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The Cost of Free-Riding

As Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Seoul this week, he called the U.S. commitment to South Korea “iron-clad and immutable.” That might sound good to South Koreans, but their dependence on the American military is something they may come to regret.

South Korea has long been a notorious free-rider [1] on U.S. security efforts. Although the country has an economy by most estimates 40 times larger than North Korea’s, Seoul persists in underinvesting in its own security. Despite Pyongyang’s repeated menacing behavior over the years, South Korea still spends an anemic 2.5 percent of its GDP on defense. While the South Korean military has some significant capabilities, it remains heavily dependent on the United States in crucial areas, especially air and naval power.  

Such free-riding has saved South Korean taxpayers a great deal of money, and a succession of governments have resisted U.S. calls to adopt a more robust military effort. Instead, Korean officials have made economic development and other domestic programs a higher priority. One South Korean security expert candidly conveyed the thinking of his country’s political and policy elites at a security conference in Seoul when he rejected an American participant’s call for South Korea to take more responsibility for its defense. “We have domestic needs,” the South Korean responded [2].

Beyond the obvious financial benefits in having another country subsidize Korea’s defense, it is diplomatically and psychologically reassuring to have a superpower as a protector. But there is also a major downside to such dependence. The principal drawback is that crucial decisions about national security are not in the hands of the protectorate’s political leadership. In the case of the U.S.-South Korean alliance, Washington has always dominated the decision-making process. That should be especially worrisome to Korean leaders and the public when, as in the current environment, a military crisis surfaces.


The underlying danger of dependence should have become evident decades ago. The most telling case occurred in 1994 when Washington saw growing evidence that Pyongyang was processing plutonium for a nuclear-weapons program. Bill Clinton’s administration reacted in a thoroughly militant manner. In his memoirs [3], Clinton stated that “I was determined to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear arsenal, even at the risk of war.” He had Secretary of Defense William Perry convey that message in the strongest terms to various audiences on multiple occasions, “even saying we would not rule out a preemptive military strike.”

It was not just bluster. Perry later conceded that the administration seriously considered conducting “surgical strikes [4]” against North Korea’s embryonic nuclear installations. Fortunately, former President Jimmy Carter enticed Clinton to let him approach Pyongyang and conduct talks to resolve the crisis peacefully. But it was a close call. And at no time during the episode did Clinton or his advisers even hint that South Korea’s wishes would have a major influence on Washington’s decision about launching air strikes. Seoul certainly would not have had a veto over U.S. policy.

The same problem arising from South Korea’s security dependence exists with the current crisis.  The Trump administration has stressed [5] on several occasions that all options [6], including military force, are on the table. Washington has escalated tensions by sending an aircraft carrier strike group to waters [7] off the Korean Peninsula. Once again, there is no indication that even vociferous South Korean objections would dissuade the administration from launching attacks on North Korea, if it decided to do so.

Yet if North Korea retaliates for a U.S. attack, South Korea would be the primary victim. Pyongyang has no capability to strike the American homeland, but Seoul, South Korea’s largest city and its economic heart, is located barely 30 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, and it is highly vulnerable to a North Korean artillery barrage. Civilian fatalities would number in the thousands or tens of thousands.

Every sensible person hopes that the current crisis will be resolved peacefully, but even if it is, South Koreans ought to reconsider whether their alliance with the United States is such a bargain after all. The financial savings and other benefits from free-riding won’t mean much if Washington’s rash actions entangle South Korea in a catastrophic war. Free-riding is not necessarily free. It may come at a horrific price in both treasure and blood.  

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author or coauthor of 10 books on international affairs, including The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea [8].

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "The Cost of Free-Riding"

#1 Comment By Fred Bowman On April 17, 2017 @ 9:44 pm

If somehow or another a serious military confrintation is avoided. The United States needs to INSIST that South Korea takes a larger role in providing for her own defense. 60 years is far to long to provide defense for a nation with a 1st world economy.

#2 Comment By Dennis On April 17, 2017 @ 11:07 pm

Why “fortunately” with respect to Carter’s intervention? Bombing the NorKs would not have been a good thing, but it may turn out to be a much, much, much worse thing that we have done nothing to prevent them from getting nukes.

#3 Comment By Asmilwho On April 18, 2017 @ 2:18 am

Before dismissing South Korea’s defence spending of 2.5% of GDP as “anemic”,perhaps Mr Carpenter should compare it with NATO:

NATO average 2.43%
NATO (Europe) average 1.46%

France 1.78%
Germany 1.19%
UK 2.21%

(2016 estimates)

South Korea’s expenditure is, in comparison, rather good


#4 Comment By John S On April 18, 2017 @ 3:57 am

2.5% is not anemic. Only 11 countries spend more than South Korea as a percentage of GDP.

How would it serve US interests if South Korea developed a nuclear weapon?

#5 Comment By Brad F On April 18, 2017 @ 8:56 am


The article is written purely from an American point of view. It ignores or misunderstands South Korea’s perspective. South Korea has, not one, but four potential enemies it has to think about. They are:
1 North Korea
2 China
3 Japan, and (brace yourselves)
4 America

South Korea needs to spend enough to deter North Korea without spending so much that it causes a backlash by China, Japan, or America. Think about it. How much would South Korea have to spend to stop America from acting aggressively towards North Korea? 3% of gdp? 5%? 10%?
The answer is “none of the above”. South Korea would have to both increase spending, and then eject American troops from its country. Which would leave South Korea in a very uncomfortable position.

Best to leave spending at 2.5%.

#6 Comment By LMIDF On April 18, 2017 @ 10:55 am

2.5% is above most European NATO countries; additionally, SK pays 40% of the cost of basing.

Furthermore, thinking of mutual defense treaties and basing as a sort of protection racket is deleterious to the relations with these countries, especially with regards to regional security.

#7 Comment By The Wet One On April 18, 2017 @ 11:43 am

Brad F, on balance, get’s the rights of it. At the very least, he demonstrates that he’s thought about the matter more than 2 minutes.


#8 Comment By Mike Alexander On April 18, 2017 @ 12:12 pm

If South Korea’s economy is 40 times that of North Korea, and it spends 2.5% of it on military, then this means it spends an amount equal to the whole of North Korea’s economy. How then are they not more than a match for North Korean military strength? South Korea should ask for the withdrawal of US troops from their country, which will remove a major incentive for North Korean provocations.

#9 Comment By Mark Thomason On April 18, 2017 @ 1:28 pm

The important new developments in the relationship with South Korea is its increasing independence. It is building up its navy, including some large ships and advanced subs. It is buying a far better air force. Its army is already quite independent, manufacturing its own weapons including the heaviest.

While the US has great military power present in the South, the South is itself far more powerful than the North (only half its population size and broke).

#10 Comment By fabian On April 18, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

I wrote about the same commenting on a Breitbart article showing giddy poles soldiers being subverted by the newly arrived American battalion. You invite foreign troops in your country at your own risk.

#11 Comment By Conewago On April 18, 2017 @ 2:49 pm

Brad F

You tell us to “brace ourselves” for your assertion that America is a potential enemy of America.

I didn’t have to brace myself for that. But I was rather jarred by the fact that you don’t offer any argument – not even a hint of one – to support the assertion that America is a potential enemy of South Korea.

#12 Comment By Conewago On April 18, 2017 @ 2:50 pm

I beg pardon: the first sentence should have read, “….that America is a potential enemy of South Korea.”

#13 Comment By Uncle Billy On April 18, 2017 @ 3:01 pm

Curious how the US is more concerned about the security of South Korea, than South Korea itself is?

You could also say this about Japan. The US carries the load of defense of these Asian countries, spending billions and billions on their defense, while those countries spend money on infrastructure, social programs, etc.

If you take issue with this situation, you are an “isolationist.” Indeed. Again, the defense of South Korea and Japan is our problem, but it is not their problem? Bizarre.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 18, 2017 @ 3:07 pm

“South Korea needs to spend enough to deter North Korea without spending so much that it causes a backlash by China, Japan, or America. Think about it. How much would South Korea have to spend to stop America from acting aggressively towards North Korea? 3% of gdp? 5%? 10%?”

In the strategic gambit halls of planning this has some salience, but in real life, the only manner in which the US becomes an enemy of the US is that the US becomes the defacto leader of its foreign policy and about everything else.

There is a chance that as the Korean war looses its weight on history that the two will reconcile. It is not discussed very much, but the wave of familiar reconciliation between North and South goes unabated. Their mutual history far exceeds that of their separation.
I am fairly confident that North Korea, is outspent by South Korea even at 2.5%. The economic ability for the South to defend itself may not require more than 2.5%. But until the South actually conducts its own independent analysis, it’s an unknown (now perhaps they have and prefer to keep the matter mum, afterall, if my neighbor will by me a new car whether I need it or not, why bother spending my own money.

The greater reality is that we are there as a guard to China. South Korea provides a forward base of operations at China’s doorstep.

But from the outset, I tend to view all immediate crisis these days as hyped media and political agenda policy manipulations. It is Korea’s best interests for them to take control of their defense. If for no other reason to avoid needless provocative US responses which more and more are what used to be termed “knee-jerk” reactions as opposed thought out strategic planning.

While I fully understand that what the admin is doing is breaking or at least attempting to break from the vague and quagmired policies of the last several admin’s. but in reality, those policies are flawed because of the purposes, not a lack of US resolve or ability. There were the wrong tools. Using them with greater force and using more of them is unlikely to yield the desired results. China is not going to abandon North Korea, their most reliable ally, in my view.

#15 Comment By RT Colorado On April 18, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

South Korea needs to spend more towards it’s own defense to displace American forces. South Korea has a very capable military, far better than the North Koreans. There’s no need for American forces, the South Koreans have got this covered. We can still keep what anyone would call a great partnership, but we don’t need to maintain such an expensive “footprint” there.

#16 Comment By jk On April 18, 2017 @ 4:53 pm

I don’t think the freeriders are giving up too much diplomatic power with US military presence as the US will listen to its allies behind the scenes.

The allies still have bargaining power in the sense that they can ‘kick out’ US presence or threaten to do so from their countries.

The neocons would be horrified as this represents a loss of a forward deployed combat capability. Both sides don’t want to lose each other (military real estate for the US, and free-riding and more money for social goods for the ‘ally’), so it is mutually ‘beneficial’ arrangement.

And in a small defense of S. Korea compared to NATO freeriders, S. Korea funds the costs of renovation of buildings for the US troops. I don’t know if the US pays some sort of rent in its European bases.

#17 Comment By Sean On April 19, 2017 @ 12:14 am

The U.S. killed three million North Koreans, 90% civilians. The bombing campaign impoverished and maimed many of the survivors. While another three million were dying of starvation in the 1990’s the world ignored their plight. Perhaps their worldview is better understood given what’s befallen them.

#18 Comment By DanJ On April 19, 2017 @ 5:34 am

As others have pointed out, South Korea has a capable military and spends more than most.

There is a fundamental difference in the way Americans and other countries look at military capabilities. Americans often think that a credible military is one that can obliterate its opponent. Most other countries think that a credible military is one that can make an opponent pay too steep a price for his aggression, and thus deter him. A small country does not think of winning wars, but of avoiding them.

#19 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 19, 2017 @ 6:07 am

Washington militarism isn’t about “free riding” but American control of a country’s foreign and domestic policies. You can’t get an independent nation to pay for what they don’t want. If they do pay more, they will want an independent say in that policy which pushes Washington from the driver’s seat. The premium Washington is paying is the cost of maintaining satrapies. The defense of foreign nations is not the primary purpose of Washington’s military budget and alliances, but maintaining overriding American strategic power projection and the military-industrial economic export business.

He who pays the piper, will call the tune. Think of it as payola.

#20 Comment By JLF On April 19, 2017 @ 9:11 am

Then there is the elephant in the room: China. It goes without saying that China will not tolerate a strong military power on its border. Although it worries today about a Korean refugee problem, that pales in comparison to thoughts of a unified peninsula under American influence. China saw what happened to Russia when NATO expanded into the former Soviet sphere and nothing similar will be tolerated on the Manchurian frontier.

The best Trump can hope for is Kim Jong Un to go to his ancestors and a successor regime seeing the wisdom of a stronger economy at the expense of the military and the dream of a nuclear future. That Trump lacks the wisdom to see this goes without saying. Our hope resides with the wise man that can spend ten minutes explaining the history of the past seventy years to him in the simple terms he can understand.

#21 Comment By Mia On April 19, 2017 @ 7:52 pm

“Beyond the obvious financial benefits in having another country subsidize Korea’s defense, it is diplomatically and psychologically reassuring to have a superpower as a protector. But there is also a major downside to such dependence. The principal drawback is that crucial decisions about national security are not in the hands of the protectorate’s political leadership.”

One thing to remember is that it has a long history of Confucian belief, and Confucian cultures tended to denigrate both military and mercantile development. Those weren’t considered prestigious or important, quite the opposite of Japan’s tradition of bushido. Japan wasn’t very Confucian, and it really kicked butt in East Asia in the modern age. China was also Confucian enough to denigrate the military, but they seem to have gotten over those ideas better in the modern age.

I will second the notion that South Korea actually has four strong enemies on it’s borders to manage. Korea is a country that has been overrun, destroyed and exploited alot in its history, and they pretty much had to put up and shut up. It’s in a much stronger position now, but it’s still very vulnerable.

To the reader who blasted the US for defending Japan, it was actually part of the WWII settlement that Japan was never allowed to have an offensive military, only a defensive force, because it caused so much mayhem in East and Southeast Asia during the war. If you’ve ever seen the map of the area they had invaded, it’s quite shocking. I know I never was taught anything about it when I was in school decades ago but only saw my first map of the whole thing when I was traveling through Europe as an adult. Japan was a military dictatorship, and boy did they have aspirations.

#22 Comment By Lukas Mengelkamp On April 20, 2017 @ 6:01 am

I don’t really see how an increased military spending would keep Soul out of the shooting line. The problem is, like in Europe, not free-riding, but the limits of solving political conflicts with military means.