Imperialism or Federalism: The Occupation of South Korea

A recent op-ed in Foreign Policy highlights South Korea’s very successful rent-seeking campaign in regard to US military services:

When it comes to taking charge of coalition forces here on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea has been a little gun shy. South Korea and the United States this week are celebrating the 60-year anniversary of an alliance forged after the Korean War; there were two parades, a big dinner, video retrospectives, and a lot of talk of katchi kapshida (“we stand together”). But after decades of confidence-building joint exercises and billions of dollars in military assistance, it’s time for the South Koreans to step up and assume what’s called “operational control” of all forces stationed here if war should break out. The problem is, the South Koreans aren’t quite ready.

This brings out two interrelated but distinct trains of thought in my mind. First, it destroys the arguments, found on the hard Left, about a brutal US imperialism in the region. Seoul has made a US military presence on its soil a top priority for sixty years now. This has been the case during the autocratic period and it is now the case for the democratic one as well. A state cannot have a brutal presence in another state’s territory if the latter state continues to make the former’s presence a top priority.

Second, this is not to say that the US is not imperialistic. Here is how Merriam-Webster online defines imperialism: “the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas.” With this useful definition in mind, South Korea’s rent-seeking necessarily brings up anti-imperial arguments from the center and the Right; namely, that South Korea is taking US taxpayers for a ride (the Cato Institute has done some especially good work on this topic).

So here are the relevant circumstances: the US military is currently on the Korean peninsula, and it is fairly entrenched, and the South Koreans overwhelmingly want it there, and US citizens don’t seem to mind all that much the presence of their military along the 38th parallel. So what exactly is the problem? Why is Foreign Policy, a traditionally interventionist publication, highlighting South Korea’s rent-seeking now? The answer, I think you all know, is government gridlock. Notice first how gridlock is not necessarily a bad thing. It forces Americans to reassess their priorities and to make tough compromises.

Libertarians have long called for Washington to withdraw its troops from South Korea (and correctly so). Among their grievances are the aforementioned rent-seeking tactics of the South Koreans, the unnecessary expenses that accompany such arrangements, and the fact that a US military presence causes unnecessary problems with China and North Korea.

Given the costs and the unnecessary dangers associated with occupation, I am in full agreement with libertarians. However, given the four circumstances mentioned above, I think there is a better way to go about pursuing a more just situation: federate with each other. By federate I do not mean that Seoul should send two senators and X number of representatives. That would be extraordinarily unfair. However, if the 17 provinces in South Korea each sent two senators and X number of representatives, justice would be achieved.

The objections to such an idea are numerous. They include political, cultural and economic angles, and none of them ever hold up to scrutiny. But what exactly is wrong with the status quo? What’s wrong with a complete military withdrawal? My answer to the first question is simply that the status quo is unfair. The South Koreans are ripping the Americans off. My answer to the second question is a bit more complicated.

A complete withdrawal implies that South Korea is not paying its fair share. Indeed, that it is not paying its share at all. A complete withdrawal also implies that foreign occupation creates unnecessary dangers, and it is indeed difficult to imagine a nuclear-armed North Korea without the presence of the US military along the 38th parallel (would Beijing or Tokyo stand for that? Would there be two Koreas? Korea today, without the war, would look like Vietnam).

A withdrawal also implies that the US no longer cares about the South Korean people. Only the hard, fringe Korean Left wants the US out. It’s not the threat of China or North Korea I’m concerned about (only demagogues are concerned about that), but rather the lost opportunity to enhance liberty and equality under the law in both the US and South Korea.

A federation would go a long way toward tackling these problems. South Korean provinces would suddenly find themselves paying their fair share. Two armies would become one (that means soldiers from the province of Jeollanam would be fighting in Afghanistan and not just patrolling the 38th parallel). The propaganda about American imperialism coming from the socialist paradise of North Korea would be rendered obsolete. A new peace – based on consent and equality – would begin to arise. My inspiration for these thoughts comes from a segment of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (pgs 681-682; bottom of 779-794 in the Bantam paperback edition), musings from Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (223-236 in the definitive, paperback edition) and Mises’s fascinating argument in Liberalism (105-154 of the paperback edition from FEE; here is a pdf of the book from I’d even go so far as to claim that it is a more libertarian position than the calls to withdraw from the region. At any rate, it would certainly address the problem of rent-seeking that the US now finds itself facing (which in turn proves that the libertarians were correct all along).