North Korea’s artillery attack on a South Korean island on Tuesday was the latest in a series of Pyongyang’s aggressive moves over the past year and a half. They started with ballistic missile tests in April of last year, soon followed by a nuclear test in May. Kim Jong Il, who may be mad, upped the ante last March with the sinking of a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, with the loss of 46 lives. Given his erratic ways and the hellish nature of his regime, America would be well advised to leave the Koreans, north and south, to sort out their differences well alone.
Contrary to the flawed and ignorant New York Times “analysis,” the artillery attack had nothing to do with North Korea feeling “under stress or threatened” by the international sanctions, or “frustrated” with the U.S. negotiating position on its nuclear enrichment program. If this were true, all that is needed is a signal from the White House that America is ready for another round of talks and the tension will subside.
Even less was the barrage connected to alleged “recent moves by the ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to position his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as heir apparent.” The claim that the Beloved Leader is trying to ensure “that the Kim family dynasty continues for a third generation by winning the loyalty of the powerful military with shows of force” is laughable. The loyalty of North Korea’s officers does not need to be “won,” as any hint that it is anything but total means the death of the suspect. In any event, at the metaphysical level of North Korea’s brand of dialectics the succession debate is superfluous: it is Kim Il Sung—the Great Leader, the Beloved Leader’s father—who is still in charge of the country, having been appointed “Eternal President” by the Supreme People’s Assembly in 1994, four years before his temporal death.
North Korea is acting aggressively because it is weak. Its economy—a surreal mix of Stalinist central planning and Maoist autarky—cannot feed its twenty-odd million people. (Two million are estimated to have died of starvation over the past decade and a half.) Food and money assistance from the South have stopped coming. Kim wants the flow resumed, and he is being obnoxious in the hope of getting a bribe to be tolerable once again. If offered a peace treaty that’s to his liking, he may even become nice. If he gets nothing, he’ll do something even uglier in a few weeks or months. It is a crude ploy, but he is a crude man.
The only reason Kim’s histrionics matter to the United States is the existence of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and the anachronistic and unnecessary presence of American troops in South Korea. The best way to deal with the problem is for the United States to withdraw all its troops from the Korean peninsula and let those most affected by Pyongyang’s behavior—South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia—deal with Kim as they deem fit.
The U.S. withdrawal from the Korean peninsula should be accompanied by a quiet nod to Seoul to go ahead and develop its own nuclear deterrent. Back in the 1970s the Ford Administration induced South Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program in return for not withdrawing American soldiers. Now is the time to reverse the sequence: Washington should grant a free nuclear hand to Seoul in return for the U.S. withdrawal. South Korea has a strong civilian nuclear program with many dual-use activities in place, a physical infrastructure and a technical capability that may result in a credible deterrent within a year or two. As I noted in this column over two years ago, removing the American umbrella from South Korea would be beneficial to both sides because the U.S. would be disengaged from a spot where the dangers of continued military presence exceed benefits, while South Korea would be forced to end its dependence on Washington for its defense:
American withdrawal would prompt South Korea finally to become a mature, self-reliant regional power fully responsible for its self-protection, as befits one of the most highly developed industrial economies in the world. It would also force it to diversify its 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. Some South Koreans are bound to start dragging their feet while simultaneously clamoring for continued U.S. security guarantee. It would not be the first time, but they should be told that America has no national interest in retaining troops in Korea or in continuing to protect Seoul. Old habits may die hard, but the 55-year habit of garrisoning South Korea has to be kicked because it is dangerous, expensive, and unnecessary. 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 America finally force South Korea to upgrade its military and to make its 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. A strategic anachronism five decades old would thus be finally ended.
The above conclusions from October 2008 still stand, word for word.