Why are we still in Korea, and still subject to the possibility of a war that could kill tens of thousands of Americans and perhaps millions of Koreans? As the only remaining superpower, the United States does not lack for pundits who think that any problem in the world, anywhere, is our business. But the Korean problem has particularly been our business ever since a thoughtless decision at the end of the Second World War divided a nation and a people with ancient integrity. Fifty years later Korea is the best example in the world of how easy it is to get into a war and how difficult to get out.
The American people need to ask their leaders what difference the interminable Korean conflict makes to their lives. If North Korea is the worst place in the world, as some think, what difference does that make to Americans? In 1995 South Korea spent three times as much on defense as did the North. Why should American soldiers remain hostage to the inability of Koreans to settle their problems, so long after they began? The answers will pour forth from the national-security pundits: if we don't remain in Korea, Japan will go nuclear, China will get adventurous, the Asia-Pacific region will destabilize. But for forty years their answer was different: our troops were in Korea because of the Soviet threat. The collapse of the USSR left security analysts scratching about for these new rationales. In fact so long as Japan maintains its security alliance with the United States, it has no reason to fear developments in Korea. China will not seek adventures in Korea when it has so many other problems on its plate, such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. The truth is that we keep our troops in Korea today, and have for more than forty years, as part of a civil-war-deterrent strategy -- to contain the North and to restrain the South.
reported last November that American officials fear that Seoul wants "to throttle North Korea" and provoke its collapse by denying it food aid and the expansion of relations with the United States called for in the October, 1994, agreement. The Southern armed forces have always had leaders who would like nothing better than to subjugate the North. North Korea, of course, also has its confrontational people, and they will resist being throttled by every means, ingenious and otherwise, possibly including derailing that same agreement whenever they think relations with the United States won't get them what they want -- or simply when the world stops paying attention to them. With Bill Clinton re-elected, the North will probably seek to wrest more concessions from Washington. The point is that if we do not thoroughly re-evaluate our Korea policy, American troops may still be restraining the two Koreas another fifty years from now.
Washington needs to find a way to bring the Korean War to a close, to replace the 1953 ceasefire with a permanent peace arrangement, and to extricate itself from the Korean civil conflict. Today this is unlikely, however, because Washington, too, can endanger the peace. For four decades we were supposed to have been containing Soviet or Chinese communism in Korea. Now Korea underpins a Pentagon budget of Cold War proportions. When the Clinton Administration undertook a "bottom-up" review of American armed forces, in 1993, the Pentagon relied on the ever present "North Korean threat" to justify forces large enough to assure the capability to fight two wars at once -- and thus achieved a defense budget of about $265 billion. We spend ten times as much on defense as the rest of the world's ten most powerful armies combined, but never mind: poverty-stricken North Korea, supposedly near collapse, has to appear a giant lest the Pentagon budget collapse.
Meanwhile, the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency fight over the Korean tea leaves they both read. If the CIA claimed that North Korea had one or two atomic bombs and wanted ten or twenty more, only to be proved wrong, it cannot be that the CIA is a waste of taxpayers' money; it must be that the State Department connived with the North Koreans to paper over this nuclear program. "The depth of disdain between State and CIA is remarkable," one knowledgeable former official told The New York Times last October. "I know people in State who think CIA is a greater enemy than Russia ever was, and that feeling is reciprocated."
One outside power continues to bear the greatest responsibility for peace on the Korean peninsula, and for failing to resolve the Korean conflict even fifty years after it began: the United States. Nowhere else does the United States directly command the military forces of another sovereign nation, as it does in South Korea. Only in the 1990s has Washington finally moved toward a more equable Korea policy, allowing it to play the role of honest broker (while retaining its alliance with Seoul), and no longer allowing the South to dictate the pace of engagement with the North. The result is the October Framework Agreement -- the first time since the Korean War that any important problem in Korea has been resolved through diplomacy. If it is sincerely implemented by all sides (a big if), it should yield a divided Korea that is at peace. It may also hold the promise of future progress toward a peacefully reunified Korea -- an outcome that ultimately rests with the Korean people themselves.
As for Americans, we need to take a hard look at the dangers of our many far-flung responsibilities, which have now long outlasted the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR. Fifty years ago, when the Truman Administration took upon itself one global commitment after another, the eminent historian Charles Beard counseled "a prudent recognition and calculation of the limits on power," lest the United States suffer "a terrible defeat in a war" -- and become like the "wrecks of overextended empires scattered through the centuries." For a generation it seemed the most foolish statement imaginable. In 1997 it cuts through the rhetoric of our debates like a breath of fresh spring air. It is high time for us to bring our Korean expeditionary forces back home.
Bruce Cumings is the director of the Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern University. His article in this issue of The Atlantic will appear, in somewhat different form, in his book to be published this month by W. W. Norton.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1997; Time to End the Korean War - 97.02; Volume 279, No. 2; page 71-79.