- Dec 2014
- The Milky Way
Ultimately, it is time to come home from the Korean Peninsula.
Should U.S. Trade Troops in South Korea for North Korea’s Nukes?
What could the U.S. offer? The most visible American military threat and important symbol of U.S. intervention is the troop presence in South Korea, along with the underlying security alliance. The latter was formed in the aftermath of the inconclusive end of the Korean War. Despite massive changes on the Korean peninsula in the intervening 65 years, America’s security guarantee remains. The current 28,500 personnel are but the proverbial tip of the iceberg of Washington’s military commitment to the Republic of Korea.
This policy risks war, since it is meant to ensure America’s involvement in another Korean conflict. The Cold War might have made the peninsula vital to America in 1950, but that is no longer the case in 2018. Indeed, there is no military need for the U.S. in the Republic of Korea. Author Steven Metz observed that “Even if diplomacy does not pan out, South Korea has reached the point that militarily where it could defeat another North Korean invasion on its own.”
America’s commitment also is expensive. The principal cost is not for bases, which South Korea helps offset, but raising and equipping additional units for a major war contingency. Noted Metz: “For the U.S. military, disengagement from South Korea would dramatically lessen the need for land forces in the Asia-Pacific. While the United States would still need robust air and naval capacities, its ground forces would be relegated to contingency operation and training missions. This could lead to major force cuts in the U.S. Army.”
In other words, withdrawal would be win-win.
Would withdrawal signal American retreat from Asia, with the vacuum being filled by malign actors, presumably China and Russia? Similar fears were advanced when the U.S. left Vietnam, yet Washington continued to dominate the region. Washington always has exercised discretion in how and where it engaged Asian nations. Moreover, friendly states should play a more robust regional role, constraining if not containing the People’s Republic of China, the only serious challenger to allied interests.
Critics worry that an arms race might erupt. Better for friendly states to spend more in their own defense than Washington forever maintain an oversize military unnecessary for America’ defense. Would the Japanese fear being similarly “abandoned” by the U.S.? Turning defense responsibilities back to capable parties after decades of support is not abandonment, and Tokyo, too, should be doing far more. Which triggers another concern, that other countries would fear a rearmed Japan. In fact, Tokyo’s neighbors increasingly welcome a more active Japanese policy to confront China.
Are bases in Korea necessary for U.S. military operations in the region? Washington can retain a relationship, since permanent garrisons are not necessary for advantageous military cooperation. Worse in the view of some, South Korea and Japan might go nuclear. Yet isn’t that better than them being vulnerable to foreign threats or the U.S. having to risk nuclear war on their behalf?
In fact, Wright unintentionally made an argument for withdrawal when he complained that pulling out “would signal that the United States cares little for its friends and is only concerned about direct threats to the homeland.” But should not those who lead the U.S. pay most attention to threats against America, especially the possibility of nuclear attack? And which of Washington’s friends cares more for the U.S. than themselves?
After decades of military involvement on the Korean peninsula, America’s presence has become an important card to play in negotiations with North Korea, whether at a summit or in other negotiations with Pyongyang. Surely eliminating nuclear weapons from North Korea is more important than maintaining an outmoded troop presence in the South.
If the DPRK ends up proving indifferent to the presence of American soldiers, then Washington should simply withdraw the troops as a matter of course. After 68 years on the Korean peninsula, it is time for American forces to come home.