Neutralizing North Korea
In the July/August cover story, Mark Bowden examined the United States’ choices for dealing with “The Worst Problem on Earth”—a nuclear-armed North Korea. He laid out four options: a full-scale military strike, a limited strike, removal of Kim Jong Un from power, and “acceptance.”
Mark Bowden’s thoughtful article presents four equally ill-fated postures the U.S. might adopt toward North Korea, but fails to consider a fifth possibility: removing the thorn.
The Kim dynasty has justified its insane military escalation by convincing the people of North Korea that the U.S. is determined to invade. And we provide all the evidence he requires: For decades, the U.S. has supplied the bulk of non-Korean United Nations forces on the peninsula. About 30,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, and airmen are on constant alert; we garrison countless anti-aircraft batteries; we operate massive Air Force bases just dozens of miles from the border. In short, we validate the “looming threat” that Kim Jong Un warns his people about.
When the Korean War broke out, in 1950, South Korea was an impoverished nation reeling from the ravages of World War II. Sixty-seven years later, South Korea boasts a thriving economy and can easily afford a robust military. Yet U.S. taxpayers still bankroll 60 percent of the cost of the Pentagon’s 1950 scenario: thousands of steely-eyed GIs poised to repel the relentless horde of bayonet-wielding North Koreans swarming across the DMZ. But as Bowden chillingly describes, the reality of renewed aggression would be vastly different.
The U.S. military would have us believe that our troops are essential to preventing Kim from invading. But to Kim, our very presence on the peninsula represents the tip of a spear pointed directly at him.
So if our presence in South Korea is the thorn in North Korea’s side, let’s pull it out. Let South Korea man the trenches. The looming threat would no longer exist. Then we should encourage North Korea to curtail its (no longer necessary) weapons program and open a dialogue with its neighbor to the south.
We would still respect our UN obligation, but from a distance—making it clear that our response to aggression against South Korea would be immediate, nuclear, and final.
Continuing to invest American blood and treasure in a never-ending stalemate is not in our national interests.
Somehow all the experts Mark Bowden consulted missed the fifth and best alternative: withdrawal and disengagement.
We should immediately announce our withdrawal from the mutual-defense treaty with South Korea and remove our troops. We should also commit ourselves to the eventual peaceful reunification of the peninsula and sign an agreement that the Korean War is indeed over. This would immediately de-escalate the conflict, discombobulate the North Koreans, and remove the issue from our problem list. It may still be a problem for the South Koreans, but they’ve clearly indicated that they’d rather handle it themselves via negotiations and dialogue.
Our troop presence inflames the conflict and gives the North Koreans a plausible reason in their minds to prepare for war with us. Since Bowden claims that the South Koreans could beat the North in a lopsided conventional war, why keep the troops there? To protect the South Koreans from the Chinese and the Russians, who would join in the North’s invasion?
The key to the withdrawal-and-disengagement policy is the recognition that after 64 years—surprise—the environment has changed. If the U.S. hadn’t been the South’s military guarantor in the 1950s and ’60s, the North very well may have invaded, imposed Communism on the South, and won the war. However, the South Koreans have won the peace. Do Bowden and his experts really think that the North would initiate a war, win it, and then dominate the South, which has twice the population, 20 times the GDP per capita, an obviously more sophisticated society, and visible physical size differences?
Bowden somehow thinks even acceptance would be a bad option, as he describes the horrible specter of Kim potentially negotiating from strength and forcing a confederation with the South that would remove U.S. troops. But given that South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants something similar and that there is no sign of panic in Seoul, why is this a problem at all? The fact that our “experts” don’t put walking away as an option in the top four but do include decapitation strikes and military/rebuilding efforts with the same scope as the original Korean War is alarming.