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COLUMN LEFT/ ROBERT L. BOROSAGE

Bring Home the GI's From South Korea : The Soviet Union and China no longer threaten, and Seoul is more than able to defend itself against the North.

July 11, 1993|ROBERT L. BOROSAGE | Robert L. Borosage is director of the Campaign for New Priorities and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

American forces guarding Korea's bleak 38th Parallel provided the White House with a classic backdrop for the end of President Clinton's first foreign journey. Here was a chance for the President to look "muscular," as one aide put it, while reasserting America's commitment to its loyal ally.

But the President's plans for Korea send a very different message. In a trip the President said was about "crafting our future," Korea illustrates that his foreign policy is still hostage to Cold War commitments from the past.

The President pledged that the American presence, currently numbering 60,000 soldiers and dependents, would remain in Korea, standing vigilant against the Northern threat, as American forces have done since the Korean War ended in 1953.

But why keep the policy the same when the world has changed? President Truman sent American forces to defend Korea because the communist assault on the South was viewed as a Soviet test of American resolve, a warning sign on the road to world war. The troops stayed after the Korean War to enforce the containment of the Soviet Union and China.

Now, 40 years later, the Soviet Union is no more. China is the newest darling of global corporations. The impoverished, backward communist monarchy of Kim Il Sung is isolated and on the verge of collapse.

South Korea surely is able to defend itself against the North, having twice the population and more than 10 times the gross domestic product as its neighbor. In recent years, Seoul has modernized its military, outspending its rival by 2 to 1. South Korea now fields a modern military force of 633,000 soldiers renowned for their brutality in combat. Its air force, with more than 400 modern combat aircraft, is far more advanced than North Korea's outmoded planes, more than half of which are antique leftovers from the 1950s. With no great power backing the North, why are U.S. forces still in the South?

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that U.S. taxpayers spend approximately $20,000 per soldier each year to maintain the 35,000 on active duty in Korea. Simply removing and demobilizing the 2nd Infantry Division would save more than $5 billion in the next five years. But the continued commitment to Korea costs far more than that. The United States deploys an Army division and two air wings in Korea. It also commits three aircraft-carrier battle groups to keep a carrier on call in the Northern Pacific at all times. Clinton's new military policy demands the capacity to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously--say, in Korea and the Persian Gulf. Taking all that into account, experts like William Kaufmann, defense planner in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, estimate that the commitment to defend South Korea from the North may cost us as much as $60 billion a year.

The Administration will spend twice as much to bivouac a symbolic ground force in Korea this year as it will devote to aid dislocated American workers. We will devote billions to meeting the Korean commitment while starving investments vital to our future--for rebuilding our cities, for building fast trains and mass transit and for putting people back to work.

The President's advisers suggest that North Korea's nuclear-weapons program provides new justification for the deployments. They are sensibly concerned about the regional arms race that might result were the North to deploy nuclear weapons.

The Administration needs to put forth a clear policy to address proliferation. It could seek U.N. sanctions to force North Korea to comply with the non-proliferation treaty. It could enlist Russia and our allies in a push for deeper reductions in current nuclear arsenals. It could campaign for a permanent ban on nuclear testing. The President has already reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend Seoul or Tokyo from any nuclear attack. But the continued waste of billions to station GIs in Korea is not a substitute for a non-proliferation policy. Indeed, U.S. military deployments in Korea may be as much a stimulus for as a deterrent against the North's nuclear weapons program.

President Clinton began his trip calling for "new vision, new policies and new agreements to enable the world's nations to prosper." But we can't meet today's challenges if our resources and attention are committed to defending the ramparts of the past. There is a difference between being muscular and being muscle-bound.

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