Thursday, May 29, 2014

Let Them Sell Kidneys!

Let us presume for a moment that a family member whom you love very much has been diagnosed with lymphoma, which requires a large amount of blood transfusions. On top of that, that family member has a rare blood type. And now let us also assume that there are generous donors who are more than willing to donate their blood and platelets to your loved one.

Now, however, let us assume that many of those donors were turned away. But they weren’t turned away because their blood types were not compatible or some other legitimate medical reason. They were turned away because they just did not have the proper paperwork.

As a result, that family member of yours dies.

Now, how do you think you would feel if you ever found yourself in such a situation?

For those of you who have been in Korea long enough, you might think that this story sounds familiar. That is because it actually happened in 2010 when a nineteen-year-old boy died after battling lymphoma for only a month. His blood type was B (Rh-), which, the Korea Times article says, is rare among Koreans. A Facebook campaign alerted the public about this and a large number of the expat community at the time volunteered to donate their blood.

However, many of them were turned away. One of the reasons was that they did not have valid Korean IDs.

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Blood is just one of the many things that thousands of people are waiting for but to no avail. They also need kidneys, livers, lungs, hearts, and corneas to name just a few. Although scientific discoveries might make the point that I am currently trying to make moot some day, it will not be at least another decade before human organs that have been developed from stem cells can even begin to be marketed. In the meantime, people die while waiting for a miracle that is not coming.

And things do not appear to be looking any better for those dying patients. According to a report in the Joongang Ilbo, in a survey of a thousand people, only 14.9 percent of the respondents said that they were registered donors. The report goes on to say:

The rest said they haven’t registered because they were afraid (42.4 percent) or didn’t know how to become a donor (41.4 percent).

Meanwhile, 52.3 percent said they didn’t want to have their organs removed after their deaths.

The most common reasons were fears (46.5 percent), a desire to be buried whole (39.2 percent) and the complexity of the registration process for becoming a donor (7.3 percent).

Because "taking it all with me to the afterlife" makes so much sense
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However, these were people who were talking about donating their organs after they died. There does not even seem to be a study about live organ transplants. Forget organs. Korea also suffers from a chronic shortage of blood.

However, it’s not like as though there is no demand for organs, despite the fact that the buying and selling of organs is illegal. Though not reported too regularly, there have been instances of people who had been arrested on charges of trafficking organs (as can be seen here, here, and here). If there were no demand, there would be no need for these traffickers’ “services.”

And organs are expensive. According to a blog post from the Marmot’s Hole from 2011, which in turn quoted the Journal of Korean Medical Science:

The mean operation fee to get a KT (kidney transplant) was US$21,000 (US$15,000-US$46,000), and another US$21,000 (US$15,000-US$32,000) was necessary for other expenses during the stay. The mean hospital stay was 18.5 days ranging from 14 to 90 days.

For LT (liver transplant) the needed expense was about twice of KT; the operation fee was US$47,000 (US$41,000-US$160,000), and extra expenses of US$16,000 (US$8,600-US$25,000) was necessary during the stay. The mean hospital stay was 43.4 days (range 7-84 days) which was also twice longer than KT.

So, this is what we know for sure so far:

  • The demand for blood and organs is there. And it is high.
  • The supply of blood and organs is far lower than the demand for them due to reasons such as personal fears and cultural norms. Yes, it’s the dreaded c-word. Confucianism states “The body, hair, and skin – all have been received from the parents; and so one doesn’t dare damage them.” This explains why 53.2 percent of Koreans desire to be buried whole.
  • People in financial trouble and those who see no other way out are desperate enough to sell their organs, despite the great dangers involved, both legally and procedurally.
  • There are unscrupulous criminals and back alley surgeons who have no problems with taking advantage of desperate people who see no other way of repaying their financial debts.

So is there a way to solve this problem? I certainly think there is. Legalize the buying and selling of organs, regardless of whether we are talking about post-mortem or live transplants.

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If one is pro-choice and holds those sets of beliefs (if not in their entirety, at least partially) as their own, it would be logically inconsistent to hold the opposing view, i.e. anti-choice, when it comes to individuals voluntarily choosing to sell their own organs. Just as much as the fate of a fetus can and ought to be decided by the pregnant woman (especially seeing that the woman owns her own body and is in charge of her own destiny), so too can any individual decide the fate of his ownself by choosing to sell his/her own organs.

A philosophical argument that is often used against the legalization of the selling of organs is the rhetorical question as to whether or not a person has the right to subjugate oneself to slavery. The answer to that is certainly “NO.” And there are moral reasons against the “right” to sell oneself into slavery. Even if an individual voluntarily chooses to sell oneself into slavery, and formulates an iron-clad contract to make it happen, it still does not change the fact that the right to contract is strictly derived from the right of private property.

Seeing that a person who sells himself into slavery will no longer own him/herself, that means that the right to self-ownership, the ultimate private property that each of us possesses, would be violated by default. Once a single party to a contract, no matter how mutual that contract may be, no longer adheres to the concept of private property or self-ownership, then that contract cannot, and must not, be enforced as it would have no moral leg to stand on.

In other words, an individual can give away his/her property (which is not the same as abandoning the concept of private property), but not his/her will.

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And that is the answer to that philosophical question. The philosophical question as to whether or not someone can legitimately sell oneself into slavery is, in this case, irrelevant. Call it the the slippery slope fallacy, the fallacy of composition, or an appeal to emotion. It has no bearing whatsoever in the debate about whether or not the buying and selling of human organs ought to be legalized.

Another argument against legalizing the buying and selling of organs is that it is unfair. To be specific, those who are most likely to sell their organs will be the poor whereas those who do the buying would be the rich.

However, those who make this argument are suffering from a bias against markets. The question that those who oppose the legalization of this market never ask or answer is: What is wrong with giving the poor an opportunity to make money?

If the argument against selling organs is that only the poor will sell their organs and the rich will do most of the buying, then how is it moral to keep the vast majority of all businesses legal? Those who are not well-off are the ones who are selling their services – in this case, their labor – in order to earn a living; and those who are well-off are the ones who are buying their services. Should we then make every single McDonald’s or Starbucks illegal?

Yes, it is true that the risks to their lives, as well as their own emotional well-being, that are associated with selling one’s kidney is much greater than getting a job that pays minimum wage where the most one has to typically sacrifice is a few hours out of a given day. However, the principle remains the same.

Therefore, the only real difference here is price. How much money would be enough for an individual to make the rational and voluntary choice to go under the knife to sell one’s kidney? I certainly have no answer for that. That is for market prices, aka the equilibrium price reached between suppliers and consumers, to decide.

It's not a bad thing to do.
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When all else fails, opponents argue by saying that it would be immoral to legalize such a trade because it just is. But that point is also entirely irrelevant. As those news stories that I linked to earlier clearly show, people already do sell their own organs. Basically, it is the same argument in regards to prostitution or abortion. They are illegal but they occur already, and there is no real way to prevent those who are willing to engage in voluntary and mutual transactions.

Finally, just as in the case of prostitution or abortion, legalizing the trade of organs would force out the criminal elements from the market. Or at the very least put a dent in their profit margins.

In 2012, a study that was released by the Mexican Competitiveness Institute found that Mexico’s drug cartels would lose up to US$1.425 billion if Colorado legalized marijuana.

When there is an increased level of competition, even the most entrenched businesses take a hit in their profits. This is even more true of organized crime. After all, how many people would really choose to go into business with criminals when there are plenty of legal alternatives to choose from?

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In a decade or so, when stem-cell research has borne lab-grown organs that can be successfully used on people are developed, and a decade after that when such lab-grown organs can become marketable for the majority of consumers to be able to purchase, then the very idea of selling one’s own organs would be relegated to the past for our future descendants to look upon with incredulity. What a glorious day that would be.

Until that day, however, it is long past time that people earnestly began to discuss the merits of legalizing the trade of human organs.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Politics: Don't hate the player, hate the game.

More often than not, I criticize politicians; regardless of which end of the political spectrum that they are on, though admittedly for different reasons. I usually criticize those on the Right for never meaning what they say and I criticize those on the Left for always meaning what they say. Then there’s a whole list of hypocrisies, outright lies, and sheer stupidity that they all engage in.

In this upcoming elections, for a myriad of reasons, it is likely that the conservatives will lose their majority in the National Assembly. The government is being criticized, fairly or unfairly, for the Sewol Disaster, and the people are still furious about the way that the government has dealt with some the unions in the country. Not to mention TWO spy scandals.

It is likely that the conservatives will lose their majority. And it wouldn’t be the fault of the progressives. If the progressives ever run unopposed, they would never win. The conservatives deserve to lose though I am not sure if that means that the country deserves the progressives.

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It is true that the conservatives have done an absolute piss poor job of running the country. In fact, it is going to be very difficult to do a worse job running the country than the conservatives have. However, if anybody can do it, I have the most unshakable faith that the progressives are more than capable of doing so.

The progressives are convinced, or at least your average progressive voter is, that through sheer will alone, the government can heal the sick, raise the dead, make the old feel young, and, most absurdly, make the young go out and vote. The only other thing in the world that can set people up for more disappointment than that is most likely the anticipation one builds up about losing one’s virginity.

And so the game goes on. The conservatives go out, and the progressives come in. Then the progressives go out, and the conservatives come in. And the wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round. It just goes to show you that political victories are merely rented. In the meantime, the rental car, aka the country, gets more and more beaten up. After all, as far as they are concerned, it’s just a rental.

It's ok. It's only a rental.
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However, when we really think about it, we have to realize that the real problem is not the politicians. The real problem is politics itself. After all, regardless of one’s preferred brand of poison, the main ingredient of politics is the same – the belief that all of society’s ills can be cured by politics, which is, in essence, price fixing.

Are people complaining that wages are too low? Mandate higher wages.

Are people not satisfied with their welfare benefits? Raise them, but keep taxes low.

Are college kids complaining that tuition is too high? Tell them that tuition will be slashed by half. Never mind if that can actually be done.

Are banks complaining about financial liquidity? Keep the interest rates low! That is, after all, the ultimate price fixing mechanism.

Does price fixing solve anything? If it did, North Korea would indeed be the paradise that it claims to be. But that’s the lie that politicians have always been selling. Then again, the voters don’t want to hear the truth. Can you imagine what would happen if politicians ever told the truth?
“No, I can’t fix the looming pension disaster. The problem isn’t funding or unions. The problem is you! You all want so damned much but you are not willing to pay for it. You could have more kids but you’re not doing that either. Nor is your racist views helping in any way to bringing about a sensible immigration policy that could help to expand the labor force.”

Blood would flow like the Han River!

In many ways, a democratic republic is a mirror that reflects the amalgamated mass that is us, the people. But politics is the oddly shaped mirrors that we use to make ourselves think we look like Hugh Jackman.

Hey, the guy is gorgeous.  So why not post a picture of him?
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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Don't Vote. It Just Encourages the Bastards.

It has been almost eight years since one of my favorite TV shows of all time, The West Wing, has been off the air. For those of you who have not seen it, it was basically Aaron Sorkin’s version of House of Cards; meaning that in this show, politics and government are nearly devoid of nastiness and corruption that actually define politics. Instead, the government is full of witty, intelligent, and passionate people who are full of quips, bright ideas, and, most of all, incorruptible ideals.  And they wish to work for the common good of the public – citizens and non-citizens alike.

In other words, the show was about as believable as Donald Trump’s hair.

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However, there were bits and pieces of the show that truly moved me. In one episode, when the Kennedy-esque President Josiah “Jed” Bartlett was giving a speech in front of an enthusiastic audience, he said:

Decisions are made by those who show up.

It was probably one of the simplest but most powerful rallying calls for citizen participation in government that I had ever heard on television. It rang even truer especially after George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in the 2000 US presidential election with a mere 327 votes in order to capture Florida’s twenty-five electoral votes.

Though our individual votes might be mere drops in the ocean, it does not change the fact that an ocean is made of a multitude of individual drops. So I was convinced that voting was a sacred duty that all free people in the world had to cherish and uphold.

What a fool I was.

In reality, politicians, regardless of party (or the lack thereof), live for the moment. That is because every politician, at least those in countries that are ruled by laws, always know that they will inevitably face the political Grim Reaper that we call elections. And very few politicians believe that there is life after political death. Only a few politicians who have achieved high office and still have influential friends in government (for example, click here, here, here, here, and here) after leaving office work as consultants (aka political liaisons) for mega-corporations via the ever-so-lucrative revolving door of politics. The majority of politicians face ignominy when they leave office.

And seeing how the vast majority of politicians wouldn’t know what an honest job was even if it whacked them on the side of their heads with a baseball bat, politicians tend to be the worst kinds of myopic sycophants on the planet.

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One myth that never seems to die is the belief that government officials are more attuned to making decisions for long term benefits. It is most likely because a lot of people romanticize government as the way we work together to solve problems; never mind that in reality what the politicians want is usually not in the public interest. And it doesn’t usually matter that the solutions often fail to solve the problems (see the war on porn or the war on prostitution or immigration policy, for example). For big government romantics, that just means we didn’t try hard enough.

In reality, politicians have no interest in programs or policies that impose short term losses on voters so that they may enjoy long term benefits. After all, if the politician isn’t elected or re-elected, he or she will not be in office to enjoy his or her constituents’ gratitude for the benefits that they will enjoy long after the politician has left office. All that matters to the politician is the fact that raising his/her constituents’ costs today will reduce his/her own chances of being in power.

Everything has a cost. Politicians know this. However, though they know that the benefits that the voters might enjoy today will come at a cost in the future, the politicians also know that the short term gains of today will improve the politician’s chances of being elected but the long term benefits of tomorrow does nothing to guarantee the politicians’ immediate desire of being elected. It is precisely why today’s increase in government debt does little to hurt him/her at the polls and the same reason that voters only begin to feel the burden of that debt long after those politicians are out of office.

Does the government need to repay its debt after having issued bonds or face inflationary pressures after expanding the money supply? Will people’s income be drastically reduced as they have to pay more for goods because of a devalued currency or perpetual deficits? Who cares? It doesn’t have to be repaid until twenty or thirty years later. Why worry about such trifling matters when the politician will not be around by then (as evidenced by various news reports that can be found here, here, here, and here)? Let the future crop of leaders deal with it; who in turn will pass the bill down further until the economy collapses!

It does not matter whom people vote for. They are all the same breed that feed at the trough of the public treasury.

(For people who are interested in more seriously understanding why politicians behave the way they do, all of James M. Buchanan’s works are available for free here. James M. Buchanan was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1986. He was a leading proponent of public choice theory, which is a theory that assumes that politicians and government officials, like everyone else, are motivated by self-interest – getting re-elected or gaining more power – and do not necessarily act in the public interest. He accurately predicted that as time goes on, governments tend to run large deficits and let regulations proliferate thus leading to a permanent disconnect between government spending and government revenue.)

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For instance, in the recent televised mayoral debate between Representative Chung Mong-joon and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, Representative Chung, the supposed conservative, accused Mayor Park of abandoning public projects. He was referring to Mayor Park’s ending of Seoul’s “New Town” (새마을) projects, which Representative Chung seems to think is needed to revitalize Seoul’s economy. Never mind economic realities!

And of course both men promised heavy government spending to improve the city’s infrastructure. Why not? It’s the public that is going to have to pay for these unaffordable bills through additional taxes anyway; not them! Representative Chung pledged to earmark ₩1 trillion (US$975 million) to replace old subway cars. Not to be outdone, Mayor Park promised to invest ₩2 trillion (US$1.95 billion) for the project.

As for welfare, well, according to
the Korea Herald:

Another major campaign theme is welfare expansion. In fact, the two parties’ 10-point election manifestos are filled with welfare promises.

The ruling (Saenuri) party pledged to fully subsidize influenza vaccinations for senior citizens, increase the number of social welfare service workers by 5,000 and cut interest rates on loans to farmers and fishers.

The party’s manifesto carries a price tag of 5.5 trillion won over four years. It suggested the abolition of tax deductions or exemption schemes to finance it.

The NPAD (
New Politics Alliance for Democracy Party) makes more costly promises. It pledged to make patient care services fully funded, first for public hospitals by next year and then for all hospitals across the nation by 2017.

Neither candidate said a word about how those projects would be financed. Why would they? Just like Stephanie Meyer, politicians’ bread and butter is selling ridiculous fantasies. Considering that, it amazes me that neither of the contenders continued their pissing match by pledging to spend up to ₩500 quadrillion.

To make matters worse, kids who think this is a great movie franchise are also voting.  Gods help us all!
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I am a Korean citizen and I live in Seoul. As a result, I have the right to vote in Seoul’s mayoral race. I will not be taking advantage of my right. Whenever two candidates are more or less the same, and just as equally ignorant and/or incompetent, I find that there is no obligation to vote. On top of that, I can cast my vote only so long as I think that at least one of the candidates has more virtues than flaws. However, when both candidates are morally and intellectually bankrupt, when there is no lesser evil, casting a vote for either candidate is a sinful waste of time and energy.

Many people that I have known tend to believe that voting is vital. Perhaps that juvenile “Vote or Die” campaign was actually effective. However, I am of the opinion that it is not wrong to abstain from voting. That is because not voting is also a form of voting. It is a way of stating that I don’t want any of the insipid choices that I have been offered.

However, I think that it is important to clarify that I am not choosing to abstain from voting because I am apathetic. That is hardly the case. I do care deeply about this country. I am choosing not to vote because at this point in time, voting is an empty and impotent act and I will not give this act any more credibility than it deserves by participating in this charade.

Author’s Note:
I wish I could take credit for the title. It was the title of PJ O’Rourke’s book of the same title.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Politicizing the Sewol Tragedy

As soon as I saw the footage of the Sewol sinking, I knew that this was not a topic that I wanted to write about. I was too angry to write about it and I knew that I needed to calm myself to do it justice. But as I found out more about the tragedy, I became even angrier.

The passengers being told to stay put in the lower decks of the ship while the highest ranking crew members abandoned ship even as their passengers were doomed to their fate boiled my blood. The ship’s company knowingly overloading the ship with cargo and the government’s safety inspectors having given the ship a passing grade despite the fact that malfunctioning equipment prevented the deployment of liferafts infuriated me. The news media proving to the world that they were nothing more than glorified stenographers was hardly surprising but just as infuriating.

I am still angry and if I write about the disaster in my current state of mind, I don’t think I could do the departed any justice. So I will not write any more about the sinking or the deaths or their immediate causes and effects. If I ever decide to write about this disaster again, it will only be after the necessary legal proceedings have taken place.

The one thing that I am going to write about is the foulest types of human beings that I have come across thus far in this lamentable story – the politicians.

After the opposition party made calls for the president’s entire cabinet to resign, the Prime Minister accepted the prime minister’s traditional duty of being a convenient scapegoat and resigned (since 2004, Korea has had eight prime ministers). However, in a quick turnabout that can only be found in politics, the opposition claimed that the resignation of the Prime Minister was irresponsible. Representative Ahn Cheol-soo asked rhetorically whether it was appropriate for the National Assembly to confirm a new Prime Minister in the midst of such a crisis, quickly forgetting that it was his party that was initially calling for the entire cabinet to resign.

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Even before people could get accustomed to the opposition’s new narrative, however, there were further calls for the president to resign. Furthermore, the National Assembly decided to to push ahead with a parliamentary investigation into the tragedy even as there are still people yet to be recovered from the ship.

Never mind that President Park is not an omnipotent or omniscient god who could simply will the ship to resurface. Never mind that despite the initial rescue attempts being botched, it was not as though no attempt was made to rescue the passengers. In fact, a sailor and a civilian diver have so far died in the rescue/recovery attempts. This Wikipedia link also lists the steps that were taken to rescue the passengers.

The latest call for resignation has been aimed at the Director of Veterans Affairs for “comparing the Sewol tragedy with the 9/11 terrorist attack in the United States.”

Or at least that’s the charge that the opposition party is making. What the director actually said was:

The president and the government are being made to unfairly suffer over the sinking of the Sewol. Whenever something bad happens, the first thing that people do is to attack the president and the government. When the United States faces a crisis, Americans unite but we attack the government and the president. In the case of the United States, right after the 9/11 terror attacks, President Bush’s approval ratings shot up to 90%.”

The man basically whined about the opposition giving his party a hard time; and apparently he is not aware of the lack of political unity that has defined American politics since the 9/11 attacks. It was a childish, impudent, and foolish statement to make, which indeed deserved rebuke. But calls for his resignation stink of an opposition party that has gone mad with political opportunism in the face of by-elections to be held in June.

The opposition party’s official name is the New Politics Alliance for Democracy Party (새정치민주연합당). There does not seem to be anything new about the opposition party’s politics.

Nothing ever seems to change in politics
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As despicable as the politicians may be, however, they seem like paragons of virtue compared to political groups (whose behavior is very similar to political action committees in the United States).

In a “tribute video” that was uploaded by the Korean Teachers’ Union, the narrator likened the students on board the Sewol to Kim Ju-yeol, a student who was killed by a tear-gas shell in 1960. The narrator in the video made sure to mention that the young man was killed by the Rhee Syngman administration. The narrator continued to liken them to Park Jong-chul, a student who was tortured and killed in 1987. The narrator made sure to mention that he was killed by the Chun Doo-hwan administration.

The narrator also went on to mention that those who were most responsible for the students’ death was former President Lee Myung-bak and President Park Geun-hye.

As for President Lee, it was his supposedly neo-liberal policies that allowed the Chonghaejin Marine Company, which owned the Sewol, to buy such an old ship in the first place (the ship was originally built in 1994). For her part, President Park is to blame because the deaths of the students is the result of her administration’s “murderous incompetence.”

(One of the benefits of writing about economics for as long as I have is that I can quote myself.  In regards to President Lee Myung-bak's supposed neo-liberal policies, despite their protestations, none of those who ever accuse others of practicing neo-liberalism ever seems to be able to show actual proof of deregulation.  Have the number of regulations increased or decreased? Do governments spend more or less money on regulations? Are there more or less regulators or bureaucrats? What about the number of legislation on the books? What about the number of administrative agencies today versus thirty years ago?  The neo-liberalism that progressives so often accuse their opponents of is, sadly, a myth.)

The narrator then went on to say that on the day the ferry sank, President Park apologized to the public in regards to the case of the fabrication of evidence by the National Intelligence Service against a Seoul Metropolitan Government official. The narrator then rhetorically asks just how much that must have hurt President Park’s pride and wonders whether that might have gotten her to want the Sewol to sink so that she could move on from that scandal.

Of course, the members of the opposition party are not the only people who are keen to politicize tragedy for political gain. The following is a video of then Representative Park excoriating the late President Roh Moo-hyun in a speech that she gave in the National Assembly for failing to save the life of Kim Sun-il, a Christian missionary who was kidnapped and beheaded by Islamists in Iraq in 2004. The irony is that then Representative Park criticized President Roh for failing to uphold Article 34, Section 6 of the Republic of Korea Constitution, which states:

The State shall endeavor to prevent disasters and to protect citizens from harm.

That law is quite ambiguous and can therefore mean practically anything, which means that it means practically nothing. However, that is a topic for another day. It was ironic because that is the same law that Representative Ahn Cheol-soo is using to criticize President Park. To paraphrase a popular phrase – Karma can be a pain.

Politicizing tragedy is neither new nor unique to Korea. But it does not make it any less despicable.

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Korea Should Go Nuclear

Henry Temple, an eighteenth century British statesman, was once purported to have said, “We have no permanent allies, we have no permanent enemies, we only have permanent interests.”

About two centuries later, that sentiment was echoed by Henry Kissinger who said “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”

I feel like as though there should be a "Game of Thrones" reference here.
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Despite all the rhetoric about special relationships, blood alliances, or teeth and lips, both men’s cold and calculating realpolitik is the true manual that dictates nation states’ foreign policy. With the exception of dyed-in-the-wool neo-conservatives (and not just the American variety) or those who have no hope of ever being elected into high office, most people are loathe to champion such a(n) amoral/realistic approach to foreign policy.

Nations, of course, have varying goals such as military supremacy, economic development, environmental preservation, goodwill, peace, etc. However, if Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can be used as an analogy, not all of a nation’s goals have the same level of priority. Before some of the loftier goals can be considered, every nation state must first secure one goal above all else – survival. And it is this basic need that causes the shifting sands of alliances.

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No person in the world can survive without using one’s mind – a process of thought. From this simplest necessity to the highest philosophical abstractions, everything comes from that one attribute – the reasoning mind. The same applies to nation states and it stands to reason that overly relying on any particular (impermanent) alliance for one’s national survival is counterproductive in the long run.

Such is the position that Korea finds itself with its alliance with the United States.

Of course, this is not to say that the United States has not shown its commitment to the US-ROK alliance. Over 36,000 American military servicemen died and over 92,000 were wounded during the Korean War (yes, yes, the Korean War is technically not over yet). Additionally, according to a report in the Nautilus Institute, the United States spends about US$42 billion per year to defend Korea. Although it was recently agreed upon between Seoul and Washington DC to increase Korea’s share of the defense costs, Korea’s share is still relatively quite small.

(The original link to the Nautilus Institute appears to have been deleted. The link I am providing to is another blog called “One Free Korea,” which linked to the original article that appears to have since been deleted. As such, I am in no way sure about the accuracy of the data.)

And this doesn’t even count the annual Foal Eagle military exercises that the United States and Republic of Korea militaries have been engaging in since 1997. Furthermore, though it cannot be measured yet, when President Obama’s “Asia Pivot” moves beyond its initial stages long after he leaves office (assuming that the US can still afford this pivot despite cutting defense spending and its need to reassess its commitments to NATO due to an increasingly belligerent Russia), it is possible that the amount of raw capital that the United States will invest in Korea’s defense will multiply even further.

The number of lives and the amount of treasure that the United States has given up for its alliance with Korea is a matter of historical record. It has been and still is the most steadfast (and powerful) ally that Korea has ever had. That is not in question. What is in question is whether or not this alliance will still be as close as it has been in the future.

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Treaties are the bedrock of international affairs. It is the closest thing to a sacred document that requires nations to remain true to their words. Lately, however, treaties seem to be more a matter of convenience than anything else. Case in point is the Budapest Memorandum that was signed in 1994 between the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation. Among other things, this document gave security assurances against threats to Ukraine’s territorial integrity on the condition that Ukraine got rid of its nuclear stockpile. At the time, Ukraine had the third largest nuclear stockpile in the world.

With the recent annexation of the Crimean peninsula by the Russian Federation, and the conflict between the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian rebels as well as the erosion of even Ukraine’s police force, I think it is safe to say that the Budapest Memorandum has been scrapped.

Though President Obama and European leaders have warned of sanctions against Russia, it is highly doubtful that sanctions would even work. President Obama has also repeated on numerous occasions that he would not utilize military options to force Russian forces out of Ukraine or the Crimean peninsula.

The fact is that the United States needs Russia’s assistance to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. Many European nations require Russian oil. Russia has significantly modernized its military. Furthermore, the question as to whether Crimea is part of Ukraine or part of Russia will have little enduring impact on US national security or its strategic interests.

They all point to two undeniable points:

  • The United States is not as powerful as people think it is, especially when it has to consider confronting the Russian military instead of untrained militants in Afghanistan.
  • The United States will not sacrifice its interests to protect the territorial integrity of a country that, either way, poses little to no impact to its interests.
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If not publicly, Korean politicians must at least be privately asking if the United States might throw Korea under the bus if something happens here. Though it will most likely not happen in the immediate future, when the People’s Republic of China’s military has caught up with the United States Pacific Fleet in about twenty to thirty years, when it might no longer be willing to allow foreign fighters flying in and out of its Air Defense Zone, which happens to include Ieodo as well as the Senkaku Islands, what then? If, in a hypothetical scenario, the North Korean regime collapses and China deploys its military to the former Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to “indefinitely maintain stability and order,” what then? Article 3 of the Republic of Korea Constitution states that the territory of the Republic of Korea shall consist of the Korean peninsula and its adjacent islands. Would the United States honor the Mutual Defense Treaty that it signed with Korea in 1953?

We don’t even have to consider a hypothetical Chinese military threat. If the North Korean regime sunk another Korean naval vessel or shelled one of Korea’s islands again, would the United States think that using aircraft and artillery to strike back at the criminal regime was “disproportionately aggressive?” Does that imply that the United States will not aid Korea if it decided to retaliate against a North Korean attack if the United States thinks that Korea’s response was “disproportionately aggressive,” a statement that could mean just about anything? If so, is the Mutual Defense Treaty even worth the paper that it was written on?

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If Korea is attacked again by North Korean forces or if China decides to occupy North Korea, and the United States either urges “restraint” and/or declines to respond, then what exactly is the point of having American military bases in Korea? The United States certainly wants to hold on to its bases in both Korea and Japan in order to remain as a Pacific power but in the long term, just what does Korea gain? If all that Korea gains is the territorial integrity of South Korea proper while its adjacent islands and the northern half of the peninsula are fair game for all other powers, then Korea might need to reexamine the treaty.

President Obama’s recent Asia visit was about reassuring the United States’ key East Asian allies. His trip to Japan was to “reaffirm” America’s support for Japan over China. In Korea, it was about standing “shoulder to shoulder” against North Korea. But can the United States be trusted to keep its word? After all, the United States has shown that it is not willing to militarily challenge Russia over Crimea or Georgia and it has expressed concern over China’s increased military budget.

No one can blame the United States for the positions that it has taken. Like any sovereign nation state, the United States has always sought and will always seek to champion its own selfish national interests. It cannot be expected to altruistically sacrifice the lives of its citizens and its treasury to protect Korea or any other country in the globe. Although it is certainly within the United States’ national rights to interpret any treaty where it is a signatory to maximize its own benefits, as far as Korea is concerned (or at least as far as it ought to be concerned) the United States’ less than heroic response to the Crimean crisis has not exactly inspired much confidence.

It wasn't exactly a "Battle Hymn of the Republic" moment
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Although the United States will never explicitly state that it wants its two closest Asian allies to be its bulwark against a rising China, that is most likely one of the worst kept secrets in the world. With Korea gaining only the very minimum of its geopolitical goals from its alliance with the United States and likely having to be figuratively and literally caught in the middle of a new Cold War with China on one side and the United States and Japan on the other, Korea might have more to lose than gain.

While Korea needs to cultivate its relations with China to ensure continued economic growth (as China is now Korea’s largest trading partner), it also needs to maintain its alliance with the United States to maintain its security needs. However, this balancing game cannot last indefinitely. Korea needs to pick a side. However, although people have traditionally framed Korea’s choices as being between China or the United States, many have neglected to point out that there is a third choice – Korea chooses itself.

Koreans need to consider the possibility of having to emulate Switzerland by declaring armed neutrality. This means that if Korea declared armed neutrality, it would make no military alliance with any country in the world; but it would defend itself from foreign attacks and still reserve the right to pursue an active foreign policy. In order for Korea to be an armed neutral nation, however, as it will no longer have the protection of the United States’ nuclear umbrella, it would need to do three things.

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Although this would find Korea in violation of its civilian nuclear agreements with the United States, which inhibits any other non-nuclear countries’ ability to weaponize their nuclear power plants that deal with American nuclear power plants, Korea could begin to engage France or India or Israel for its nuclear needs.

Although it is possible that a disgruntled United States might wish to proceed to place economic sanctions on Korea for developing nuclear weapons after it officially declares itself as a nuclear-armed neutral power, it will most likely not pursue a sanctions regime that is too harsh lest Korea becomes a nuclear-armed neutral power that tends to tilt towards China.

After all, even if the United States is forced to withdraw from Korea, it will most likely not withdraw from Japan and will still want to maintain its role as a Pacific power to counter China. Furthermore, even if the United States does decide to pursue an aggressive sanctions regime, it would not be too effective as a neutral Korea (and in the long-term a reunified neutral Korea) would be an economic dynamo for northern China and thus permanently end Chinas nightmare of millions of North Korean refugees swarming into China or it having to perpetually keep the North Korean economy afloat. Although China will be extremely unhappy about Ieodo, and it will likely be a source of friction, or perhaps even a limited conflict between China and Korea, as long as Korea is a nuclear-armed neutral power that can guarantee that North Korea’s problems do not become China’s problems, China might very well look the other way.

“We have no permanent allies, we have no permanent enemies, we only have permanent interests.”

Korea’s permanent interest is its survival and prosperity; and no other foreign power can or ever will guarantee it for Korea. It is time that Koreans begun to think outside the box.

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