Sunday, December 4, 2016

South Korea Is a Good Place to Start Taking on the "Blob"

F-16 Fighting Falcons during an exercise at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. Wikimedia Commons/

Candidate Donald Trump did the seeming impossible: get elected president while speaking truths that shock establishment policymakers. Such as criticizing the defense dole for South Korea, one of Washington’s most sacred cows. However, as his swearing-in nears, he is being strongly pressed to abandon his contrarian views.

During the campaign, Trump accurately diagnosed the problem of nominal allies becoming costly dependents. He declared, “We are better off frankly if South Korea is going to start protecting itself.” Of that there should be no doubt.

He further explained: “We have 28 thousand soldiers on the line in South Korea between the madman and them.” Also true. Moreover, “We get practically nothing compared to the cost of this.” He’s right: it doesn’t benefit America to pay for the defense of nations able to defend themselves.

Alas, Trump fell short when discussing the solution. He argued: “They have to protect themselves or they have to pay us.” The United States shouldn’t hire out its military like a mercenary force. Rather, Washington should turn over defense responsibilities to one of the world’s wealthier nations. Serious, mature countries should protect their own people, rather than beg others to do so.

However, after being elected, Trump appeared to be going on his own apology tour, calling South Korean President Park Geun-hye to promise that America would be “steadfast and strong” with the Republic of Korea. Policy advisers Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro wrote that “Trump will simply pragmatically, and respectfully discuss with Tokyo and Seoul additional ways for those governments to support a presence all involved agree is vital.” If true, then the president-elect will be effectively declaring preemptive surrender.

South Koreans interpreted the forgoing to mean that the good times will continue: no need to worry their own people by matching North Korea’s military efforts. Indeed, Seoul plans to do whatever is necessary to save its defense subsidies. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se assured South Koreans that “the government will make various efforts so the South Korea-U.S. alliance that has successfully developed over the past 60 years will continue to move forward without faltering despite the change in the U.S. leadership.”

If the ROK succeeds in its efforts, it will be apparent that The Donald is not nearly as tough as he likes to portray. “Draining the swamp” will take work, and nowhere is the swamp more impermeable than Washington’s foreign policy community. There is a convenient consensus from liberal interventionist to neoconservative that the United States must micromanage the world, using force whenever necessary to impose America’s will even when the stakes are minimal. As a result, American lives and wealth have been squandered around the globe. President Trump must take on this conventional wisdom, and the various factions that hold it—what President Barack Obama termed “the Blob” in Washington.

South Korea would be a good place to start.

The United States is in the South because it has always been in the South, or almost. American forces arrived in the Korean peninsula after Japan’s surrender in August 1945, when the United States and Soviet Union occupied the then Japanese colony south and north, respectively. In 1948 the ROK and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were established, backed by their respective patrons. The North invaded in June 1950. The United States entered the war to defend the ROK. As allied forces neared the DPRK’s border with China, the latter intervened to prevent Pyongyang’s defeat. The conflict went on until July 1953, when an armistice was signed.

But peace was never formally made. And the United States still has nearly 29 thousand troops stationed in the South, which act as a tripwire to ensure American involvement in any new war. And the ROK always wants an increased commitment. It recently requested that the U.S. station “strategic weapons,” such as the B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers in South Korea.

In its early years the South remained an economic and political wreck, vulnerable to renewed attack by Pyongyang, still led by Kim Il-sung, who launched the earlier conflict. Moreover, the U.S.S.R. and People’s Republic of China continued to back the DPRK.

However, the world has changed dramatically. In the 1960s South Korea took off economically, soon passing the collectivist North. Democracy arrived in the ROK in 1989, when the South’s last military junta passed into history. With the end of the Cold War, Pyongyang lost its most important allies: both Moscow and Beijing recognized Seoul, and neither would back the DPRK in another aggressive war today.

The South possesses roughly twice the population and forty times the GDP of North Korea. South Korea is an industrial power. Seoul enjoys the international connections of a first rate state. Although the ROK’s military is smaller than that of the North, the South’s equipment and training are far superior. Only in quantity is Seoul’s armed forces inferior and there is no artifact of geography which prevents the ROK from doing more. Rather, South Korea has no reason to invest more on territorial defense when the world’s greatest military power is prepared to intervene on its behalf.

Washington turned defense into welfare. Nations such as the South act like Ronald Reagan’s famous “welfare queens,” profiting from Americans’ generosity. Trump’s campaign remarks caused much wailing in Seoul, worried that it might have to contribute more than the roughly $900 million provided as “host nation support” — about 40 percent of the total. However, the greater cost to the United States is that for raising, equipping and maintaining military units made necessary by additional force commitments. Americans fully bear this burden. Even worse is the risk of being dragged into an unnecessary war.

There’s no persuasive reason for the United States to continue protecting populous and prosperous allies. With the end of the Cold War, the Korean peninsula lacks any significant security relevance to America. A second Korean War would be horrid, of course, but would not threaten the United States in any way. Loss of a mid-size trading partner cannot justify a permanent garrison let alone willingness to risk full-scale conflict.

Many American policymakers see the ROK as necessary to contain China, but South Koreans are unwilling to play that role. They want to be defended against Beijing, if necessary, but not to join a Sino-American war—say over Taiwan—and become a permanent enemy of the PRC. Anyway, if the United States and China come to blows, ground troops in Korea would have no useful role to play.

Finally, some have justified America’s military presence as necessary to prevent war, proliferation, pestilence and most every other evil known to man from descending upon the region. No doubt, U.S. defense guarantees do discourage some potential conflicts. However, America’s role also encourages allies to behave irresponsibly, forcing Washington to try to dissuade nations such as the ROK from doing what they perceive to be in their national interest. Moreover, the military tripwire ensures U.S. involvement in any conflict even if not in America’s interest.

In East Asia it is in no party’s interest to go to war, and the region doesn’t appear to teeter on the edge of chaos. Indeed, it is in everyone’s interest to promote stability even in America’s absence. And if the result is an arms race, mostly by friendly states seeking to balance against the PRC, why is this cause for U.S. concern? Better to have friends and allies do more, rather than relying on America’s willingness to come in. Washington officials forget that alliances are a means to an end — U.S. security — not an end in themselves.

Would an American departure cause South Korea and Japan to go nuclear? Virtually no one believes that Pyongyang can be persuaded to yield its nuclear arsenal, and the latest sanctions resolution adopted by the UN Security Council will have no more impact than those approved in the past. The North is likely to slowly but steadily expand its nuclear arsenal.

Washington could maintain its nuclear umbrella while withdrawing its conventional forces. But there is something worse than the possibility of friendly democratic states building nuclear arsenals, and that is getting in the middle of a nuclear exchange over stakes of minimal importance to the United States. Nonproliferation is a worthy objective, but America would be safer if it withdrew from a potentially unstable region in which only the “bad guys” have nukes.

In short, Washington should engage in burden-shedding, not burden-sharing. Candidate Trump suggested that the ROK pay America for the latter’s defense services. However, the U.S. armed forces should not be rented out like mercenaries. South Korea is able to defend itself. It should do so.

Of course, it would take some time for the South to adapt its forces and policies to changing U.S. strategy. But the incoming administration should begin the process by setting the end point: no more security guarantee, no more tripwire garrison. The replacement would be an agreement for cooperation as equals on issues of mutual interest. The goal should be responsible internationalism rather than either isolation or intervention.

President Park said that President-elect Trump promised to work with Seoul “to protect against the instability in North Korea.” The best way to do that would be to push the ROK to take the steps necessary to deter and if necessary defeat a North Korean attack. But South Korea will do so only when forced to do so, which means after Washington kicks the South off of America’s defense dole.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.


  1. A genocide is taking place against the Rohingyas of Myanmar. It is not a new one in this Buddhist-majority country and has been an on-going ethnic cleansing national program to erase Muslim presence since Burma emerged as an independent state.
    After General Ne Win took power in 1962 in a military coup, the status of Rohingya further deteriorated. His military junta adopted a policy of “Myanmarisation”, which was an ultra-nationalist ideology based on the racial purity of the Myanma (or more properly Bama) ethnicity and its Buddhist faith.
    By 1977, the Rohingyas had witnessed at least 13 pogroms. Their condition turned worse in 1978 when the Naga Min or King Dragon Operation started on February 6 from the biggest Muslim village of Sakkipara in Akyab (now called Sittwe). The purpose of this operation was to scrutinize each individual within the state as either a citizen or alleged “illegal immigrant”. It sent shock waves over the whole region within a short time. The news of mass arrest of Muslims, male and female, young and old, torture, rape and killing in Akyab panicked Muslims greatly in other towns of North Arakan (now called the Rakhine state).
    In March 1978 the operation reached Buthidaung and Maungdaw (close to the border with Bangladesh). Hundreds of Muslim men and women were thrown into the jail and many of them were tortured and killed. Muslim women were raped freely in the detention centers. Terrified by the utter ferocity and ruthlessness of the operation and total uncertainty of their life, property, honor and dignity, a large number Rohingya Muslims left their homes to cross the Burma-Bangladesh border. Within 3 months nearly a quarter million Rohingyas took shelter in makeshift camps erected by Bangladesh Government.

  2. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognized them as genuine refugees and started relief operations. Many of the refugees were later repatriated to Myanmar where they faced further torture, rape, jail and death.
    To justify the on-going ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, the Burma Citizenship Law (1982), co-authored by a wicked Rakhine academic Aye Kyaw, was passed during the Ne Win era. The Rohingyas were not listed as one of the country’s 135 “national races” entitled to Burmese citizenship, effectively making them a people without a state — even after living for generations in Arakan. They became the most persecuted people in our planet.
    “Stripped officially of their citizenship, the Rohingya found their lives in limbo: prohibited from the right to own land or property, barred from travelling outside their villages, repairing their decaying places of worship, receiving an education in any language or even marrying and having children without rarely granted government permission. The Rohingya have also been subjected to modern-day slavery, forced to work on infrastructure projects, such as constructing ‘model villages’ to house the Myanmar settlers intended to displace them, reminiscent of their treatment at the hands of the Burmese kings of history,” Professor Akbar Ahmed observes.
    To further terrorize the already marginalized Rohingya people, the Pyi Thaya Operation (or Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation) was launched by the military in July 1991. This major pogrom lasting for nearly a year resulted in the exodus of some 268,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh. The United Nations Refugee Agency referred to those operations as “ethnic cleansing campaigns led by the military junta itself.”
    Dr. Michael W. Charney, a University of London scholar who specializes in South East Asian studies, wrote in his paper Buddhism in Arakan: Theory and Historiography of the Religious Basis of the Ethnonym that the “Rohingya […] are compelled to thrive under really testing conditions where even their personal lives are under strict state scrutiny. Whatever property they inherited from their ancestors have been forcefully taken away from them, and granted to the Buddhist majority under the banner of different national schemes that served to institutionalize and hence legitimize racist discrimination of Rohingya”.

  3. Benjamin Zawacki, Senior Legal Advisor for Southeast Asia at the International Commission of Jurists, in his article Defining Myanmar’s “Rohingya Problem,” this is “a political, social, and economic system – manifested in law, policy, and practice – designed to discriminate against this ethnic and religious minority [which] makes such direct violence against the Rohingya far more possible and likely than it would be otherwise”.
    In spite of murderous activities of the junta and their henchmen, the Rohingyas of Arakan refused to vanish from the Mogher Mulluk of Burma. So, the military junta come with a new program, no less sinister than the previous ones.
    NaSaKa (Nay-Sat Kut-kwey Ye), a border security/military force, was create in 1992 to terrorize the Rohingyas of Arakan on a daily basis. It was to be found only in North Arakan (Rakhine) state, where they became the main perpetrators of human rights abuse against the Rohingya. The day-to-day lives of the Rohingya took a dramatic turn for the worse. They faced severe restrictions on their movement and were subjected to forced labor and arbitrary land seizure and forced displacement, and endured excessive taxes and extortion. Since 1994, it has been illegal for married Rohingya to have more than two children. In the words of Pulitzer-winning journalist and photographer Greg Constantine “almost all aspects of their lives in North Rakhine are controlled or exploited by NaSaKa.”

  4. The persecution and abuses of power by the NaSaKa, terrorizing the Rohingya, continued unabated for decades until it was disbanded with the advent of a so-called reform government that was led by Thein Sein, an ex-military general. He promised democracy and opened the doors of Myanmar for foreign investment. The gesture was reciprocated by the West by withdrawing its economic and military sanctions against the once-pariah government. During Thein Sein’s time, the old IDs and national cards were all seized from the Rohingya people who were also banned from participating in the general elections. What is worse, his regime empowered Buddhist terrorist monks who through popular religio-fascist organizations like the MaBaTha continued to spread hate crimes and prepare the groundwork for the latest genocidal crimes against all Muslims, esp. the Rohingyas of Arakan. The latter were falsely portrayed as ‘illegals’ from nearby Bangladesh who are’ threatening’ the Buddhist identity of the country through ‘high birth rates’. Deliberately omitted in such narratives was the mere fact that the percentage of Muslims have been declining since Burma won independence from Britain.
    Shwe Maung, a Rakhine politician, told The Economist that “[Rohingyas] are trying to Islamize us through their terrible birth rate.” Wirathu, the terrorist Buddhist monk, mentioned to Global Post “Muslims are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent. They eat their own kind.” Finally, President Thein Sein reiterated that, for the government, “the Rohingya were not citizens of Myanmar” and that he wished to “hand over the entire ethnic group to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in order to settle them in a different country.”
    It was in this highly poisonous environment that the 2012 genocidal campaigns against the Rohingya was unleashed. Within weeks in June nearly a quarter million Muslims were internally displaced inside Myanmar in an orgy of Buddhist violence that was participated from top to bottom, enjoying full support from the government, politicians and the Buddhist monks. It was Rwanda all over again in this genocidal crime against the Muslims, esp. the Rohingyas, of Myanmar.

  5. And I am not alone when I state that the Rohingyas are victims of genocide. From the Human Rights Watch to the academic experts on genocide concur. Phil Robertson, Asia director for Humans Right Watch, wrote nearly four years ago that “the Burmese government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today”. Professor William Schabas, former President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, went a step further and cautioned, “we’re moving into a zone where the [genocide] word can be used.”
    Whatever doubt, if any, against the use of the term ‘genocide’ have to be shelved after October 9 of this year (2016) when the Myanmar security forces attacked Rohingya villages, ethnically cleansing these. According to ARNO, more than 500 innocent Rohingya civilians were killed, many hundreds of women raped, about 3,500 houses were burned down, unknown number of people arrested and involuntarily disappeared, and at least 40,000 internally displaced, in addition to systematic destruction of rice, paddy and food products. About 10,000 people had also fled to Bangladesh. Regular humanitarian assistance has been disrupted for many weeks, putting at risk over 150,000 vulnerable people. Reports indicate a marked deterioration of the human rights situation in northern Rakhine State. And yet, Suu Kyi remains nonchalant by such gross violations of her security forces. Like a sly politician who is more interested in solidifying her hold to power, she seems approving of the war crimes of her murderous military who continues to use her as a pawn to carry out their religio-fascist Myanmarism.
    The Rohingya predicament underlines a paradox for Buddhism, which emphasizes compassion and kindness and yet, we see little evidence of this in its dealings with the Rohingya people.
    Will our generation ever see the end of this monstrous crime? I simply don’t know the answer. And yet, like many other well-wishers of the persecuted peoples in our planet, I would like to see a quick end to this shameful event. The sooner the better!