Saturday, December 10, 2011

Doug Bandow gets it completely wrong on the US military commitment in South Korea

Over at Forbes, Doug Bandow, regurgitated the Korea-defend-yourself rant. A snippet:
However, Seoul has precious few responsibilities in return. ROK forces never have been stationed in America. There were never plans for the South to assist the U.S. if the latter was attacked by the Soviet Union. No South Korean ships patrolled the sea lanes and no South Korean aircraft guarded the sky.

In the early days there was little the ROK, an impoverished dictatorship, could do. Seoul could not protect itself, let alone anyone else. But then, Washington should not have maintained the fraud that the security tie was mutual.

The South since has joined the first tier of nations. It obviously can do more, much more. Nevertheless, the treaty remains a one-way relationship. The ROK occasionally has contributed to Washington’s foolish wars of choice, such as Vietnam and Afghanistan, in order to keep American defense subsidies flowing. But this is no bargain for the U.S., which is expected to protect Seoul from all comers.
As you can guess from my past posts, this article had me throwing things at my computer monitor. The nicest I can put it is that this article is so fraught with inaccuracies and lack of understanding, Forbes should be embarrassed for allowing it to be printed.

The assumptions that underpin Mr Bandow's ignorant rant — that South Korea does nothing for its defense, pays nothing for its defense, and does nothing to help — are all grossly inaccurate. I would excuse him for writing as if it's still 2005, but he gets even that wrong (he's also wrong about the Cold War being over, at least in Northeast Asia).

Even during the leftist Roh Moohyun administration, South Korea has consistently spent about 2.5 percent or more of its GDP on its military. That's not as much as the US, of course, but considerably higher than most of its allies.

This is almost all geared toward defense against North Korean attack, but increasingly more is spent on helping the US patrol against international piracy (as does neighboring Japan that also enjoys US defense commitments), as well as the US-led operations in Afghanistan and in Iraq, where South Korea had the third largest contingent of military personnel after the US and the UK.

More importantly, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans fought alongside their American counterparts during the Vietnam War. At any given time there were 50,000 ROK troops there, and the number of dead is officially over 5000. That's from a country one-sixth the population of the US. It is irrelevant that Mr Bandow thinks these wars were "foolish," and that does nothing to diminish South Korean sacrifices.

Today, every South Korean male is required to serve in the military or do some appropriate government service. The typical commitment is over two years, in the prime of their youth. Again, this is geared almost entirely toward defense against North Korea, and it represents tremendous costs to the ROK government, its economy, and even its demographics (as it leads to delayed marriage and thus lower overall fertility in a country that is disastrously below population replacement levels).

So Mr Bandow is wrong on all those counts. Moreover, he utterly misses the point of the value of the US military presence in Northeast Asia. The deterrent presented by the US military in Korea, Japan, and Guam has kept the region free of major conflict for nearly six decades. Contrast that with the previous six decades, which saw four major wars fought on or over Korea.

Deterrence costs pennies to the dollars compared to what would likely result if the US vacated (and which the US would almost certainly get sucked into anyway). Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and other countries in the region may not always see eye to eye with Washington, but the Pax Americana has helped foster democracy and open markets that both are highly beneficial to the United States.

And that discussion doesn't even get into the inherent reliance that South Korea has on the United States because it agreed not to develop nukes that would better insure its territorial security.

Not to mention the whole idea of allied deterrence is that North Korea might think it can get away with an invasion of South Korea if it punches really, really hard in the beginning (what they did in 1950), but they would be highly unlikely to do it if they knew South Korea's powerful ally would come to bear on them. Critics call it a "tripwire," but any thinking person would just realize it makes good sense.

Next time Forbes should leave the Northeast Asia analysis to Northeast Asia analysts and not ideological pundits paid by the pixel.

Note: Robert at The Marmot's Hole put something up on this before I had a chance.

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