The case for a phased US withdrawal from South Korea
The United States should consider a phased withdrawal from South Korea. The Cold War has long ended and US forces along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) are no longer necessary, despite continued missile and nuclear testing by North Korea.
In 1948, the United States and Russia agreed to split the Korean Peninsula into two regions. After North Korean forces, supported by both Russia and China, invaded the South, the United States and 20 other nations came to Seoul’s defense. Hostilities ended on July 27, 1953, after all parties to the conflict signed an armistice. Technically, the war has never ended, since no peace treaty was agreed to.
Since then, the United States has maintained a strong military presence, which now consists of about 28,000 personnel. The annual cost of keeping US military personnel in South Korea is around US$1.5 billion, of which about 50% is reportedly paid by Seoul.
A phased withdrawal from the region should be considered for three reasons. First, the South Koreans are capable of defending themselves from the North. Second, the withdrawal would result in tens of billions of dollars in savings over the coming decades. Finally, it could be an ideal tool for negotiating with Pyongyang and Beijing on finally ending North Korea’s nuclear program.
The South Korean army is formidable. With more than 650,000 active military personnel, and another 5 million reservists, the sheer number of personnel is adequate to counter North Korea’s million-man army. In addition, South Korean military technology is vastly superior and would give Seoul a decisive information advantage as required on the modern battlefield.
South Korea also enjoys the advantage of terrain. There are few primary avenues of approach the North could use for its mobile infantry and armored units. It is reasonable to assume those approaches are heavily mined and would receive a barrage from well-placed mobile and fixed South Korean artillery positions. The US and South Korean air forces would also be used to target North Korea’s mobile units as they attempted to advance toward Seoul. In addition, any invasion from North Korea would likely result in a swift response by US and Japanese ground forces.
It’s also reasonable to assume that China, given its economic interdependence with the United States, would intervene against the reclusive regime in Pyongyang.
Assuming the United States pays around $750 million annually for its 28,000 troops in South Korea, the savings over a 10-year period would be more than $7 billion. That money could be reapportioned to strategic missile defense. The United States already enjoys a strong missile-defense capability, and any additional monies invested in it would only strengthen America’s confidence of being able to intercept a North Korean missile.
Finally, the United States has spent several decades attempting to deter the North Korean regime from acquiring, testing and deploying nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. All previous attempts (sanctions, economic assistance, diplomatic efforts, and others) have failed and there is no sign the Kim Jong-un regime will ease its missile and nuclear testing. Is a phased withdrawal really that difficult to envisage?
The United States should consider proposing a phased withdrawal that could include certain concessions from Pyongyang, notably a decrease in missile testing and cessation of its program to acquire weapons of mass destruction. If Washington never asks, a response is impossible to predict. China would likely support such moves, given its relationship with the United States, if the perceived US threat against it from South Korea has been removed.
The North Korean regime will continue to test its missile systems until it believes it has the capability to reach the United States. Only then will the regime believe its long-term survival outlook remains strong.
Kim Jong-un’s relentless pursuit of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) will continue. Recent statements by the United Nations and blustery comments by US President Donald Trump will not deter the regime. However, a phased withdrawal from the peninsula might persuade Pyongyang and Beijing to reconsider Kim’s nuclear ambitions.
The United States must consider a phased withdrawal over the next 10 to 15 years. Doing so might actually achieve results on the Korean Peninsula, something that has not occurred since 1953. Misguided foreign-policy thinking and a cold-war mentality will result in increased tension between Pyongyang and Washington, further increasing the risks of a strategic miscalculation.