Time to Leave South Korea

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Despite escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula in recent months, it is time to start the pullback of the 14,000 American troops stationed along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and the GIs garrisoned in the nearby capital rather than waiting a year. Implementing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s plans for repositioning U.S. forces from the DMZ and their central Seoul base will better align Washington’s decades-old obligations with newfound perils on the peninsula and beyond. The United States can honor its commitment to defend South Korea from another northern invasion by our formidable land and carrier-based airpower. This military reconfiguration in South Korea should be part of an overhaul of American post–Cold War strategy.

There are two time warps on the Korean peninsula. There is the familiar one north of the DMZ with a communist regime that resembles Josef Stalin’s Soviet Russia of the 1930s, with prison camps, starvation, oppression, and propaganda campaigns against the United States.

The other, less acknowledged, time warp is south of the DMZ. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, U.S. forces have been frozen in defensive positions against another North Korean assault. Currently, there are a total of 37,000 U.S. forces in all of South Korea. Their mission is static, and their training and equipment make them unfit for new fast-paced operations. Moreover, North Korea’s heavy-duty conventional artillery and self-proclaimed nuclear weapons make this force more hostage than defender.

South Korea’s 600,000 troops ought to assume the primary role in defending their own country, relieving U.S. troops for security operations in liberated Iraq or for swift-response roles in the campaign against terror, for example. American forces are stretched thin around the globe in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Japan, Germany, and now the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan. A rebalancing of American power should have taken place after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the world enjoyed a brief respite from major threats.

The current volatile international environment is no excuse not to undertake such a review now—for it is actually during times of war, hot or cold, that conditions compel change. Halcyon eras, like the 1990s, breed complacency. The U.S. military and geopolitical framework underwent profound changes in World War II and again with the onset of the Cold War. The war on terror necessitates carefully executed adjustments but so, too, does a world vastly altered by the end of the Soviet confrontation. North Korea is no longer Moscow’s proxy.

Obviously, there are risks. A sudden transformation could cause instability in Asia. North Korea could interpret American withdrawal as a lack of resolve. But this seems unlikely given that an attack across the DMZ, with or without our small Maginot-line force, would be seen as an act of war by Washington, triggering a counterattack and imperiling the Pyongyang regime itself. In one sense, the absence of a U.S. force on the DMZ would make a massive U.S. retaliation easier; otherwise American troops would no doubt be overrun by the world’s fifth-largest army and face the danger of errant friendly fire.

Our DMZ contingent has neither halted Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons ambitions nor inhibited its missile sales to Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, or Syria. It cannot be expected to stop nuclear material transfers to other rogue states or possibly terrorist networks. More important, American ground units in Korea have not assuaged fears in Japan, Taiwan, or military circles in South Korea about Pyongyang’s nuclear arming. These states will increasingly look to their own defense. Japan, the most pacifistic state, has now openly abandoned its long-held prohibition of U.S. nuclear-powered warships in its harbors. Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba stated that his country is prepared to wage a preemptive strike against a possible missile launch by North Korea. Pyongyang’s likely production of 10 or more new atomic bombs will deepen anxiety among its neighbors. They will consider defensive measures, perhaps a nuclear option, even with U.S. ground forces in South Korea.

Finally, the anti-American sentiment that burst forth in the South Korean presidential elections last fall also dictates a fresh look at our presence at the DMZ. Led by their new president, Roh Moo Hyun, many South Koreans no longer fear their brothers across the DMZ, an impression that Pyongyang has fostered and utilized against the United States. America is caught in the middle of its commitment to defend the South and that country’s awakened nationalism against a perceived foreign tutelage.

The last time the United States was boxed in between protecting an Asian country from its northern communist neighbor amid anti-Americanism and emerging nationalism in the south, it fared badly. Although we look for Vietnam War analogies in the Middle East, we might better see shades of them in the new Korea. It makes sense to anticipate looming realities. Sooner rather than later the divide on the Korean peninsula will end. When it does, the United States will cut its commitment just as we did in reunified Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. States nearby will counterbalance a reunified peninsula, which in all likelihood will have nuclear capabilities.

In Germany, where anti-U.S. feelings have also arisen, it now makes strategic sense to reposition U.S. troops from Cold War installations into the more pro-American former Warsaw Pact countries, such as Poland and Hungary. Reconstituted into expeditionary forces, these units could be rapidly deployed in the Middle East and Central Asia in tune with changing American interests. But nowhere are the operational realities more out of date than in Korea. It is time to recognize the historical wind shifts and realign our forces or be buffeted by them.