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Seoul Isn’t Kabul

Withdrawing U.S. forces from South Korea is unlikely, but fresh thinking in Washington could lay the groundwork for a new security architecture on the peninsula.

By , a fellow with the Stimson Center’s 38 North Program.  
Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton uses binoculars to look across the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea with two U.S. soldiers during his trip to South Korea on July 11, 1993.
Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton uses binoculars to look across the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea with two U.S. soldiers during his trip to South Korea on July 11, 1993. LUKE FRAZZA/AFP via Getty Images

After 20 years, U.S. forces are leaving Afghanistan. The Afghan government has collapsed, and Kabul has fallen to the Taliban. The Afghan withdrawal has drawn historical comparisons. South Vietnamese veterans see echoes of their earlier experience when an American-made military collapsed after being left with little support, and before Kabul fell, the New York Times reported on the potential “specter of evacuations of the U.S. and other Western embassies, like the scene that preceded the fall of Saigon in 1975, when Americans were evacuated from a rooftop by helicopter.”

The Afghan withdrawal also raises questions about U.S. global force deployments in general. When then-President Donald Trump initiated the Afghan pullout and simultaneously reduced forces in Germany, many in the foreign-policy establishment and Congress wrung their hands. It was, they cautioned, the beginning of the steady abdication of long-standing postwar commitments. South Korea, too, was seen as a potential candidate for U.S. disengagement given Trump’s overt skepticism about keeping troops there, alongside his extortionist demands for greater cost-sharing from Seoul.

Trump or others like him may continue to raise a simplistic but compelling point: that U.S. troops were never meant to be in Korea permanently.

After 20 years, U.S. forces are leaving Afghanistan. The Afghan government has collapsed, and Kabul has fallen to the Taliban. The Afghan withdrawal has drawn historical comparisons. South Vietnamese veterans see echoes of their earlier experience when an American-made military collapsed after being left with little support, and before Kabul fell, the New York Times reported on the potential “specter of evacuations of the U.S. and other Western embassies, like the scene that preceded the fall of Saigon in 1975, when Americans were evacuated from a rooftop by helicopter.”

The Afghan withdrawal also raises questions about U.S. global force deployments in general. When then-President Donald Trump initiated the Afghan pullout and simultaneously reduced forces in Germany, many in the foreign-policy establishment and Congress wrung their hands. It was, they cautioned, the beginning of the steady abdication of long-standing postwar commitments. South Korea, too, was seen as a potential candidate for U.S. disengagement given Trump’s overt skepticism about keeping troops there, alongside his extortionist demands for greater cost-sharing from Seoul.

Trump or others like him may continue to raise a simplistic but compelling point: that U.S. troops were never meant to be in Korea permanently.

Trump and his potent brand of America First politics remain a powerful force in U.S. politics. It’s not hard to imagine Trump (or a Trump-like candidate) running for office in 2024, once again challenging U.S. allies and foreign-policy orthodoxies such as the need to maintain a globe-straddling military basing system.

Trump or others like him may continue to raise the simplistic but compelling point, namely, that U.S. troops were never meant to be in Korea permanently. Yet, 70 years later, roughly 28,500 of them are still there. Withdrawing isn’t a likely prospect or a good idea as things stand—but if the United States is willing to approach the Korean Peninsula more imaginatively, it may get to a point where withdrawal is a realistic possibility.


The Biden administration’s global posture review is currently taking stock of where forces are based and determining if those locations are the best places to base them. It’s not clear whether this will affect U.S. forces in South Korea. But in the near term, political obstacles in that country are already keeping U.S. forces from accessing major training facilities and limiting their ability to conduct training maneuvers and live ammunition usage, which are essential for military readiness.

As a result, the redeployment of certain forces, such as Apache attack helicopter crews, to Japan or Alaska for training is possible. In the longer term, U.S. strategists are also recalibrating how U.S. forces in Korea fit within an Indo-Pacific strategy now centered on hypercompetition and possible conflict with China, raising the need to increase the strategic flexibility of peninsular forces for wider regional contingencies.

But shifting U.S. forces from Korea would be a much stickier, and trickier, business than even the painful withdrawal from Afghanistan—and one that would signal a far more fundamental rethinking of Washington’s vision of the global order.

Although the U.S. force presence in Korea has certainly evolved over time, through various periods of reduction and realignment, it has been a fundamental pillar of the security architecture on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia since 1950. There is path dependence to it. It’s sticky. It’s hard to change.

Thus, when U.S. forces there are reduced or realigned, it usually means something larger is afoot (e.g., the Nixon Doctrine, the end of the Cold War, the global war on terrorism). But if Washington were ever to see a complete withdrawal from South Korea, it would signal a truly fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy—one far more notable than the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

There has long been tension between the commitment embodied in the U.S. force presence in South Korea and the skepticism with which U.S. policymakers  and politicians have viewed it.

Still, there has long been an enduring tension between the commitment embodied in the U.S. force presence in South Korea and the skepticism with which U.S. policymakers and lawmakers have viewed it. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have consistently sought to reduce the commitment, pass more of the defense burden to Seoul, and make more flexible the U.S. forces stationed there—essentially, to move away from having one command devoted to deterrence and defense of a single U.S. ally. Just as consistently, though, successive administrations have encountered bumps in the road.

In a previous article for Foreign Policy, I explored how former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s abortive troop withdrawal policy foundered. As is the case of any failed policy, Carter’s faced numerous sources of opposition, some of which were specific to the international context and domestic politics of the late 1970s.

However, behind such contextual factors was the enduring stickiness of the U.S. presence and its embeddedness in the security architecture and psychology of the Korean Peninsula and wider region. Throughout the interagency process, officials slow-walked and subverted the policy for this very reason.

Those factors have undergirded the U.S. force presence in Korea for decades and limited policymakers’ ability to reimagine it. It has served as a sort of keystone in the regional arch, holding other U.S.-coordinated arrangements in place.

As the thinking goes, too precipitous a reduction or full withdrawal, and various interconnected spillover effects will follow: the loosening of deterrence on the peninsula, driving North Korean misperception and possibly aggression; South Korean retaliation against such moves or Seoul’s potential development of an indigenous nuclear weapons program; Japanese insecurity and rearmament; arms racing and proliferation throughout the region; and skepticism about U.S. credibility writ large.

The irony is that most of these same spillover effects have occurred even with a sustained U.S. presence or perhaps because of it. Seoul doesn’t have nukes (the Ford administration shut that down in the mid-1970s), but Pyongyang does and can now theoretically target the continental United States and all of South Korea, Japan, and Guam.

A burgeoning regional arms race is well underway, including increasingly robust Japanese military capabilities, steady advancements in China’s littoral capabilities and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, and Washington’s shift from a fits-and-starts rebalancing to Asia to a more robust Indo-Pacific concept and strategy firmly centered on China.

To be sure, without a sustained U.S. presence, things could be worse. Maintaining the U.S. presence in South Korea (and boosting it in the region) isn’t so much about avoiding a security dilemma as it is facing that dilemma with the proper U.S. capabilities and allied controls in place. It’s about maintaining relative sway over the course of events on the peninsula and in the region.


The U.S. presence in Afghanistan lacked the strategic geography, formative history, treaty commitment, and surrounding alliance system of the U.S presence in Korea. However, just as in Afghanistan, there’s no viable military solution in Korea.

The eventual armistice that ended the war was a cessation of hostilities but not a true peace. A military solution was forsworn, but a militarized framework remained. The long-range objective of U.S. policy was to find a political path toward a unified and independent Korea. Yet pending achievement of that elusive endpoint, the short-term objective took precedence, keeping U.S. forces in place and fostering a position of allied strength to deter future aggression.

The short-term objective has held for nearly 70 years and successfully deterred another Korean War. However, it hasn’t deterred the development and deployment by both sides of military capabilities that have increased tensions and would make such a war unimaginably destructive—and that have profoundly constrained U.S. policymakers’ ability and willingness to reimagine a different type of political relationship on the peninsula. So much time, effort, and resources have been put into deterrence (and deployment of advanced weaponry) as to crowd out other possibilities.

Trump undermined alliance cohesion, sent incoherent signals on deterrence and the U.S. force presence, and ultimately maintained a maximalist line with North Korea.

Trump’s approach was promising if ephemeral. He appeared willing to countenance a new type of political relationship. But in the actual course of events, Trump and his administration undermined alliance cohesion, sent incoherent signals on deterrence and the U.S. force presence, and ultimately maintained a maximalist line with North Korea. Trump was neither a credible alliance partner for Seoul nor a negotiating partner for Pyongyang.

Official Washington is grappling with the failures of Trump’s approach but also the obvious fact that there is no return to the status quo ante. Trump may have failed, but so, too, have successive administrations before him. This does not mean Washington should withdraw U.S. forces to meet Pyongyang’s demands, but it can take certain risks to try to establish a new and different type of political relationship.

As retired Gens. Vincent Brooks and Ho Young Leem argued recently in Foreign Affairs, U.S. and South Korean leaders should adopt a policy of “strategic deliberateness,” an early phase of which includes declaring an end to the state of war with North Korea. The end-of-war declaration isn’t a treaty and doesn’t replace the armistice agreement. The declaration is a powerful symbol that “would represent a fundamental change to politics on the Korean Peninsula” and possibly provide the space necessary for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to pivot, Brooks and Leem write.

Withdrawing U.S. forces from South Korea or acting as if you might (as Trump repeatedly did) undermines stability and the negotiating process. But if that process consists of a genuine effort to establish a new relationship and if it’s done with steady intention and a cohesive alliance, it could eventually lead to a place where removing U.S. forces from Korea doesn’t seem so unimaginable. It may very well lead to a place where historic developments overpower historical inertia.

Clint Work is a fellow with the Stimson Center’s 38 North Program. He is currently engaged in research on the history and evolution of the U.S. force presence on the Korean Peninsula and the transformation of the U.S.-South Korean alliance in the post-Cold War era. Twitter: @clintwork1

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