When Johnny Comes Marching Home

THE LEAD PARAGRAPH of a recent story on the Associated Press wire states, “Nearly half of South Korean youths who will be old enough to vote in the country’s next elections say Seoul should side with North Korea if the United States attacks the communist nation.”

What an interesting way of framing the issue. If the United States attacks North Korea? Would this be the same North Korea that has dug no less than 15 known “invasion tunnels” to the South, through solid granite and under the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)? Would this be the same North Korea that brags about its development of nuclear weapons and has fired an intercontinental missile over the territory of Japan (the nose cone of which landed and was recovered in Alaska, in case you did not know)?

Would this be the same North Korea that routinely fires upon South Korean fishing vessels in offshore waters and seizes and detains South Korean fishermen? Would this be the same North Korea that routinely inserts commando teams into South Korea? Would this be the same North Korea where hundreds of thousands of so-called “third class” people were permitted to starve and freeze to death in the past decade, through a calculated act of depopulation sponsored by the North Korean central government? Would it be that North Korea?

Well, whichever North Korea we are discussing, the news from South Korea prompts me to inquire if it is time to end the U.S. Cold War-era military commitment to that sovereign nation. Another way of phrasing the question is to ask if it is time for America generally to retrench from the edges of empire? In something similar to the words of the old American song, can Johnny finally come marching home, at least from Korea?

War and Peace, Armistice and Empire

By way of background, the United States fought a major war in Korea, from 1950-1953, in alliance with numerous other nations acting under a mandate from the United Nations. At first, the fight was against invading North Korean troops who crossed south over the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, in a sneak attack that had the full support and sponsorship of Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

Later in the course of the war, and after the North Korean troops were smashed and routed by U.S. and U.N. troops under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the bulk of fighting was against massive formations of Chinese troops augmented by Soviet forces. In many battles, U.S. ground troops fought against human waves of Chinese regular infantry. U.S. combat deaths alone were in excess of 33,000.

And U.S. pilots actually fought aerial dogfights against their Russian counterparts, Sabre jets versus MiGs. In terms of materiel, for example, the United States lost more than 3,000 combat aircraft during the Korean War. It was no mere “police action,” as some have characterized it.

As is the case with all wars, the Korean War had its own set of dynamic conditions. The war was, in some elemental respects, a “War for Korean Unification.” In this sense, the fighting was started by then-North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. Kim had come into political power in the northern part of Korea as an appointee of the Soviet Red Army, which occupied the lands north of the 38th parallel at the end of the Second World War.

The Russians viewed Kim as a pliable puppet. Kim saw himself as the embodiment of Korean nationalism, which finally could crystallize in Korea at the end of World War II after many years of Japanese colonialism. In Stalin and Mao, Kim found a willing set of sponsors for his war, as well as ideological colleagues.

Stalin and Mao, in turn, were by 1950 looking for ways to confront the West generally, the United States in particular. Stalin wanted to start a war in Asia that would draw U.S. political attention and military resources away from Western Europe, where Stalin had other plans.

And Mao wanted to use a conflict with the United States as leverage to obtain military technology and industrial development assistance from the Soviet Union. Mao’s ultimate goal was to obtain Soviet technical assistance for the development of a Chinese nuclear weapon, a goal that Mao eventually got.

By the fall of 1950, Kim’s war to unify the peninsula under his rule had failed, but by then, the events had spiraled out of his control. Chinese troops entered the war in November 1950, and from then on were engaged in the bulk of the fighting. With Chinese generals in command, events were not Kim’s to control. As the fighting in Korea dragged out through 1951 and into 1952, the war utterly wrecked North Korea and its landscape.

The Korean War had taken a larger context. It had become a battle of wills between the combined effort of Soviet-Chinese communism against the Western will to resist naked aggression and communist expansion. When Stalin died, in 1953, the Korean War lost one of its chief patrons, if not its architect. Thus, not long after Stalin assumed room temperature, the Korean War cooled down as well, and drew to a tense and bitter conclusion.

There was never a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War, just an “armistice” by which all sides have managed, sometimes barely, to avoid any further major conflict for the past 53 years. To deter any further aggression from the North Korean attack corridor, for many decades, the United States has maintained 37,000 combat troops in South Korea, with associated equipment. In addition, the United States has maintained significant Navy and Air Force assets in Japan and other parts of the Western Pacific, dedicated primarily to the Korean theater.

Under the umbrella of U.S. military protection, South Korea has grown over the past half century to become a thriving economic power. South Korea has a highly educated populace that enjoys a robust standard of living. South Korea is an important center for scientific research, technical innovation and manufacturing, particularly for shipbuilding, but also for many other fields. South Korea is a key player in the world economy and in general a proud, vibrant and important nation.

But simply by forecasting the present economic and political trajectories, it is apparent that the United States will have to retrench from the edges of empire sooner or later. So why not make a good show of it and start with South Korea? Here is a land that has evolved to a point where it should be fully capable of defending its own interests. Could there be a people more capable and deserving of living with whatever fate they freely choose to encounter? Perhaps there is such a place, somewhere else in this world, but for now, let us focus our attention on public attitudes in South Korea.

A “Neutral” South Korea?

According to the Associated Press, “40.7 % of the 1,000 young people surveyed said Seoul should remain neutral in the event of hostilities between Washington and Pyongyang.” Yes, that is what the article states. Seoul should “remain neutral” in the event of war with North Korea. “Remain neutral,” I suppose, in the middle of a war that takes place on their relatively small peninsula.

And “neutral” in the event of “hostilities between Washington and Pyongyang,” no less. I cannot say for sure where the South Korean youth expect the fighting to occur. Perhaps they think that fighting will occur in Oregon, or Chile, or Bermuda, or Greenland. But then again, their opinion is what it is.

And “Only 11.6 % said the South should back its longtime U.S. ally” in the event of those “hostilities.” If this is what the youth of Korea are thinking, then they deserve their destiny — whatever that may be, up to and including the adoption of the quaint North Korean custom known as “juche.”

According to the news report, “35.5 % said the status quo should be maintained if the North and South can peacefully coexist.” So let us carry this logic a bit further. If the Korean people on both sides of the DMZ believe that they can get along with each other, then why do they need almost 40,000 U.S. troops over there, plus dedicated support echelons in Japan and other areas of Asia?

If peaceful coexistence does not work and the North Koreans decide to make an effort to reunite the place like they did in 1950, then the Southerners can always make their own deals. Good luck, boys! Remember, just say, “juche,” if the North Koreans come calling.

Only 18.4% of people polled believe that the United States is South Korea’s “most important partner for maintaining friendly relations.” By a very large margin, South Korean youths “named China as South Korea’s most important partner.” OK. We have settled that issue. It appears that the youth of Korea neither appreciate, let alone desire, the U.S. military commitment to their protection. To paraphrase Marie Antoinette, “If they have no bread, let them eat juche.”

Inertia vs. Political Will

Things change over time, of course. The Korean War was a long time ago, and we all have to adapt to the new situation. As Agora Financial writer Dan Denning pointed out in his book The Bull Hunter, published in 2005, economic power is shifting in this world.

It is moving from the traditional Western nations from whence it was established to the East, to the rising nations of Asia. The thesis is broad, but the evidence is as close as the nearest shuttered auto plant in the United States. Thus, there is a rebalancing taking place, between relative political and economic power structures in the world. We all must act as the opportunities present themselves.

We in the United States owe these South Korean youths a debt of gratitude. These young South Koreans are doing us all a favor. They are providing a face-saving way for America to disengage from an expensive, if not bleeding, commitment to their national security. This is good, because America alone does not really have the political will to disengage from South Korea. There are too many entrenched and vested interests in the status quo.

There is, first and foremost, a sort of political inertia that tends to maintain things. It is similar to a psychosis of perseverance to a particular cause, come hell or high water. America fought a war in Korea, and there is an emotional form of investment in the place, which makes it difficult to walk away. There is, after all, a lot of American blood in Korean soil, and that is just plain impossible to repatriate.

And then there is an immense U.S. bureaucracy, both government and nongovernment, which lives (and lives well, I must add) off the military commitment to South Korea. How does one gently break those rice bowls?

There are entire bodies and schools of strategic thinking that are founded on the bedrock assumption of a long-term U.S. military commitment to South Korea. But the assumption includes the view of China as yesterday’s “Red China” from the days of Mao Zedong, not the current one of being key bankers to the United States and principal buyers of U.S. Treasury bonds.

The foundations of the U.S. commitment to South Korea include the people in the South not wanting to be dominated by the North. But things have changed, apparently. The South Koreans, particularly their youth, seem not to fear the prospect of juche. Fair enough. It is their choice.

I will grant you that, from my reading of the news account, the youth of South Korea are either exceedingly myopic or they see the world — at least they see North Korea — in a benign light that I simply cannot discern from this distance. But either way, and clearly to my way of thinking, the United States has other things with which to engage itself and its limited resources in this world.

America can do without an expensive military commitment to a prosperous nation that does not want to support a long-term arrangement to secure its own borders against the northern invader of old. Whatever is going to happen in Korea is going to happen. We in the United States should make sure it does not happen to us.

It is time for the U.S. military to pack up and leave Korea. It is time to pull back from this far distant edge of empire. And I will be down at the pier to greet the troops when Johnny comes marching home.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
February 27, 2006