Originally published in the International Herald Tribune , May 31, 2004
That more troops are needed in Iraq has been obvious for a long time. But given North Korea's growing nuclear arsenal and the ever-present risk of military conflict on the peninsula, scavenging troops from South Korea sends exactly the wrong signal at the wrong time to U.S. allies and adversaries alike. The benefit of the troop move to Iraq will be minimal and the long-term implications for deterrence in North Korea could prove disastrous.
The future of America's security and position in East Asia depends on many factors, but none more than the continued perception that the United States is prepared to defend its allies in the face of military threats. This applies not only on the Korean peninsula but also in the case of Taiwan.
While the United States and South Korea have been working for some time to realign U.S. forces, the decision to move support troops from South Korea could not come at a worse time. It is probable that in the past year North Korea has expanded its nuclear arsenal fourfold and could now possess eight or nine nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration did not create this crisis, but President George W. Bush's inability to enforce a policy direction on his cabinet and the ideological aversion within the White House to negotiating with the North has allowed Pyongyang to expand its nuclear arsenal, solidify its status as a nuclear state and continue to avoid international sanction or penalty.
The U.S. troop withdrawal is likely to be interpreted by North Korean leaders as a sign of weakness and may reduce the chances for a negotiated end to Pyongyang's nuclear program. North Korea will assume that its nuclear status has forced the United States to reduce its presence in the South, weakening the U.S. military option against North Korea. Worse, Pyongyang may even be emboldened to take more provocative action to extract concessions from Seoul and others in the region.
In addition, the timing of the decision will be exploited politically within South Korea by those who believe that America is no longer serious about protecting South Korea and that the U.S.-South Korea alliance is an anachronism. Many younger South Koreans believe that America does not really care about South Korea's security or prosperity and that the alliance no longer truly benefits South Korea. The growing political center now questions the importance of U.S. military support to the prosperity of South Koreans.
There are many ways the United States can undo the damage, reinforce deterrence in the region and help ensure that North Korea will not be able to use its nuclear capabilities to its economic or strategic advantage. The most important step the Bush administration should take is to pursue more aggressively a negotiated settlement with North Korea. There are signs that North Korea is still willing to trade its nuclear capabilities for a fundamentally different relationship with the United States.
This option must be fully tested before other steps are pursued. If, however, it proves impossible in the near term to reach an agreement, the United States must move to reinforce its political and military relationships with South Korea and Japan. This includes increasing the pace of military exercises, deploying additional troops and equipment to the region, including antimissile batteries and antiartillery armaments, and demonstrating that the United States remains unwaveringly committed to the defense and protection of both countries. An enhanced - not reduced - U.S. military capability in the region is the surest way to show Pyongyang that its nuclear actions weaken, rather than strengthen, its security.
The war on terrorism and the war in Iraq, which have fully consumed the Bush administration's foreign policy agenda, must not be allowed to undermine U.S. security commitments elsewhere.
There are already too many casualties in Iraq. America's alliances in East Asia and elsewhere should not be added to the list.