U.S. Soldiers Might Be Stuck in Korea Forever

As Trump has already discovered, pulling the military from the Peninsula isn't easy.

U.S. and South Korean soldiers in Yeoncheon-gun, South Korea on May 30, 2013. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
U.S. and South Korean soldiers in Yeoncheon-gun, South Korea on May 30, 2013. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

It’s harder than it looks to get out of Korea. U.S. President Donald Trump already found that out in February, when, according to an NBC News report, the heated intervention of chief of staff John Kelly deterred him from attempting to order the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from South Korea. Trump may be taking comfort in the new developments on the peninsula, where South Korean President Moon Jae-in has praised him as a worthy recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. But an end to the U.S. presence is still a long way off.

The smiles and jokes between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the inter-Korean summit on Friday were followed up by the joint Panmunjom Declaration, promising a nuclear-free peninsula and a formal end to the Korean War. Yet we’ve heard such peace pledges before, and it’s worth treating this latest example with skepticism. Finding a route toward a Korean peace treaty would be difficult under the best of circumstances — and, even then, the presence in South Korea of U.S. military forces, including nuclear-capable aircraft and ships deployed during regular military exercises, poses a problem with no clear solution.

Removing those forces from the peninsula has traditionally been treated as a condition for peace. True, North Koreans have shown more flexibility on the issue in recent years; there was no direct mention of U.S. forces in the Panmunjom Declaration, and Moon previously stated that Kim would not insist on the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But, eventually, the Trump administration will need to face a disruptive challenge it has yet to even acknowledge: developing a plan either for troop withdrawals or a significant change in the status of any troops that remain.

If a formal peace treaty were signed, as Time reporter Charlie Campbell correctly observes, it would undermine Washington’s argument for its continued military presence. As Christopher Green, a senior researcher at the International Crisis Group, tells Campbell: “There would be voices raised with the question: why are the U.S. troops still here if we have a peace regime in North Korea?” Trump is already on record as saying South Korea should no longer get a “free ride” from the United States and should defend itself.

While Trump may be inclined to make a sudden, grand gesture to remove U.S. troops, that has proved a hard task in the past. The most notable example occurred under President Jimmy Carter, who upon entering office in January 1977 quickly moved to implement his campaign promise to remove all U.S. ground combat forces of the 2nd Infantry Division from South Korea. However, by July 1979 his troop withdrawal policy was dead, killed by resistance within the U.S. foreign-policy establishment and Congress, as well as among regional allies. Carter’s experience carries powerful lessons for any plan to demilitarize the peninsula today.

To begin with, many disagreed with Carter’s four- to five-year timetable. In fact, strong opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff forced this timetable on Carter. In a memo informing him of the timetable, Carter wrote in margins, “Seems too slow.” Internal discussions reveal that his initial inclination may have been to have combat forces withdrawn within a year. Opponents felt conditions rather than an arbitrary, pre-set timeline should govern the policy process.

Nor did Carter attempt to gain any concessions from Pyongyang or its Chinese and Soviet allies. For opponents of the plan, he was putting the cart before the horse by removing an enormous bargaining chip without leveraging it for some sort of peace settlement or nonaggression pact — an objection that may be raised again.

Opponents of Carter’s move also saw the local U.S. presence as embedded within a regional U.S. hegemonic structure and feared that withdrawal might be tugging at a thread that could cause the whole structure to come undone. The forward-deployed forces in South Korea were one node within a larger structure of general U.S. military force in the Western Pacific, the importance of which had increased as the last remaining Asian mainland deployment after the Vietnam withdrawal. The political and psychological value of the U.S. presence was as important as the military rationale.

The national security establishment created bureaucratic roadblocks to the policy. Morton Abramowitz, the then-deputy assistant secretary for international security affairs in the Defense Department, who led an interagency task force, said, “We began a rear-guard action: delay it, water it down, mitigate the decision as much as possible.”

Carter was to include a massive compensatory military aid package to Seoul as part of the plan and to structure the withdrawal into three phases, with the largest combat elements back-loaded into its final phase. Early on, congressional obstruction delayed funding for the aid package. Then, in the winter of 1978-1979, new intelligence revealed that North Korea’s order of battle was larger and more heavily armored than previously thought. For opponents of Carter’s plan within his own administration, the new intelligence was the smoking gun they needed to end a policy they had never supported.

Carter attempted to salvage things with a last-ditch effort at tripartite U.S.-South Korea-North Korea talks in the lead-up to his late June 1979 summit with South Korean President Park Chung-hee. However, it was too little, too rushed, and too late.

The U.S. military presence remains part of a wider regional framework, with the defense of Japan and the U.S.-Japanese alliance as a preeminent consideration. Removing U.S. forces from South Korea, if done in a way that does not take Japanese sensitivities into consideration, could still easily spark Tokyo’s drive to advance its already considerable military capabilities in a manner that destabilizes the region. (Trump has made similarly careless remarks about Tokyo as Seoul, saying he would be fine if both developed nuclear weapons.) Japanese rearmament would be a spur to China’s own military ambitions and spending.

Trump has rebranded the Barack Obama-era “pivot to Asia” with his administration’s own “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy — with an increasingly powerful China in mind. The U.S. presence in South Korea fits within this wider military force structure, with the almost completed U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, the largest overseas U.S. military base in the world. There may be a desire to disengage from the peninsula, but the wider U.S. foreign-policy establishment wants to hold the line against what it sees as an expansive China.

On the bilateral level, if a peace treaty were achieved, the existing United Nations Command — or at least its armistice-keeping responsibilities — would go away. Nevertheless, as opponents of the deal predicted under Carter, the local U.S. four-star commander would face a similar loosening of control and contradictions in the alliance command arrangements. With a peace regime in place or in the process of being established, and U.S. troops being reduced, Seoul would assume yet greater command responsibilities, namely, taking back full wartime operational control of its own military.

Seoul has been working to do so for more than a decade now, and Moon has explicitly said as much. The catch? Unless a full abrogation of the U.S.-South Korean alliance is the plan (which, based on Trump administration statements, it is not), how is Trump going to accept or sell to Congress and the American public (not to mention the national security establishment) leaving U.S. forces under South Korean operational control? A unified, combined military command structure would be required in order for basic military preparedness. Will Trump accept the optics of a U.S. general serving as the deputy of a Korean?

If not, he will be courting significant blowback from allies such as Japan — and demanding historic cultural adjustments by South Korea. Except for one year of South Korea’s national existence, the same year it was invaded and nearly destroyed, it has not experienced life without the protection of a U.S. military presence.

Trump and other parties may be establishing a peace effort first, with troop removals emerging at a later stage of a more gradual process. North Korean leaders appear to be willing to meet with their South Korean counterparts on equal terms, which makes things easier than when they refused to recognize the legitimacy of the government in Seoul at all. But all this can only buy time for a solution to the dilemma of America’s troop presence. It’s up to the Trump administration to start thinking of a solution.


Clint Work is a doctoral candidate at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

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