May 19, 2003

May 19, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

How to Defang Pyongyang

So how did President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun, in their first summit meeting, make what the White House calls "good progress" toward defusing tensions on the Korean peninsula?

Mostly by agreeing to settle their differences another day.

But, since this was Roh's first visit to the United States, there's reason to be optimistic that the foundation for better cooperation on North Korea has been laid.

The the two leaders' differences on the weighty issues of North Korea's nuclear-weapons program and the structure of U.S. troops on the peninsula appears to have been narrowed by their meeting, but not resolved.

Both agreed, naturally, that a nuclear North Korea is intolerable and that a peaceful solution should be pursued. But they still differ on the use of force in resolving the issue.

Roh, it seems, would rely solely on dialogue and concessions to persuade North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to drop his nuclear ambitions. Bush, on the other hand, understands that diplomacy always works better when it's backed by the credible threat of military force.

The fact is, we need both diplomacy and defense. As President John F. Kennedy once said: "Diplomacy and defense are not substitutes for one another. Either alone would fail."

The White House's tough stance on North Korea plainly hasn't changed significantly. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has said point-blank that the United States will keep "all options open" in persuading the recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang to give up its nukes.

Among those options: Making it impossible for the regime to raise money through its state-sponsored drug trade or the sale of ballistic missiles. We could begin interdicting North Korean ships carrying missiles to South Asia and the Middle East. After all, the Bush administration could argue, and rightfully so, that any attempt by North Korea to transfer missiles, fissile material or nuclear weapons to terrorist groups must be pre-empted by whatever means necessary.

The Bush-Roh summit did yield some genuine progress, and a surprise: Both leaders agreed to develop a plan for restructuring U.S. forces in South Korea.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing on both sides of the Pacific about the talk of restructuring, reducing or even completely withdrawing the 37,000 American troops stationed on the Korean peninsula, especially in light of the ongoing nuclear crisis with the North.

President Roh came to Washington hoping to forestall changes in the deployment of U.S. forces at least until the nuclear issue is resolved. (Some found this position ironic, claiming that Roh preyed on anti-American sentiment among young South Korean voters to pull out his upset victory in last December's presidential election.)

Washington's view is that South Korea - a wealthy, highly developed industrialized country - should do more for its own defense against Kim Jong Il's Korean People's Army. The savings could go, in part, to help fund the much-needed transformation of the American military.

Plus, moving U.S. forces out of Seoul would make the South Korean capital a less inviting target for the 10,000 pieces of North Korean artillery targeting the 35 million people living in its metropolitan area. And it would lower the visibility and reduce the footprint of U.S. forces in Korea, which would dampen anti-American voices there.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also (rightly) wants greater strategic flexibility and mobility for U.S. forces in Korea for possible military operations on, and off, the peninsula. An American redeployment - whether that means the same number of troops or fewer - wouldn't lessen America's commitment to South Korea's defense.

In October, the Republic of Korea and the United States will celebrate their alliance's 50th anniversary. The challenges the alliance now faces are arguably the toughest since the Korean War. Though not an overwhelming success, the Bush-Roh summit was an important step toward a consensus in resolving one of the world's most nettlesome national-security challenges - a nuclear North Korea.

Only a steady hand on the tiller of state by both leaders, in partnership with Japan, can ensure a verifiable and irreversible end to the North Korean nuclear nightmare.

Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, is a senior fellow for national security affairs at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Asia

originally appeared in the New York Post