Time to Turn Responsibility for North Korea Over to Its Neighbors

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BY DOUG BANDOW – Three leading Washington conservatives — the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks, and Heritage Foundation’s Ed Feulner — have co-written an article chiding Tea Party activists for not enthusiastically backing America’s imperial foreign policy and oversize military. The three worry along with other neoconservatives that average citizens are more interested in defending America than in bombing, invading, and occupying other nations.


Of course, the neocon mantra is that perpetual war is necessary to protect the U.S. In this view, America is a helpless giant, at risk everywhere around the globe. The U.S., the world’s sole superpower, the most powerful and dominant nation ever at any point in human history, supposedly is threatened by such behemoths as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, Cuba, Serbia, Haiti, and Somalia, as well as Russia and China. If Washington does not subsidize wealthy allies and engage in global social engineering, forcibly remaking friends and foes alike, America’s adversaries may strike and extinguish human liberty, creating a new Dark Age.

The result of this policy is that every other nation’s problems become Washington’s problems. Like North Korea, which has become the world’s first Communist monarchy.

The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is irrelevant to U.S. security. The impoverished nation has a population of about 24 million, most of whom face constant hardship and even possible starvation. The economy is a wreck and Pyongyang produces little other than minerals and counterfeit currency. The North’s military equips undertrained, malnourished soldiers with ancient equipment. One American aircraft carrier has more firepower than the entire North Korean military.

What of the DPRK’s putative nuclear arsenal? No one really knows what Pyongyang possesses — numbers or capabilities. The North probably hasn’t miniaturized any weapons that it might have constructed. North Korea also doesn’t have a missile capable of hitting America, let alone doing so accurately.

Moreover, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il gives every indication of being evil, not stupid. He knows that the U.S. could wipe his nation off the map. He is famous for his taste for cognac, Swedish blondes, and movies; he most certainly wants his virgins in this life, not the next. And he wouldn’t be wasting his time attempting to pass power on to his son if he planned self-immolation in a pyre of fire. Deterrence worked against Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung. It will continue to work against Kim Jong-il.

The North poses a greater threat against South Korea, but even here the purported danger is exaggerated. The Republic of Korea is far ahead on every measure of national power other than quantity of troops and weapons. The South’s forces are better trained and its equipment is more capable; Seoul has a much larger army reserve and military industrial base. The ROK has twice the population and upwards of 40 times the GDP of the North. Moreover, Seoul trades more with China and Russia, the North’s traditional allies, than does the North today.

Indeed, the South felt so secure that it spent much of the last decade investing in and aiding Pyongyang, even as the latter was pursuing a foreign policy of brinkmanship and developing nuclear weapons. The supposedly conservative government in Seoul refused to close the South Korean-run Kaesong industrial park in the North even after the DPRK sank a South Korean warship earlier this year. The ROK also recently restarted aid to North Korea. If the Seoul government isn’t worried about its national security, then Americans shouldn’t give it much thought.

The only reason Washington is so deeply involved in the peninsula’s politics is because of its long-standing security guarantee and troop presence in the South. The 27,000 troops do nothing to protect America. As noted earlier, Pyongyang has no way to harm the U.S. And Kim Jong-il knows that any attack would result in instant and devastating retaliation. The only potential targets within his reach are America’s forces in the ROK.

The U.S. has another objective: to dissuade the North from building nuclear weapons. But nearly two decades of negotiation appear to be at a dead end. There may be no harm in trying again, but no one should have any illusions about the likelihood of making a deal.

In fact, current politics in Pyongyang works against any negotiated solution. Two years ago Dear Leader Kim suffered a stroke. He remains in ill health. Being less vigorous physically and weaker politically — who knows how long he will be in charge — Kim is less able to face down the military and bargain away its most important weapon even if he wants to. Especially if he hopes to maintain military support for making his son, Kim Jong-un, his heir apparent.

The future is even less certain. The Korean Worker’s Party just held its first party congress in decades to effectively anoint the younger Kim. But it took “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung years to move his son, Kim Jong-il, into positions of power. The latter likely won’t have nearly as much time to do the same with his son.

And there are numerous claimants to power: a brother-in-law and sister, two more sons, a motley collection of other family members including, it is thought, some not formally acknowledged, and many party and military officials who have been waiting for years for their opportunity to rule. The process could be anything but smooth.

Thus, the next government, irrespective of Jong-un’s status, is likely to be weak and divided. Whether struggling for or consolidating power, no North Korean leader is going to want the military on the other side. No one is likely to push the armed services to give up nuclear weapons.

It is a nasty situation. But why are Americans expected to sort out the mess?

Rather than treating North Korea as a U.S. problem, Washington should turn the issue back to Pyongyang’s neighbors. Any map demonstrates that the DPRK is primarily an issue for South Korea, Japan, and China, not America.

Only the South is vulnerable to a traditional conventional assault, and it is well able to defend itself. If it wants to provide aid to and invest in its totalitarian neighbor — a bizarre policy followed by Seoul even as it relied upon American military support — it should bear the full cost of doing so.

Japan is conceivably at risk from a North Korean missile attack, though Pyongyang’s capabilities are limited. The DPRK’s threatening policy has caused some in Japan to rethink its minimal defense posture, but Tokyo should do far more. The government of this wealthy, high-tech society has the resources to defend itself. There’s no reason for America to continue treating Japan as a welfare dependent.

The North isn’t likely to attack the People’s Republic of China, but any instability emanating from Pyongyang will affect the PRC. China would suffer from any war against South Korea or Japan, and bear most of the cost from the DPRK’s collapse. Today Beijing believes itself to be the chief beneficiary of the status quo, based on Pyongyang’s survival. But there is nothing stable about a politically divided, economically impoverished totalitarian state developing nuclear weapons. American disengagement would force the Chinese government to confront the North Korean “problem.”

The Cold War presented the U.S. with unique international challenges. But that world has disappeared. The Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact, Maoist China, and assorted Third World communist dictatorships are all gone. America’s allies have all recovered from war and outrange their potential antagonists. And Uncle Sam is broke.

As candidate Barack Obama often said, it is time for a change. America needs a foreign policy fit for a republic rather than an empire. The Korean peninsula is a good place to start.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon Press, 2006).