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The U.S. Can Afford a Peace Deal in Korea
Opponents of an end-of-war declaration are sorely mistaken.
As U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrive in Hanoi this week for their second summit, the possibility of an end-of-war declaration of the Korean War is once more on the horizon, replacing the 1953 Armistice Agreement that formalized a cease-fire and left the war technically ongoing to this day. The declaration won’t practically change the status quo, as active hostilities between the two Koreas have been mostly over since 1953. It would be only right for the United States to put a formal end to its longest war. Further, it can be a low-cost way of testing the hypothesis that Kim will begin taking steps for denuclearization if he can be assured of a better relationship with the United States.
A chorus of foreign-policy voices in Washington, however, insists that the Korean War must continue into its 70th year. Their chief argument is that the end-of-war declaration may supply rhetorical backing for the withdrawal of the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea. One typical example of this argument is the recent article by the Heritage Foundation’s Peter Brookes, who writes: “Once peace has supposedly been declared between Washington and Pyongyang, what stops North Korea from pushing for an additional reduction in U.S.-South Korea [military] exercises?” Similarly, in an op-ed for the New York Times, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute called the peace declaration “illusory,” because “[w]ith a signed declaration in hand, the Kim government would demand, naturally, the departure of American forces from the Korean Peninsula.”
This argument rests on several dubious premises. To begin with, it misunderstands the point of the U.S. forces in South Korea. United States Forces Korea exists not only for the sake of opposing North Korea, but also as a key piece in the U.S. positioning in East Asia, particularly given the rise of China. Declaring peace with North Korea does little to change the U.S. strategic posture in this regard. World War II has been over for more than 70 years, but the United States still has tens of thousands of soldiers stationed in the former Axis, namely Germany, Italy, and Japan. No formal, ongoing war is necessary to justify the presence of those troops. The same is true for those in South Korea.
And if North Korea makes a demand, who cares? Washington and Seoul are under no obligation to act just because Pyongyang pushes. The continued U.S. military presence is entirely up to the United States and South Korea. But for what it’s worth, Pyongyang has been consistent in not making an issue out of their presence throughout the recent round of talks. In the first inter-Korean summit between Kim and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, held in April 2018, Pyongyang conveyed to Seoul that it did not intend to demand U.S. forces’ withdrawal. North Korea recently reiterated this point directly to Trump. When North Korea’s former spy chief Kim Yong Chol visited the White House last month to deliver a letter from Kim Jong Un’s, the envoy reportedly pledged that Pyongyang would not raise the U.S. forces issue even after the Korean Peninsula enters a peace regime. Of course, North Korea may be lying, as it often does. But it’s silly to point to a demand that hasn’t been made and that wouldn’t need to be followed even if it were.
Further, there is no indication that either South Korea or the United States wants U.S. forces to leave South Korea. In D.C. foreign-policy circles, the idea that the South Korean public, especially those who are politically left of center, wants the U.S. military to leave is fashionable. That’s simply untrue, as South Korea’s public support for the U.S. military presence continues to be overwhelming. In a survey conducted shortly before the first inter-Korean summit in April 2018, 73.4 percent of South Koreans said that the U.S. forces ought to stay even if a peace treaty formally ends the Korean War. Moon, the left-of-center South Korean president, also gave a clear statement of the same. In his September 2018 interview with Fox News, Moon said: “Even after the peace treaty is signed and even after the unification is achieved, I can see U.S. forces in Korea remaining in place for the peace and stability of the Northeast Asian region.”
The U.S. public is also steadfast in its support for defending South Korea, a key ally in East Asia. Despite the common claim that Americans are tired of foreign engagements, the U.S. public—conservatives and liberals alike—is in favor of using U.S. troops to defend South Korea in case of a North Korean attack, according to a poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in July 2018.
To be sure, there is one notable American who has a dim view of U.S. Forces Korea: President Donald Trump. In Trump’s vulgar worldview, allies are free-riding on the security arrangements provided by the United States, and South Korea is no exception. The recently concluded negotiations for the Special Measures Agreement, which sets forth the cost-sharing structure for U.S. Forces Korea between Washington and Seoul, were a sign of the contempt that Trump holds for the U.S.-South Korean alliance. The negotiations, which are usually a routine exercise occurring every five years, stalled after the United States made an outrageous demand that would have nearly doubled South Korea’s contribution from about $864 million a year to $1.6 billion. That was made all the worse because it came shortly after South Korea took on most of the $13 billion in costs required to renovate Camp Humphreys, a U.S. base south of Seoul. Reportedly, the two countries agreed to a deal in which South Korea would contribute around $1 billion, but they will review the deal again in just a year.
This caused some analysts to claim that an end-of-war declaration might give Trump an excuse to withdraw the U.S. forces from South Korea. For example, Sue Mi Terry at the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently wrote: “if the Korean War is formally over, and South and North Korea are in a state of peace, what is the rationale for keeping 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea? … The danger of an [sic] U.S. withdrawal is all the greater because Donald Trump is president … It would not take much to lead Trump to withdraw U.S. forces—and a peace declaration could very well provide the excuse he is looking for.”
But there’s good reason to be skeptical about Trump’s ability to withdraw the whole of U.S. Forces Korea by presidential fiat. Trump made headlines in December 2018 by declaring U.S. withdrawal from the Syrian civil war, which caused then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis to resign in protest and the Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell to issue a rare rebuke against Trump. But nearly two months later, the Pentagon does not even have a timeline for the withdrawal, as the countries involved are unable to craft an arrangement after the United States leaves.
All this is over disengaging from less than four years of participating in an unpopular war with a little more than 4,000 troops. The backlash against a U.S. Forces Korea withdrawal from the South Korean government and the U.S. government (including Trump’s own cabinet) would be incomparably greater, before even considering the logistical challenge of removing the 28,500 U.S. troops who have been seamlessly integrated with the South Korean military for over 60 years. Even in the unlikely case that Trump declares the full withdrawal of U.S. forces shortly after his second summit with Kim, it is more likely that Trump will no longer be the president before the U.S. troops actually leave the country.
But more notable in this argument is the perverse logic that the United States must not end the Korean War because it may cause the president of the United States to withdraw the U.S. military from South Korea. As discussed earlier, nothing stops the United States from formally ending the Korean War and maintaining forces there, as long as South Korea is willing to host the U.S. troops—and it is. But this twisted logic in fact points to the more fundamental issue. It is not the end-of-war declaration that undermines the U.S.-South Korea alliance; the damage is coming from the United States and its leader. Instead of demanding the two Koreas continue to be locked in a forever war, perhaps American foreign-policy analysts should spend more energy thinking about how to direct their own government toward achieving peace in the Korean Peninsula while remaining faithful to its ally.