US troops have been Washington’s trump card with Seoul — can Korea turn the tables?

Posted on : 2024-06-02 09:21 KST Modified on : 2024-06-02 09:21 KST
South Korea appears to be the world’s only mid-sized country in which the question of military alliances plays such an outsize role in nearly every domain, not only national security and defense but also the economy and foreign policy
Members of the US 3rd Cavalry Regiment salute the flag at a ceremony for rotation of forces at Camp Casey in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi Province, on Feb. 29, 2024. (Yonhap)
Members of the US 3rd Cavalry Regiment salute the flag at a ceremony for rotation of forces at Camp Casey in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi Province, on Feb. 29, 2024. (Yonhap)

The idea of withdrawing American troops from Korea has returned to the public forum. 

As for why the topic has arisen now, the immediate answer can be found in Donald Trump’s remarks about what he would do if reelected and the likelihood of his reelection. 

Trump claims that Korea, as a wealthy country, doesn’t shoulder enough of its defense burden. (Actually, he’s talking about subsidizing the cost of stationing US troops in the country.) He has also threatened to pull out US troops unless Korea raises its defense contribution by a factor of five. 

Perhaps for such reasons, the Korean and American governments initiated negotiations for the 12th Special Measures Agreement this past April, even though the previously negotiated agreement is still valid through the end of 2025. The two sides hope to conclude those negotiations before the US presidential election in November. 

A person who has gone into more detail on the issue than Trump himself is Elbridge Colby, who served as US deputy assistant secretary of defense under Trump and who is a likely candidate for national security adviser in a second Trump presidency. Colby told Yonhap News in an interview on May 6 that the main mission of US Forces Korea (USFK) should be shifted to deterrence against China. He views USFK as a “hostage” and said that if the choice were up to him, he would pull troops off the peninsula. 

What the US gains from threatening to pull out troops 

Trump and Colby’s comments about a potential troop withdrawal have elicited anxiety and concern from nearly all Koreans — with the exception of a few progressive civic groups that have welcomed the idea. Mainstream news outlets, whether progressive or conservative, have expressed panic that goes beyond mere concern. 

Some commentators have said that the pullout of American troops is the stuff of nightmares, a radical idea along the lines of the “Acheson Line” that excluded Korea from the US’ defense perimeter shortly after US troops left the peninsula one year before the Korean War. Others cautioned against “gambling with national defense” and said the troop pullout should be treated with the utmost prudence in line with the grave security situation around the world. Still others have said that a troop withdrawal would place Korea in a national emergency and must be stopped regardless of the cost. 

The Korean Embassy to the US has also promised to step up communications about the cost of defense with Trump’s campaign and to do its best to ensure a reasonable agreement is reached. 

What do Trump, Colby and other American politicians think about the sickeningly familiar drama playing out in Korea as it has so often in past decades? The uncomfortable truth is that Americans likely feel shocked and scornful about Korea’s continuing weakness, as well as curious about how that weakness could be exploited. 

The US initially made use of its troop presence in Korea without exploiting the US troop withdrawal narrative. Such a narrative could be based on actual plans to pull out, or it could amount to a threat or blackmail. The US troop presence in Korea has gone through six major changes over the years, including a complete withdrawal in June 1949 and the removal of 10,000 soldiers in 2005. Currently, the US maintains a garrison of 28,500 servicemembers in the country. 

All previous decisions about troop reductions and withdrawals have been made according to changes in the US’ global strategy without prior discussion with Korea, despite its status as an ally. 

USFK almost underwent a major shakeup at the end of the Cold War. There was a discussion about letting Korea take charge of its own defense because of the US’ shifting global strategy and qualitative changes in the situation in Northeast Asia and on the Korean Peninsula. 

Ironically enough, that’s when Korea began contributing to the cost of stationing American troops in the country. The US didn’t deliberately exploit the withdrawal narrative, but Korea decided that paying the US to stay on the peninsula was better than just letting the troops depart. Korea’s first contribution in 1991 was 107.3 billion won — as of 2023, it’s paying 12 times that amount. 

From then until now, the “steady presence” of USFK has become dogma in the cult of the ROK-US alliance. 

Since the 1990s, the US has used the withdrawal narrative, rather than an actual withdrawal, to gain major concessions in its negotiations with Korea. When I was a low-level negotiator in South Korea and the US’ talks about restricting the capabilities of South Korean missiles in 1996, the American negotiators would sometimes bring up the possibility of withdrawing US troops as a means of pressuring South Korea. The same tactic was occasionally used by Richard Lawless, the US’ chief negotiator in the “Future of the Alliance” talks during the presidency of Roh Moo-hyun. 

There were several thorny items on the agenda of those talks — including not only the North Korean nuclear issue but also the relocation of the Yongsan base, the redeployment and strategic flexibility of USFK, and the deployment of South Korean troops to Iraq — and the US got its way on all of them. Once Washington realized the utility of the USFK withdrawal narrative, it served as a trump card for the US in nearly all its negotiations with South Korea. 

The cost-benefit analysis nobody has dared make 

South Korea appears to be the world’s only mid-sized country in which the question of military alliances plays such an outsize role in nearly every domain, not only national security and defense but also the economy and foreign policy (including inter-Korean affairs). The question should be approached with extreme circumspection, bearing in mind the issues mentioned above. 

Fundamentally, the question of the US troop withdrawal from Korea depends on our assessment of its actual contribution to deterrence and to victory, if a war should break out. Another critical factor in our assessment is the question of cost. Even though South Korea has quietly entered the top echelon of national and military power, unfortunately no government or political party has ever carried out an “official” cost-benefit analysis of the American troop presence. 

Unfortunate omissions of this sort always have their reasons. The presence of US troops and a stronger ROK-US alliance undoubtedly serve the interests of certain vested interests in the diplomatic, political, military and business sectors, while the prospect of the alliance weakening and US troops going home is a vague source of unease for many Koreans. Since those factors have been in play for nearly 80 years now, what administration or political actors would dare broach the subject of sending American troops home? 

But those attitudes need to change. The South Korean state has achieved autonomy through national power, Koreans have acquired self-respect, and Korea now has a talented diplomatic corps capable of peacefully managing foreign relations and soldiers ready to risk their lives to defend the country from any foreign invasion. If we can be persuaded that even the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue is more amenable to a political and diplomatic solution than military deterrence (which has already failed), it would actually be possible for us to exploit the USFK withdrawal narrative for our own ends. I suggest a few ways that could work below. 

First, we need to have the resolve to use this approach. This may sound as obvious as the need to flip the switch before using an electric device. But what we need is to reflect on the fact that we’ve never had that resolve before, and to have the courage to confront such a tricky and explosive issue. We must be unwavering in our resolve, even if it leads to the actual withdrawal of American troops. 

Second, the government needs to limit itself to undeniable facts and truths in position statements for domestic and foreign audiences. Viable comments include the following: “USFK has contributed to South Korea’s security.” “The ROK-US alliance is a reciprocal relationship.” “We respect the US’ national interests and decisions as an ally.” “Mutual cooperation for peace on the Korean Peninsula, in the region and in the world will continue even if USFK is withdrawn and the ROK-US military alliance is altered.” 

Third, we need to break free of the spell of the “steady presence” of USFK that leads us to make excessive concessions in negotiations of major issues with the US. We need to reach agreements that can satisfy the public when negotiating such matters as defense burden-sharing, the transfer of wartime operational control, or “OPCON,” of alliance forces, and the strategic flexibility of USFK. 

Finally, one of the most important practical issues is the domestic and international ramifications of such an approach. We need to repair our diplomatic relations with China and Russia and adjust our ties with North Korea to be a peaceful relationship between two states. The government and political sector will need to be determined and sincere in reassuring and winning over the public on these issues and securing its support. The public may not always be right, but nothing goes right without the public. 

By Moon Jang-nyeol, former professor at Korea National Defense University 

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