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Time to Rethink the US-ROK Alliance

North Korea has blown up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong. It is threatening an all-out pamphlet war in response to defectors sending anti-regime propaganda to the north. South Korea’s unification minister has stepped down after failing to meet with his North Korean counterparts during his 14-month tenure.

Pyongyang is not happy about the balloons launched by defectors carrying leaflets and dollar bills. But the real problem is that North Korea remains heavily sanctioned and South Korea has been unable or unwilling to alleviate that situation.

Meanwhile, South Korea is being pressured from the other side. The Trump administration has pushed hard for Seoul to pay more for the maintenance of U.S. bases and troops in the country: a preposterous increase from $900 million to $5 billion. South Korea countered with a 13 percent increase that Washington rejected. Only 4 percent of South Koreans believe that their country should accept the U.S. demand.

On top of that, the United States has refused to provide much if any wiggle room for South Korea to pursue economic projects with North Korea. Even as Trump attempted to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the United States maintained strict sanctions on the country.

It is very frustrating to be the object of geopolitics rather than the subject. South Korea is a weak geopolitical actor because other countries, primarily the United States and North Korea, are determining the conditions within which Seoul is operating.

President Moon Jae-in has tried to turn lemons into lemonade by presenting himself as the great conciliator. He pulled off three meetings with Kim Jong Un in 2018, two at the DMZ and one in Pyongyang, and breathed new life into inter-Korean relations. He managed to preserve a working relationship with Donald Trump, largely through flattery. Early on, he mended fences with China over the THAAD dispute. Moon did a brilliant job given the circumstances.

Much of that strategy now lies in tatters, blown up like the liaison office in Kaesong.

Some in Seoul are no doubt advising Moon to adopt a posture of “strategic patience” toward the United States. In November, American voters may well remove Trump from office, and then South Korea can negotiate with the more pragmatic and predictable Joe Biden.

But Biden’s predictability will pose an equally frustrating challenge. A Biden administration will probably accept Seoul’s offer of a modest increase in host nation support. But Biden will not likely offer a new approach to North Korea. Expect yet another strategic review of U.S. policy, followed by a continuation of the status quo: maximum pressure on Pyongyang, short of war, until it adopts a more conciliatory negotiating position. South Korea’s role as a passive actor in this drama will not change.

Perhaps it’s time for South Korea, then, to assert more independence and become a master of its own fate. Above all, that will require a reconsideration of the military alliance with the United States.

From a military point of view, South Korea doesn’t need the presence of U.S. troops on the peninsula. They serve a largely symbolic function as a concrete sign of U.S. commitment. At some point, after the resolution of ongoing negotiations, South Korea will assume full operational control of military forces. After years of arms imports, South Korea’s hardware advantage gives it a vast military superiority over the North.

The United States has been an obstacle in the way of improving inter-Korean relations. And it has forced a partnership with Tokyo that Seoul finds uncomfortable. On top of that, South Korea periodically worries that it will be drawn into the conflict between Washington and Beijing.

A cost-benefit analysis of the U.S.-South Korean alliance suggests that it no longer serves Seoul’s interests as it once might have.

Meanwhile, the United States is engaged in its own assessment of the benefits of that relationship. Under Trump, the United States has called into question virtually all of its military alliances. The burden-sharing that Trump is attempting to force on NATO, on Japan, and on South Korea is only an extreme version of what the foreign policy elite in Washington has demanded for years.

Biden is expected to take a more supportive position toward these military alliances. But the economic challenges posed by the coronavirus as well as the longer-term erosion of U.S. geopolitical influence mean that the United States will likely continue Trump’s cost-cutting approach but in more polite terms and according to a different timeline.

Instead of passively watching this process unfold, South Korea should get ahead of the curve. It should begin asserting its independence from the United States. It should prepare for the time when the two countries have a normal relationship rather than a “special” relationship.

It has been 70 years since the Korean War and the division of the peninsula. Overcoming that division, ultimately, will require altering South Korea’s relationship with the United States. The question that remains: will it be South Korea or the United States that takes the lead in changing the relationship?

By respectfully taking the initiative, South Korea can become a full-fledged actor in geopolitics. It can thank the United States for all of the help provided over the years (and hold its tongue about the unsavory aspects of the alliance like the prostitution around military bases). It can hold a party for the departing U.S. troops. And it can then set about re-imagining the North East Asian region with a unified peninsula at its heart.

Hankyoreh, June 29, 2020

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The Collapse of the East Asian Order

The United States is losing its status as a Pacific power. It can no longer control developments in East Asia. It still maintains a large military footprint in the region. But that military presence no longer translates into an ability to achieve the outcomes that Washington wants.

For better or worse, the post-World War II order in East Asia is coming to an end.

China has become the dominant economic player in East Asia, and it’s acquiring a military commensurate with its economic strength. Japan has been breaking out of the restraints of its “peace constitution” to build up its own military power. South Korea recently canceled its intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, a cornerstone of the trilateral cooperation that Washington has urged on its two East Asian allies.

In a last-ditch effort, the Obama administration tried with its much-hyped Pacific pivot to reinsert the United States into the economic and security environment of East Asia. But the pivot didn’t happen. The U.S. military remained enmeshed in the conflicts of the greater Middle East. And the Trump administration immediately canceled U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free-trade agreement that was supposed to hitch the United States to the powerful economies of the east.

Donald Trump has further hastened the end of the post-war order with his pursuit of three primary goals in East Asia. He initiated a trade war with China to force the country to accede to U.S. demands regarding market access and other features of the Chinese economy. Beijing has not backed down.

Trump’s second imperative is to press U.S. allies to pay more for hosting U.S. troops. In early 2019, the United States and South Korea signed a one-year agreement – rather than the usual five-year agreement – in which Seoul agreed to raise its contribution by around 8 percent.  Last month, a new round of negotiations began. On his visit to Korea in August, National Security Advisor John Bolton reportedly demanded that Korea up its contributions to an astonishing $5 billion a year, a quintupling of the current amount.

Meanwhile, Trump is pushing the Abe government to increase military spending, in part to pay more for U.S. troops at bases in Japan but also for Tokyo to buy even more high-priced U.S. weapons.

Finally, Trump wants a deal with North Korea. But such a deal is not connected to any larger East Asian purpose. Trump simply wants to demonstrate that he can achieve something that his predecessors couldn’t.

None of these goals – confronting China, more allied burdensharing, a deal with North Korea – is new. All three policies have roots that go back to the 1990s. But Trump is taking more risks to achieve these goals. He is also paying little attention to the potentially high price of his actions.

The economic relationship between Beijing and Washington, for instance, may not recover, as China looks for other sources of key imports like soybeans and other markets for its exports. South Korea is not happy about the increased monetary demands from the United States. One recent sign of that unhappiness was the Blue House’s desire to expedite the return of 26 U.S. military bases to Korea.

And Trump’s on-again, off-again approach to North Korea has also complicated relations between Washington and Seoul. The cancellation of joint exercises has reduced military cooperation while the lack of sanctions relief for Pyongyang has blocked greater economic cooperation between north and south.

The United States always billed itself as a stabilizing influence in East Asia. In a region beset by longstanding rivalries, the United States intended to contain Japan by restricting it to a largely defensive military posture. Washington also worked hard to align the policies of Japan and South Korea, despite the unresolved territorial and historical disputes between the two countries. The U.S. military presence in the region was designed to prevent the rise of another hegemon.

The U.S. military remains in the region, but it no longer fulfills those goals. So, for instance, a

full-blown arms race is taking place in the region. Xi Jinping, determined to build a world-class military, will increase Chinese military spending by 7.5 percent next year. Combined with close trade relationships with the region, this improved military capacity means that China has emerged as precisely the hegemonic power that U.S. policy was intended to prevent.

Meanwhile, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, South Korea is now the tenth biggest military spender in the world, with Japan at number nine and China number two. Under Moon Jae-in, an otherwise progressive leader, South Korea increased its military budget by 8.2 percent in 2019, the largest increase since 2008, and plans increases of over 7 percent for 2020-2024.

Under Shinzo Abe, Japanese military spending has increased by 13 percent since 2013. With the military budget likely to set a new record next year, Japan is devoting a huge chunk of expenditures on U.S. weapons systems, like six new F35b, which each costs more than $130 million.

The United States, too, is increasing its military budget. But Trump seems determined to draw down U.S. forces overseas. The current burdensharing disputes may lead to a reduction of U.S. forces in Japan and South Korea.

True, the East Asian order that the United States helped build after World War II was not peaceful. It was founded on two wars – the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It relied on hundreds of military bases that increased the amount of violence in the host communities. It maintained a Cold War divide that is still strong and still justifies enormous outlays on the military.

But this order, for all of its obvious flaws, managed to keep a lid on the worst excesses of nationalism (just as the internationalist Communist order attempted to do the same on the other side of the Cold War divide).

The waning of U.S. influence in the region coincides with a powerful resurgence in nationalism. The most obvious example is Japan, where what had once been extremist views on Japan’s wartime conduct are now, thanks to Shinzo Abe, in the very mainstream. China, too, has become a much more explicitly nationalist country under Xi Jinping. South Korean nationalism has largely been subsumed under the project of reunification. A case in point is Moon Jae-in’s assertion last month that a united North and South Korean economy could leapfrog over Japan in “one burst.”

Donald Trump’s “America first” policies are perhaps the most explicitly nationalistic of them all. There wasn’t much any president could do to prevent the loss of U.S. power in the Pacific. But Trump’s approach has kindled nationalism and accelerated the arms race in the region.

As with Europe, U.S. withdrawal from Asia could have been accompanied by a strengthening of regional institutions of peace and cooperation. Instead, the collapse of the East Asian order has generated increased rivalry and conflict. Europe has largely transcended its twentieth-century history of war. Thanks in part to the short-sighted policies of the United States, East Asia is on the verge of repeating some very unfortunate history.

Hankyoreh, September 15, 2019

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

After Empire

Let’s say the car stops and we get our teeth around the tire. Let’s say that we bite down hard enough to let out all the air from the U.S. empire.

Now what?

Those of us who have campaigned for a radical reduction of the U.S. military footprint overseas, for a major scaling back of U.S. interventionist capabilities, and for a shift of Pentagon funding toward necessary improvements on the home front have spent so much time detailing our objections to the status quo that we don’t have much time left over to consider what would happen if we succeed.

Sure, it’s easy enough to talk about the distribution of the surplus here in the United States. We all have our favorite human needs to fund (infrastructure, education, green energy projects). And certainly some funds would be left over to address global problems as well. All of that falls into the category of “doing good.”

The much more challenging issue is dealing with the other part of foreign policy: “countering bad.”

If the United States were to close all of its military bases tomorrow, withdraw its troops and Special Forces from the 130-plus countries where they’ve been operating, and even stop arms exports, bad things would still happen around the world. Wars would still take place. Governments would still repress their citizens. And countries would still violate each other’s sovereignty.

Those of a more isolationist bent will argue: It’s none of our business, and the United States usually ends up aggravating the problems we swoop in to solve. The usual progressive response is: Strengthen international institutions and empower civil society organizations. These answers contain some necessary insights, but they’re not sufficient.

And because these alternatives are not sufficient, other options have gained an unacceptable credibility.

Which brings me to Barney Frank.

Sharing the Burden

When he was in Congress, Barney Frank was a strong advocate of reducing the military budget, upholding human rights, boosting foreign aid, and supporting internationalism in general. I met him during our efforts to shrink the U.S. military footprint in Okinawa, an initiative he supported at the time, and was impressed with his candor and commitment.

Of course, because Frank was a politician, pragmatism shaped his principles.

Although the Sustainable Defense Taskforce that he chaired back in 2011 recommended more than $1 trillion in cuts over 10 years, Frank himself voted for Congress to contract with General Electric and Rolls Royce for a second engine for the already over-priced F-35. Even a sophisticated jet fighter only needs one engine, and another manufacturer had already won the bid to build it. But the GE plant meant jobs in Frank’s district, and no politician can ignore employment-generation schemes — even if they produce an entirely useless product.

Frank is no longer in Congress. He does, however, write a column for Politico that offers a similar blend of principle and pragmatism. In his latest effort, he quite sensibly takes Republicans to task for demanding substantial increases in U.S. military spending:

I simply don’t understand why Republicans accept the view that the entire burden of providing the world’s military force should be borne by American taxpayers, even leaving aside my belief that advocates of these huge increases in American military spending greatly exaggerate both the threat that disorder overseas presents to us, and even more, to what extent America could effectively resolve these problems by military intervention.

But then, in posing his alternative, he dusts off an old argument that has been present in U.S. policymaking circles for decades: burden sharing. Conservatives have traditionally argued that the Pentagon can get more bang for the buck by leaning on allies to pick up more of the tab for U.S. military bases, spend more overall on their militaries, and take the lead on various military campaigns. Liberals, like Barney Frank, trot out burden sharing as a way of gaining bipartisan support for Pentagon budget reductions. As our allies spend more, we can spend less.

The concept of burden sharing is so mainstream, however, that I wonder why Frank feels the need to devote an entire column to it.

The U.S. government is always trying to pressure allies like Japan, South Korea, and Germany to pay more as part of their host nation support. Through NATO, the United States has relentlessly pushed Europe and Canada to meet their informal obligation of spending 2 percent of their GDP on the military. Yet the burden sharing argument can be found equally in the rhetoric of Donald Trump and libertarians skeptical of U.S. military actions overseas.

In part, Frank’s column was a sideways contribution to the ongoing debate over the budget in Washington. The Obama administration vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act last week — which would have given the Pentagon $612 billion — largely because it objected to spending caps applied to non-defense expenditures. But a deal this week, just as John Boehner heads out the door as House speaker, will provide the Pentagon with $607 billion, up the non-defense spending caps, and raise the national debt ceiling in order to keep the lights on in government until at least spring 2017.

Frank has been trying to persuade his former colleagues in Washington that the Pentagon can safely and sustainably cut $100 billion a year. His colleagues aren’t listening to him. They like the idea of burden sharing. They also like the idea of maintaining the same level of U.S. military spending, which in their minds translates into more jobs in their districts.

But the other reason for talking about burden sharing now is Frank’s argument that Russia and China pose a destabilizing threat to the world order. Frank doesn’t want the United States to face down these threats in a High Noon standoff. Rather, he wants to deputize other countries to hem in the regional hegemons. For that reason, Frank recommends “that it’s time to rearm Germany and Japan.”

A Dodgy Proposition

The strangest part of Frank’s argument is that Germany and Japan are already rearming themselves.

Yes, as Frank points out, the United States spends 3.5 percent of GDP on defense while Germany spends closer to 1 percent (1.2 percent to be precise). But somehow he must have missed the German government’s announcement earlier this year that it would increase spending by more than 6 percent over the next five years as part of a comprehensive modernization.

Japan has traditionally tried to keep its military spending to under 1 percent of GDP. But conservative leader Shinzo Abe is pushing the boundaries. Tokyo has increased its military spending for the last four years and recently submitted its largest increase ever. The Abe government has also passed legislation that will allow the now-misnamed Self Defense Forces to engage in military operations overseas.

Okay, so they’re already rearming, in part in response to the same threat perceptions that Frank identifies. Are they still freeloaders, as Frank suggests?

Japan by no means gets a free ride from the Pentagon. It’s generally covered around 75 percent of the costs for maintaining U.S. bases in the country (compared to percentages around half that by Germany and South Korea). The debate is in the news (in Japan at least) because Washington is currently trying to get Tokyo to increase its share even as the Abe government is petitioning for a reduction. This comes after Washington has already pressured Tokyo to cover the costs of a new military base in Okinawa that the vast majority of the residents there oppose.

As David Vine writes in his invaluable new book Base Nation,

Today, Japanese sympathy payments subsidize the U.S. presence at an annual level of around $150,000 per service member. For 2011 alone, Japanese taxpayers provided $7.1 billion, or around three quarters of total basing costs. In addition to agreeing to pay $6.09 billion to help close Futenma and move marines off Okinawa, the Japanese government agreed to contribute around $15.9 billion toward a larger set of transformations involving bases in Okinawa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Iwakuni, Japan.

As for Germany, with the end of the Cold War and the drawdown of the conflict in Afghanistan, the Pentagon has been closing bases there for the last quarter century. Several major garrisons in recent years have been closed. Paying for U.S. bases in Germany has now morphed into dealing with economic dislocation connected to these closures. Vine also details several cases of extravagant and entirely unnecessary upgrades at U.S. military bases in Germany, some of them just prior to their closure. Prudent Germans would be right not to want to cover such costs.

So, our allies are already upping their commitments. Congress is not reducing the Pentagon’s budget. And militarism continues apace.

But it gets worse.

Unintended Consequences

The United States has historically put itself forward as an honest broker that can deter and mediate conflicts because of its lack of interest in acquiring territory. Territorial expansion, of course, is only one factor that can compromise the neutrality of a mediator or justify the presence of military bases. But still, this argument has persuaded many countries to support a distant superpower in order to balance the regional power closer to home.

Both Germany and Japan have managed to some degree to overcome regional suspicions that date back to their World War II conduct (and earlier). Fearful of a resurgent Russia, Poland has moved closer to Germany. Similar fears of China have prompted the Philippines to welcome Japan’s turn away from its “peace constitution.”

And yet the specter of resurgent militarism in Germany and Japan still makes many Europeans and Asians uneasy. South Korea, for instance, has yet to settle its territorial and historical concerns with Japan. And many EU members are uncomfortable with Germany’s disproportionate economic influence over European affairs. Turning Germany into a military giant will not improve intra-EU relations.

Then there’s the issue of adding yet another driver to the global arms race. It’s bad enough that the United States spends so much and peddles so much. Pushing our “junior partners” to take on more “mature” commitments will only keep global military spending hovering at the $1.8 trillion mark at a time when those resources are so urgently needed elsewhere. Its overall military spending on the decline for some time, Europe has been the one bright spot in global trends. Asia, meanwhile, is on a military spending binge. Adding a resurgent Japan to this mix only makes it more volatile.

Although both Europe and Northeast Asia are comparatively wealthy, they too face economic challenges. Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums for decades, compounded by the Fukushima disaster of 2011. Europe, facing a plethora of challenges from refugees to highly indebted states, is hard-pressed to meet its NATO obligations.

The notion that countries like Germany and Japan would advance as the American empire retreats comforts some liberals by preserving U.S. power projection beneath a veneer of multilateralism. But it’s the mechanism of militarism that is ultimately the problem — not who’s controlling the levers.

Alternatives to Empire

Barney Frank’s burden sharing option is already basically in play. Our key allies are spending more on their militaries. And this hasn’t led to any bipartisan agreement to cut U.S. military spending. What alternatives are there to the United States continuing to go it alone, or embracing Frank’s option of policing the world with more assistance from a couple of hand-picked gunslinger allies?

Let’s start with isolationism versus internationalism.

The isolationists and their fellow travelers make a good point about the limits of U.S. power. But focusing exclusively on domestic affairs is an argument more fitting for 1515 rather than 2015. Today, the globe faces any number of very difficult challenges that no one country can solve by itself: global warming, a refugee crisis, a growing divide between rich and poor. Moreover, Washington is partly responsible for the fires that are burning around the world, so we have an obligation to be part of the bucket brigade. We just need to be sending our diplomats and humanitarian specialists, not our soldiers, to help put out the fires.

Which brings us to the internationalist option. I lean in this direction, but just invoking the United Nations is, frankly, not enough. UN peacekeeping, which just received an infusion of troops and equipment at the UN meeting in September, has worked most successfully when deployed after a peace agreement (as in Sierra Leone and Cyprus). Their efforts to stop the outbreak of violence or reduce its scope — in Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia — have more often than not failed. And such missions need constant oversight, for they often suffer from the same problems as other armed forces (for example, sexual violence and child prostitution).

International mechanisms such as tribunals and treaties are equally important. But they require enforcement, which is hampered by lack of resources and lack of international consensus. The best agents of implementation, of course, are civil society actors on the ground. But such actors are most effective where the rule of law is already reasonably strong. What chance do civil society organizations have against forces like the Islamic State in conflict-torn Iraq and Syria?

Clearly, to address the palpable evils of the world, international institutions are not yet up to the task. So, what can be done in this interim period as we beef up the capacity of international institutions and push to reduce the U.S. military footprint?

Here are three modest suggestions:

  • Rather than provoke Russia and China to accelerate their own military modernizations, engage them in new rounds of arms control. Both countries have their own economic worries and could ultimately find negotiated limits on deployment attractive particularly if coupled with other guarantees (like a freeze on NATO expansion or one on new base construction in Japan).
  • Rather than push individual countries like Japan and Germany to rearm, strengthen inclusive regional security mechanisms. If Europe is to play a stronger military role in the world, the burden should fall on the EU as a whole and not one country like Germany. Northeast Asia, meanwhile, urgently needs a regional security structure to handle its myriad territorial disputes. Regional responses to crises can suffer from the same defects as international efforts. But locating crisis-response mechanisms at the regional level can ideally avoid both the difficulty of marshaling consensus at the international level and the self-interested motives of unilateral actors.
  • Rather than add fuel to the fire, support international gun control. The global arms trade — valued to be at least $76 billion in 2013 — has flooded conflicts with enormous firepower. The Arms Trade Treaty, which entered into force at the end of last year, takes a first step by making arms sales more transparent. The next step, an incomparably more difficult challenge, is to reduce the flow.

At the moment, we’re still chasing the car. If we don’t start thinking about concrete alternatives, we’re not likely to achieve our goal. And we might just get run over trying.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 28, 2015