Closer than lips and teethIn response to my last Op-Ed on the realities of Chinese and North Korean wedge strategies for alienating South Korea from the United States, a reader challenged me to detail what are today’s U.S. interests in South Korea. Recognizing the question’s legitimacy, I surveyed leaders in various fields. During my quest, I stumbled onto a low-profile expert who shared about three hours of his career’s remarkable observations.
Since the individual is working as a corporate executive, following a full career as a senior U.S. military officer, I have been requested to keep his identity anonymous. But I can describe him as one of the few, genuine warrior intellectuals I have had the privilege to interview.
Essentially, the following is my restatement of his observations.
If China and North Korea proclaim their relationship as being as “close as teeth and lips,” the United States and South Korea’s relationship may be described as being as “close as fist and wrist.” The two countries, after being grafted together by the Korean War, are much more integrated and mutually dependent than most people realize.
To put it simply, the Korean Ministry of Defense is an extension of the Pentagon and the Pentagon is very much dependent on South Korea as well as on the defense infrastructures of America’s key allies, such as Japan, the United Kingdom and Germany, to name just a few.
These symbiotic relationships are both subtle and substantial. Strategic and tactical systems as well as planning are remarkably integrated in terms of sophisticated weapons, communications and other key components that make up the defense of individual countries as well as the security concerns shared with America and other allies.
Local defense industries routinely provide weapon systems that are built around American components. These modules are effectively sealed from reverse engineering, so that locally produced weapons are largely composed and dependent upon key American engineering. American defense industries carefully deny most allies sensitive technologies to guard against partners someday becoming market competitors. More importantly, these safeguards are in place to prevent leading-edge technologies from being adopted by America’s adversaries through trade or theft. In the end, America’s allies depend on U.S. military technologies for their defense to a degree much greater than the common public in the United States and around the world are aware.
At the same time, the controversies over the costs and justifications of basing large numbers of American forces and civilians abroad usually ignore a basic consideration. In 1988, an American process, called BRAC (base realignment and closure), began to reduce pork barrel politics from members of Congress by eliminating military facilities deemed excessive in the face of reduced American military activities. The Defense Base Realignment and Closure Act of 1990 provided “the basic framework for the transfer and disposal of military installations closed during the base realignment and closure [BRAC] process.” Even President Kennedy’s closed 73 establishments in 1961. Since then, the Americans have closed some 350 bases and facilities — most of which were located in the United States. And that was following more than 500 military bases closures during the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations.
Meanwhile, America’s adversaries and interests have created a rollercoaster of American overseas deployments in both combat and humanitarian operations. As much as Americans prefer reducing the number of overseas military bases to cut costs, too often whenever they downsize, they find themselves having to later ramp up. Too often these buildups take place while American forces sustain bloody noses until newly trained forces can be deployed to match the combat challenges at hand. Given that history, it has become apparent that it is better to maintain a constant status of ready forces adequate to address current and unforeseen challenges.
Furthermore, it is cheaper for America to station much of its forces abroad. Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs) with nations hosting American armed forces require local countries to underwrite large amounts of the costs associated with America’s overseas military. As a result, America forces provide military deterrence for its allies. At the same time, it is cheaper for America to maintain overseas forces than basing the same within the United States. In any case, America presently lacks the domestic infrastructure to absorb its overall military thanks to BRAC, a process that continues to this day.
The bottom line is Pax Americana is more than alive and kicking. It really matters not who are the American, South Korean,
Japanese, etc. national leaders. It doesn’t really matter in practical terms what are the contemporary political platforms and foreign policies of individual countries — including those of the United States. Call the overall situation “insidious,” “imperial,” “evolutionary” or whatever, it really doesn’t matter. What is in place is a global military infrastructure that America, its adversaries and its allies cannot easily dismantle.
To return to this essay’s original challenge, America’s interests are South Korea’s interests. Unlike relationships among America’s adversaries, American alliances are much stronger. Miscalculations by a military power could take place, but there are mature checks and balances to prevent military adventurism. Whether one likes this or not, by understanding these realities, we south of the DMZ should sleep well.
*The author is the owner of Onsite Studios, publisher of Korean Economic Reader and author of two books on doing business in Korea.