Defense & National Security

U.S. Takes Smart Step Back from DMZ

Earlier this month, the Bush Administration announced its intentions to carry out far-reaching changes in the U.S. defense posture on the Korean peninsula as part of the global reordering of America’s strategic priorities. This decision has so far escaped the attention it deserves. Currently, Washington stations 37,000 troops in South Korea and spends $3 billion annually to defend that country.

Since the end of the Korean war (1950-53), American GIs have stood eyeball-to-eyeball with North Korean troops opposite the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)-which divides the Korean peninsula the way the Berlin Wall separated the free realm of Germany from the totalitarian-defending South Korea from another invasion by the North (DPRK).

For five decades the United States has not only kept the peace but also enabled South Korea to rebuild its shattered country, to become the world’s 12th largest economy, and to blossom into a thriving democracy. America’s contribution to this transformation compares favorably with the restorations of post-WWII Germany and Japan.

What accounts then for the startling decision to reposition U.S. forces some 75 miles south of the DMZ as well as remove the American military presence from the Yongsan base in Central Seoul?

In brief, it is smart tactics as part of an innovative global strategy. Some 14,000 soldiers in the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division are a “tripwire,” supposedly to alert and activate a counter response from the United States.

Quintessential Rogue State

In light of North Korea’s accelerating hostility, the American troops could become little more than cannon fodder. The DPRK’s million-man-plus army is the fifth largest in the world. It possesses a formidable array of conventional artillery and multiple-rocket launchers positioned just above the DMZ that could easily rain down shells on American defensive trenches and level Seoul, a city of 11 million residents only 40 miles away.

By removing U.S. ground forces from their static, forward-deployed configuration, the Pentagon will enhance the contingent’s maneuverability, reflecting the tactics that succeeded so overwhelmingly in Iraq.

This fresh approach is part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s geostrategic reorganization for combating terrorism and is also being applied to Cold War bases in Western Europe, with smaller, lighter units moved eastward to Poland, Bulgaria and even Central Asia. On the Korean peninsula, the relocation will bolster deterrence by reducing the “tyranny of proximity” to the North’s military.

South Korea’s new president, Roh Moo Hyun, a one-time human-rights lawyer, has continued his predecessor’s “sunshine policy” toward the North. This script plays down the military threat, plays up an aid-laced courtship, and plays loose with our troops’ safety. As an illustration of the latter point, on Saturday the North and South opened two rail links cutting through the DMZ, connecting both countries for the first time since the Korean War. In the event of an attack, Northern units could stream past American troops, leaving them behind enemy lines.

Aside from bolstering deterrence, the relocation will serve to put Seoul on notice that it has a duty to defend itself and to increase military spending above the current paltry 2.7% of its gross domestic product. The United States spends 3.2% of GDP on defense.

The primary cause of the Pentagon’s new course of action is North Korea itself, however. As a charter member in President George Bush’s “axis of evil” trio (along with Iran and pre-war Iraq), the C threatens the United States. The North is the quintessential rogue state; it is beyond the pale in abusing human rights, it threatens its neighbors with war, and it develops weapons of mass destruction with the missile systems to deliver them to distant targets. It also sells missiles to other rogue states such as Iran, Libya and Syria.

In addition, the DPRK regime counterfeits US $100 bills, manufactures and exports illegal drugs, and even sells ivory tusks on the black market.

It’s this brazen contempt for international norms that makes North Korea extremely dangerous. It is conceivable that Pyongyang could sell fissile material to Al Qaeda or affiliated terrorist networks. That could lead to a radioactive blast in New York City or Los Angeles. America is just as much on the frontlines as Seoul, and we should not forget it when dealing with the two Koreas.

North Korea’s brinkmanship and bellicosity are designed to replicate the blackmail-like negotiating techniques it used so successfully against the Clinton Administration, which rewarded the DPRK’s bad behavior. In 1994, Washington signed with Pyongyang the Agreed Framework, dubbed by its adherents as “creative arms control” and its detractors as ostrich-like wishful thinking. In return for a promise to halt weaponization of fissile material, the DPRK received direct relations with the United States (a long-cherished goal), 500,000 tons of fuel oil annually, and construction of one and then another state-of-the-art nuclear reactor, the first of which was to have been completed in 2003, well after Bill Clinton left office. Thankfully, the building of the initial light water reactor fell years behind schedule.

Since October, when Pyongyang acknowledged a secret uranium enrichment program, North Korean-American relations have been at a dagger’s point. Pyongyang has terminated four nuclear agreements, including the Clinton-era one. It has moved ahead to re-process plutonium fuel rods and announce, openly, its quest for several nuclear bombs to supplement the two devices it is suspected to already have in hand. The Bush Administration suspended the fuel shipments and re-positioned 24 long-range bombers on Guam Island, two thousand miles from North Korea.

What other options are in order? The Bush Administration has tried-and is trying-the diplomatic route, attempting to line up China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia to pressure North Korea to stand down its nuclear-arming. Diplomacy is the correct first option but it is unlikely to resolve the standoff. China, the DPRK’s chief food and fuel patron, has the most leverage over the North. But Beijing has its own agenda. It has skillfully played the North Korean card against the United States for its backing of Taiwan’s autonomy from China. Beijing also seeks to capitalize on the anti-U.S. feelings and pro-North Korean sentiments, as vented at such rallies as this past weekend in Seoul, to facilitate America’s military departure from the Asian mainland.

Now Beijing’s policy could backfire. China has much to lose if North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling provokes Japan to go nuclear as a defense measure. World War II memories of Japanese aggression still loom large throughout Asia, but nowhere larger than in China. Already, Japan’s parliament has passed laws to step away from its pacifistic constitution by granting the government broad powers in military emergencies. Tokyo recently tightened its export controls on trade with the North. Japan is also cooperating with Washington in upgrading its anti-missile system and acquiring a midair refueling capability to enable its warplanes to strike North Korean targets.

The United States has another option. It can place a naval and air embargo around North Korea, to further squeeze its desperate economy. Such a maritime noose could also limit, though not end, Pyongyang’s narcotics and nuclear trafficking. Pyongyang would consider this an act of war and has threatened “physical retaliatory steps against the U.S.” in such an event.

Finally, Washington may have to think the unthinkable. Pyongyang could transfer a grapefruit-sized hunk of plutonium across its common borders with China and Russia to terrorists, compelling pre-emptive military strikes on North Korean facilities. This could lead to another Korean conflict but would also result in the defeat of a dangerous regime. Whether moving our troops is a prelude to a self-defense attack is unknown, but it certainly constitutes an overdue reordering in American planning.