The South Korean (Corporate) Tail Wagging The U.S. Taxpayer Dog

21 Apr

Wagging the DogThe most persuasive argument proponents of maintaining American military installations in Germany, Japan, and South Korea is, that at least South Korea returns the favor by deploying troops abroad (for wars I opposed anyway – and South Korean participation in Iraq and Afghanistan only reinforces my disgust for these subsidies to defense corporations, like Samsung, Daewoo, and Hynudai.). Yet, a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee report (via The Progressive Realist) found evidence of “…construction projects lacking congressional or Pentagon oversight, and allied contributions failing to keep up with rapidly rising U.S. costs.”

The year‐long review of spending in Japan, South Korea and Germany, where nearly 70 percent of spending to support our permanent overseas facilities takes place, suggests that changes to the management of such spending are necessary and that closer scrutiny is warranted to avoid future commitments that may be inefficient or unaffordable.

I was THIS close to reconsidering the funding argument for withdrawing American troops from the Korean peninsula in light of security considerations. The Senate report also criticizes the practice of substituting in-kind payments for cash, to the benefit of Seoul. This is on top of patently unfair negotiating behavior back in 2008, when Seoul didn’t acquiesce to an American position, that the two “allies” split the bill for American troops on the peninsula. Here are the bullets related directly to South Korea, which comprise a majority of the abuses for the three allies.

  • U.S. Forces Korea’s (USFK) use of hundreds of millions of dollars of in‐kind contributions from South Korea is subject to little oversight by the Department of the Army, U.S. Pacific Command or the Defense Department. Congress is not even notified about projects built by USFK with in‐kind contributions. The committee’s review identified plans to use in‐kind contributions for a $10 million museum and a fiscally ill‐conceived dining hall project rather than mission critical facilities.
  • A U.S. Army proposal for a public‐private partnership to build military family housing in South Korea would increase the rental portion of the overseas housing allowance paid to military families housed in the development from the current standard $1,600 per month to $3,900 per month. The Army’s justification for the proposed increase relies on an unprecedented interpretation of overseas housing allowance regulations. The committee’s analysis indicates that, if approved, the proposal would cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars more than the standard overseas housing allowance for military families.
  • The committee’s findings raise issues associated with cost of the planned realignment of U.S. forces in the Asia Pacific. The committee has declined to authorize spending for some of these realignment initiatives until detailed plans and cost estimates are produced.
  • U.S. contributions to the cost of maintaining forces in South Korea grew by more than $500 million between 2008 and 2012. By comparison, South Korea’s contributions under the U.S. – Korea Special Measures Agreement grew by about $42 million during that same period.

Here’s the strategic argument justifying this abuse.

With solid US support on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea is freed from the onerous task of maintaining a military so mighty that it would deter North Korean invasion completely on its own by its overwhelming threat of deterrence.

At the same time it reduces South Korean pressure to maintain an unsustainably large military, that also frees up a normal-sized South Korean military forces to be used elsewhere. Given that the US and ROK have a mutual defense treaty, engaging in areas where they help the other is a logical action. The US has become a major target in the War on Terror, and so helping patrol against terror is something ROK forces can do to be a full partner with their US ally. Ditto with anti-piracy and efforts like the war in Afghanistan (and Iraq).

For a variety of reasons, the ROK-US alliance shouldn’t be a one-way street. For decades, South Korean resources were necessarily focused on maintaining a large military in the event of another North Korean attack, or an invasion by China or even Russia, but the continued US military presence relieves a great deal of pressure by putting threat of use of the full force of the US military on the table as a deterrence (something which would be prohibitively expensive for South Korea to emulate). South Korea has been helping out its ally beyond the Peninsula for some time (South Korea was the US’s biggest ally in Vietnam, and maintained the third largest force in Iraq after the US and the UK, though they were in a “safe” area), and it needs to continue to do this in innovative and productive ways.

…[I}t will make an alliance more palatable to bean counters in Washington who may lose site of the intangible financial benefits of deterrence if South Korea is “helping out” more elsewhere in the world.

I would argue, that the US. Navy is a more efficient recipient of American appropriations than ground forces based on foreign territory, because defense of the sea lanes is more advantageous for the global economy than is defense of one country, such as Japan or South Korea. And, if the United States would not provide defense at such a bargain, South Korea would have to consider the real costs of its foreign policy, namely unification and an alliance with Japan (or, China for that matter). South Korea already receives the benefit of Japanese intelligence-gathering and would receive far more support in case of actual war in the region, because South Korean and Japanese interests are compatible, but American intervention undermines the need for Seoul, to deal directly with Tokyo. All the blather about Japanese aggression is as much posturing for terms with Tokyo as Seoul’s insistence it is too poor to pay for its own defense. In other words, American troops frustrate a better military posture for South Korea strategically, and that bad option costs American taxpayers.

In light of these facts, I really do have to doubt the value of the ROK-U.S. alliance for the average American, or average South Korean. The subsidy for South Korean defense corporations and their political cronies is surely appreciated, but it must stop.

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