masochistic. But the import of the Rumsfeld proposal is to provide tactical depth to the US deployment, which would provide strategic flexibility. At that point, we might be able to get the PRC, SK, and Japan to recognize that solving regional problems are in the interest of regional neighbors, as a first priority. The US's interests in NK are derivative from their direct interests, with the sole exception of the general (and at this point hypothetical) issue of nuclear proliferation.

John Moore (Useful Fools) said at March 7, 2003 5:23 PM:

There is another possible explanation for the North Korean actions. See this article and this article which discuss the significant possibility that North Korea may be planning an imminent attack on the South.

Carlee said at March 7, 2003 6:27 PM:

Another possible option that I didn't see discussed, is a naval blockade such that we board, confiscate or sink any North Korea vessel that touches international water.

Randall Parker said at March 7, 2003 7:02 PM:

Carlee, What would be the intent? To apply economic pressure or to prevent the North Koreans from selling nukes? On the economic score it would not entirely work because China is giving it a lot of food and other supplies to keep NK afloat. Also, the NK regime threatens to treat a blockade as an act of war and to respond by attacking South Korea. The blockade would make it harder for the NK regime to sell nukes to others. Though they might manage to smuggle them out anyway.

As for whether, as John Moore argues, NK is preparing to attack the south: If NK wants to attack before getting a nuclear capability they could do that whenever they wanted to and without first activating the Yongbyon complex. If they want to first get nukes and then attack the south: yes, that is a possibility.

Carlee said at March 7, 2003 8:49 PM:

Randall, NK is playing a game of nuclear brinkmanship. We are holding a weak hand and need some leverage. As such, options other then attacking the mainland or yielding to blackmail needs to be explored. Why? 1) To show some strengh and 2) To moderate world opinion if a full scale war is necessary. For example, if we board a suspicious ship and NK escalates the crisis (e.g. strikes SK) our military options increase.

Carlee said at March 7, 2003 9:25 PM:

One more point: Yes, I'm potentially selling out SK to minimize the political backlash to the US in the event of a full scale war. However, until SK realizes the threat and understands it's being held hostage there isn't much we can do...just thinking realpolitik. BTW, the ONLY true solution is regime change.

Randall Parker said at March 7, 2003 11:29 PM:

Carlee, If the US blockades North Korea and then war ensues many in the world will blame the US for starting the war. Much of the world wants to deny that the US faces any risk from nuclear terrorism. They want to distance themselves from the war on terrorism and let the US handle it while simultaneously blaming the US for whatever goes wrong. Don't expect people to be fair. They aren't.

You misunderstand the SK government: They do understand that the NK regime is a big threat to them. They are willing to be held hostage as long as NK doesn't attack them. They are willing to pay protection money to the NK regime. Kim Dae Jung started his "Sunshine" policy with North Korea precisely because he thinks they are so dangerous. At the same time he's been trying to convince the South Korean people that NK is not that dangerous. Read my previous post that spells this out.

The problem is that we have a conflict of interest with SK. They want to avoid getting attacked by NK. They do not want to fight a war with NK that would probably kill a few million SK citizens. But the US has an interest in taking out the NK regime before the NK regime makes and sells nuclear weapons to other regimes and terrorists. The US wants to save its own cities. The South Koreans want to save Seoul. There's a basic conflict of interests here.

The SK leadership might be foolish in their belief that detente with NK will protect them. Its probably protecting them in the short term but the long term cost will be that SK faces a nuclear armed NK regime which will be capable of killing a lot more SK citizens. But the SK government is playing for time.

Carlee said at March 8, 2003 9:44 AM:

They want to distance themselves from the war on terrorism and let the US handle it while simultaneously blaming the US for whatever goes wrong. Don't expect people to be fair.

Totally agree. We are at a point in time where we're damned if we do and damned if we don't. Any conflict in the world will condemn us if we mediate (i.e. imperialist) or avoid (i.e. uncaring). We can only hope that history will be a fairer judge.

At the same time he's been trying to convince the South Korean people that NK is not that dangerous.

That is my point. SK is a liberal democracy. They need to be honest with their people. They must openly address the threat and humanitarian disaster occuring in NK. Otherwise, they are no good to us or their people.

The problem is that we have a conflict of interest with SK.

Agree again.

But the SK government is playing for time.

True. To their defense, SK believes the "Sunshine Policy" will open up NK and slowly diminish the threat.

One last point, my parents spent 7 years in SK during the 90's. Anti-americanism was always a strong component of their society.

Anarchus said at March 10, 2003 9:09 AM:

Well, the new ingredient in the mix is plutonium production at Yongbyon. It's not just the nuclear threat but also the dirty bomb threat from the stuff. Most experts agree that NK would sell plutonium to pretty much anybody for hard currency. And once plutonium is physically removed from Yongbyon, there's no way to track it, so the genie is out of the bottle.

Potentially a huge problem. There are reports that the U.S. is "resigned" to acceptance of plutonium processing at Yongbyon. Which may be the only realistic option.

The high risk option would be to launch a missile strike on Yongbyon combined with a nuclear promise to NK - if artillery is used against Seoul, then we'll carpet bomb north of the 38th parallel with tactical nuclear weapons. THAT'S probably much more risk than any rational leader would take in dealing with the stir-crazy NK.

John F said at March 10, 2003 2:23 PM:

Re: point 4, the US does have the technical capability for rapid and thorough elimination of NK artillery and missile launchers. But it's politically and diplomatically untenable at this point. That is, nuclear weapons.

Carlee said at March 10, 2003 7:31 PM:

Marmot's Hole who is in Korea and is following the tensions closely provides his prospective. It's worth a read.


Jesus H. Christ, what does the US have to do to make somebody happy around here? You would have thought that after all the bitching and moaning Koreans have been doing about the evil American military presence here in Korea, they would have been dancing in the streets after Rumsfeld announced that the USFK would be "redeploying" south of the Han River. But rather than celebrate their hard-earned liberation from the clutches of American neo-imperialism, Koreans are now crying "abandonment." Most of the Korean daily papers have been livid, accusing the Americans of prematurely withdrawing from the South in the midst of a nuclear crisis, while begging the The Great Helmsman Noh to DO SOMETHING FOR CHRIST'S SAKE to rescue the US-ROK alliance before it's too late.

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