Another futile round of the six-nation talks on North Korea’s nuclear program ended in Beijing last September.  The communist authorities in Pyongyang subsequently declared that further negotiations involving both Koreas, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States were pointless, but China said it was working to arrange a second round of talks.

For once, I am inclined to agree with the unlovely Comrade Kim Jong-Il.  As currently structured, the talks cannot succeed: He will not give up North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program without getting written security guarantees from the United States—especially not after seeing the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime—while Washington refuses to grant such guarantees without first securing a promise of nuclear disarmament from Comrade Kim.

The two parties’ positions are not equally coherent.  Kim may be evil and paranoid, but—having been named a member of the “Axis of Evil” by President George W. Bush in his State of the Union Address in January 2002—his desire for a tangible insurance policy against “Operation Korean Freedom” is both rational and unsurprising.

For now, that insurance policy comprises an arsenal of atomic bombs that can pulverize Seoul or even Tokyo, but it may also take the form of a pact with Washington giving Kim and his regime the stamp of American legitimacy in perpetuity.  North Korea has opted for developing the former while declaring that she really wants the latter.  She has a small arsenal of nuclear weapons—perhaps a half-dozen devices already in stock—and she is busy producing more.  The resulting crisis has temporarily concealed this dismal, starving half-country’s fundamental irrelevance to the world.

It is regrettable that Washington still insists that the “verifiable and irreversible” scrapping of North Korea’s nuclear program has to come before any security guarantee.  That position is needlessly dogmatic, and it smacks of obstinacy unbecoming a self-confident great power.  It needs to be replaced with a creatively astute scenario that will enable the United States to withdraw her troops from that charmless peninsula.

The new policy should assume that the desire for security and self-preservation, rather than aggressive expansionism, provides the clue to Pyongyang’s behavior.  That also happens to be the view of South Korea, the country most directly affected by North Korea’s nuclear program.  Her foreign minister, Yoon Young-kwan, warns that, if North Korea believes that Washington seeks regime change, “it will probably never give up its nuclear option; on the contrary, it will cling more desperately to the nuclear option as the last resort.”

The assumption may be wrong, of course, and Kim Jong-Il may be a deluded megalomaniac who is developing nuclear weapons in order to pursue a policy of external aggression.  The United States has no better way of testing his intentions than agreeing to his demand for security assurance.  President Bush should send the message to the “Beloved Leader” in Pyongyang that, while he does not particularly like the system Kim and his father have imposed on their people for 60 years, his feelings on the matter are irrelevant in the broader strategic calculus.  Perhaps a quick note like:

I have other, far more pressing business elsewhere around the globe, and I want to take you, Mr. Kim, off my agenda.  Let’s therefore arrange a conference in Beijing—the Chinese are excellent at that sort of thing—that will end in the signing of the formal peace treaty ending the Korean War and in a bilateral pact between the two of us, recognizing the status quo in the peninsula.  Let us simultaneously sign a detailed agreement that will terminate and irrevocably dismantle your nuclear program, including a watertight inspection system and complete transparency.  If you accept, as far as I am concerned, you can die in bed and have your capital named after you; we’ll exchange ambassadors, and you’ll get a little money to kick-start your moribund economy.  If you accept, we’ll also withdraw our G.I.’s from the south.

Concessions thus offered would cost the United States nothing.  Since Washington is not contemplating a second Korean war simply for the sake of liberating Kim’s long-suffering subjects, the pledge is not at odds even with the openly imperialist strategic doctrine promulgated last September.  The losers will be the people of North Korea, who will continue to languish under the most oppressive government in the world.  That is regrettable, perhaps, but it is irrelevant to the American strategic calculus.  At the same time, President Bush’s message should warn of the consequences if North Korea refuses to sign.  “If you start playing games and add new conditions to the proposed deal,” he could tell Mr. Kim, “I’ll finally know that you are a rogue who wants to threaten and intimidate others, and, by God, I’ll bully, demonize, subvert, and starve you forever.”

In reality, if North Korea refuses to play along, the United States should still withdraw her troops from the Korean peninsula and let those most affected by Kim’s obstinacy—South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia—deal with him as they deem fit.  This policy of disengagement ought to include a green light to Seoul to develop its own nuclear deterrent, coupled with discrete technical assistance to accelerate the program.  The Ford administration forced South Korea to abandon her budding nuclear-weapons program in the 1970’s while foolishly agreeing not to withdraw American soldiers in return.  The process should now be reversed, and the granting of a free nuclear hand to Seoul should accompany a U.S. withdrawal.  South Korea has a strong civilian nuclear program with many dual-use facilities in place and a physical infrastructure and a technical capability that could result in a credible deterrent within months rather than years.

The U.S. military intervention in Korea in the summer of 1950 was necessary and just.  Communist aggression was blatant, and the implications of allowing it to succeed were ominous.  President Truman’s response unexpectedly received U.N. approval in a moment of Soviet absentmindedness, and several countries contributed troops, but the war was an American affair, fought overwhelmingly by her men and in her geopolitical interest.

For a generation after the war, it was necessary to maintain U.S. forces in South Korea, a weak and initially devastated country ruled by unpopular regimes and ridden by internal dissent.  Neither Mao nor Brezhnev could be trusted to keep Kim Il-Sung in check.  Over the past two decades, however, the equation has changed on all fronts: First, South Korea has become one of the most successful economies in the world and the third-largest Asian “tiger.”  Currently, it ranks at number 12 globally, a capitalist success story of the first order that out-produces Russia and has the financial and scientific potential to become a regional military power par excellence.  Second, North Korea has descended into the nightmare of a peculiarly Oriental brand of Stalinism that combines crude militarism, a mindless personality cult, and abject poverty; millions of her citizens have starved to death in the past decade alone.  Third, both Russia and China are more interested in the economic benefits of trading with South Korea than in the embarrassing, outdated legacy of past links to North Korea.

Removing the American umbrella from South Korea would be beneficial to both sides.  The United States would be disengaged from a strategically irrelevant part of the world where the dangers of a continued military presence vastly exceed any possible benefits.  As Chronicles contributing editor Doug Bandow, author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World, writes, 

Without any connection to the Cold War that ended over a decade ago, and absent a global hegemonic struggle, Korea is relatively unimportant to the United States from a military and strategic standpoint. 

In fact, he continues, “The relationship between the two countries will never be one of equals so long as South Korea is dependent on Washington for its defense.”  Even now, Seoul’s military is qualitatively better and backed by a larger reserve, a much stronger economic base, and a network of friendly states.  As South Korea acknowledges in her own defense reports, she chose for years to focus on economic development at the expense of military strength, which she could do, protected by the United States.

A U.S. withdrawal would prompt South Korea finally to become a mature, self-reliant regional power fully responsible for her self-protection, as befits one of the most highly developed industrial economies in the world.  She would also be forced to diversify her portfolio of foreign contacts, possibly leading to a Russian-South Korean or a Chinese-South Korean alliance—either of which is preferable to an open-ended American guarantee.  Furthermore, once Seoul develops nuclear weapons, a local balance of terror would be established on the Korean peninsula, delivering a cold but predictable peace as reliably as mutually assured destruction provided on a global scale during the Cold War or as it functions currently on the Indian subcontinent.

Some South Koreans are bound to start dragging their feet while simultaneously clamoring for a continued U.S. security guarantee.  It would not be the first time, but they should be told in no uncertain terms that the game is up: America has no national interest in retaining troops in Korea or in continuing to protect Seoul.  Old habits may die hard, but the 50-year habit of garrisoning South Korea is neither sentimentally nor strategically addictive.  It has to be kicked, because it is dangerous, expensive, and unnecessary: The United States is not threatened by Pyongyang, and she regards the nature of North Korea’s regime as irrelevant.

To the argument that South Korea’s military is not strong enough to withstand the threat from the North, the answer is clear: Only by removing our tripwire can the United States finally force South Korea to upgrade her military and make her people assume the full economic and political burden of defending their own country.  For exactly the same reason, American troops should be removed from Japan and Germany.  President Bush should attend the ceremony marking the closing of the last U.S. base in Korea and give a speech that will state the obvious:

Yes, we are doing this in our own interest, but also for your own good.  You resented the legal immunity enjoyed by American servicemen, you disliked our Yongsan compound in the middle of your bustling capital city, and you complained that you were not the masters of your own destiny whenever we had some crisis with the North.  Well, we are hereby removing those irritants so that you may finally come of age.  Our “alliance” had always been one-sided, with us guaranteeing your security; let us hope that from now on our friendship will be more mutual.

A strategic anachronism five decades old would thus finally be ended.  Almost 40,000 military personnel could be discharged, and some hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars would be saved.  Let us hope that would not mean beefing up more exciting missions around the world, such as bringing democracy to Iraq, securing equal rights for Afghan women, and making the Balkans even safer for Islamic militants.