The relative peace that has followed the Korean War ended with an explosion in March of last year, when North Korea torpedoed a South Korean naval ship. Eight months later, the North Korean military shelled a South Korean island on the border, claiming four lives. These attacks prompted discussions of war between the two nations for the first time in almost fifty years, a war that would inevitably involve the 28,000 US soldiers stationed in South Korea to deter North Korean aggression. American policy experts have moved beyond the discussion of how many more soldiers or airplanes to give our Korean ally. Instead, there has been a serious conversation over whether our military presence in South Korea should be reduced and whether we should be there at all. While the fears of North Korean aggression are legitimate, the US’s simplistic military strategy is ultimately ineffective and even counterproductive in deterring that aggression. The history of the United States military presence in South Korea dates back to the end of World War II. After the occupation of Korea by the Japanese military ended, the United States and the Soviet Union decided to divide the Korean peninsula in half, with the Soviets taking the northern half and the United States the southern half. In less than ten years, the Korean states were at war with each other, quickly pulling the United States and China into the conflict. Though the fighting ended in 1953, the United States kept as many as 40,000 combat troops in South Korea. The US military has begun to withdraw many of its forces in an attempt to transition from a conventional, static military force to a more flexible, mobile one, reducing the number of combat troops in South Korea to 28,000. However, the North Korean attack on the South Korean navy March of last year has halted the withdrawal of US forces for the foreseeable future.
Granted, the attacks last year were not significant and did not spark an all-out conflict. However, when considered in conjunction with the failing health of Kim Jong-il and the pressure of never-ending international economic sanctions, the attacks can be read as the beginnings of a growing hostility by the North Korean government, desperately trying to stay in power despite the structural flaws that paralyze its economy. What is more, according to Andrew Scobell and John Sanford, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute and a US Navy Captain, respectively, since the beginning of the Korean War, North Korea’s primary strategic goal has always been reunification under a communist government. The economic hardships that North Korea currently faces, in conjunction with the ideological differences of the two governments, make a peaceful reunification nearly impossible. This leaves hostile coercion as the more plausible strategy for reunification.
According to Peter Huessy, a senior defense associate at the National Defense University Foundation, the presence of US troops prevents North Korean forces from invading and conquering Seoul, forcing surrender and the reunification of the two Koreas. However, the two attacks on South Korea last year question the extent to which American soldiers are effectively preventing North Korean aggression.
Unfortunately, the conventional deterrence theory that the US is employing through stationing troops on the ground has become muddied after the end of the Cold War. According to C. Dale Walton, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Reading, deterrence theory has become far too simple in a post-Cold War era. The military enemies of the United States are no longer superpowers with populations and economies to worry about but instead are dictators who only care about staying in power regardless ofr the costs. He specifically mentions Kim Jong-il and highlights his slightly schizophrenic leadership style as a prime example of individuals who do not follow the rational-actor theory at the crux of Cold-War deterrence strategy. In 2005, North Korea entered the Six-Party Talks, which involve the US and China, agreeing to cease its nuclear development in exchange for economic aid and political concessions. Four years later, it fired off a test rocket towards Japan and officially withdrew from the Six-Party Talks. In response, the US has cut off nearly all of its aid to North Korea and led the effort to impose tougher economic sanctions on the nation. Despite the cessation of aid, strengthening of sanctions and outcry of the international community, Kim remains insistent on developing a nuclear arsenal.
North Korea’s most threatening weapon, by far, is its nuclear program. The current U.S. military presence has proved counterproductive in pressuring North Korea to dismantle its program. Progress in the Six-Party-talks has been stalled for the last two years, due mainly to the reluctance of China, the only real ally of North Korea, to pressure North Korea to disassemble its nuclear program. Since China is essential for successful negotiations, the most effective way to pressure North Korea would be to make concessions to the Chinese in return for a stronger hand in dealing with North Korea. Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who has written extensively on North Korean issues, argues that the best concession the U.S. could make to China would be to remove their soldiers from South Korea. China currently sees the US military presence as a potential threat to their regional primacy, as should North Korea collapse, the US would probably send troops in with South Korean forces to stabilize North Korea should the state collapse. Were the United States to withdraw their soldiers, there would be no American soldiers within 100 miles of the Chinese border, sending a signal that the US intends no military harm to the Chinese homeland. This concession might give the US leverage to convince China to push for a shutdown of the North Korean nuclear program. Furthermore, if there is no potential for an invasion by joint U.S.-South Korean forces, there is a strong possibility that North Korea would cave to any Chinese pressure to dismantle their nuclear program, as the absence of US troops would lessen the need for a nuclear deterrent.
Advocates of US military presence in South Korea state that even with US troops gone, there is still the possibility of a North Korean invasion which, they argue, would most likely mean a Northern victory. The North Korean military is massive: their conventional forces compose the fourth largest army in the world, with over forty percent of their population serving in either the conventional military or some sort of paramilitary force. Most estimates put the North Korean ground forces at 1.1 million soldiers, whereas the South Korean ground forces number at about 680,000 troops.
Nevertheless, South Korea has many structural advantages should a war break out. Most importantly, its economy is a world powerhouse: if they wished, they could spend enough money on defense to eclipse the entire North Korean GDP. In addition, the ties that the south has forged throughout East Asia mean that they would receive support from the international community if a war breaks out, whereas North Korea would have to rely solely on their own nation, as the diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks show that China would likely not support North Korea if their regime falls. Additionally, according to Colonel Michael Davino of the US Army, the quality of the South Korean military intelligence and air forces would be more than enough to compensate for the comparatively fewer ground soldiers that they possess.
Conventional deterrence strategies may have had some success for the United States during the Cold War, but modern military threats are less like Nikita Khruschev and more like Muammar Qaddafi. In the post-Cold War era, the United States needs to re-examine its current strategy of highly populated permanent bases stationed in allied countries across the globe and decide if it is really deterring conflicts and providing necessary security measures. Although the drawdown of troops is momentarily halted due to recent attacks, the very presence of US troops may be hurting our goal of deterring North Korean advances and preserving regional stability. America should restart troops withdrawals until the last American soldier has left the Korean peninsula.