America’s recent relations with both North and South Korea have created a volatile political situation on the Paciofic Rim. North Korea’s nuclear ambitions combined with the U.S. military presence in South Korea could turn the peninsula into a tinderbox. This is the basis for Ted Galen Carpenter and Doug Bandow’s “The Korean Conundrum.” The book presents a critical view of Washington’s policies regarding the situation; the authors organize their analysis and present their ideas for a resolution clearly and persuasively.

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The authors contend that the United States. should withdraw its troops from South Korea and Japan, arguing they have been “security free-riders” for many years, benefitting from the presence of a U.S. militia. Initially, a U.S. military presence allowed both countries to boost economic growth by saving on military spending. The United States also took advantage of the opportunity to have troops so close to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. However, Carpenter and Bandow point out that both countries have since built up large, booming economies and are able to support their own military programs. The authors deem the 77,000 U.S. troops in the region unnecessary.

Some polls report that even South Koreans, who hold a more favorable view of Americans, have begun to question the U.S. presence. With U.S. troops in Iraq spread too thin, those troops could be put to better use in the Middle East.

Without this U.S. military presence, North Korea would have to choose between negotiating with South Korea for a nuclear arms reduction plan or standing by as South Korea builds a superior military. According to the authors, North Korea would most likely choose the former course of action.

“The Korean Conundrum” makes solid points and is mostly enjoyable to read. However, the actual prose is a little dense. Carpenter and Bandow emphasize the importance of U.S. involvement with future agreements between North and South Korea. Instead of stating their ideas plainly, they say, “Obviously, when assessing North Korean assurances on any subject, one ought to take them not only with a grain of salt but with the entire salt shaker in hand.” This clumsy style distracts the reader and lessens the impact of the authors’ argument.

In spite of this fault, the arguments in “The Korean Conundrum” are thoughtful and humanitarian. Carpenter and Bandow want the United States to help resolve the tension in the Korean peninsula and they have presented a strategy that may accomplish this with minimal harm to the people living there.


Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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