To weigh costs and benefits, Korea must stop treating US troop presence as a sacred cow

Posted on : 2024-05-20 17:02 KST Modified on : 2024-05-20 17:02 KST
No matter which path South Korea chooses, we need to debate and prepare for what lies ahead
Soldiers with the US Space Force take part in a launch ceremony for its unit in Korea at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, in December 2022. (pool photo)
Soldiers with the US Space Force take part in a launch ceremony for its unit in Korea at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, in December 2022. (pool photo)

The US troop presence in Korea is a sacred cow, at least in South Korea. This fact was unequivocally confirmed during South Korea’s general election in April when primary candidates on the left who denounced the THAAD missile defense system and joint military exercises with the US failed to win their races. 
At the same time, there are foreboding signs — coming from the US, no less — that could shake the very foundation of the US Forces Korea. Former President Donald Trump, who may very well win the US presidential election this coming November, and his key advisers are questioning why the US has forces in Korea at all.
“Why would we defend somebody?” Trump recently asked in an interview, calling South Korea “a very wealthy country.” Trump and his camp also argue that if US troops in Korea are so irreplaceable, South Korea should either dramatically increase its burden-sharing contributions or that the forces be used strategically for the good of the US to keep an eye on China. Even if we ignore Trump, US public opinion is continuing to lean in favor of US isolationism and the sentiments inherent in the rallying call of “America First.”
Faced with such circumstances, South Korea should weigh the benefits of hosting US forces — and sooner, rather than later. It will be no easy task, as there are countless ways of defining what is beneficial to the national interest, the quantification of benefits itself is complicated, the future is uncertain, and there are many options that the South Korea-US alliance could choose from.
However, the discourse surrounding the policies and strategies on US troop presence in Korea in South Korea and the US is worlds apart. To mitigate this imbalance, we’ll have to open up the floor for debate so that a diversity of voices can be heard, not just in the US, but in Korea as well. 
US Forces Korea was borne from the Republic of Korea-US Mutual Defense Treaty, and as such, the biggest benefit it provides as the force at the center of the treaty comes from its impact on the security of South Korea and peace on the Korean Peninsula. Its boons to national security are obvious, given that the USFK has played a key role in deterring North Korea and maintaining the armistice between the two Koreas since the Korean War.
At the same time, US troop presence in South Korea and the joint US-South Korea military exercises, the largest in the world, have motivated North Korea to develop nuclear weapons and have acted as an obstacle to the peninsula’s transition from an armistice regime to a peace regime. The USFK may have contributed to negative peace, but it certainly has not created positive peace. 
The presence of the USFK also entails more important debates about security. On the one hand, some believe that a stronger South Korea-US alliance and US troops on the ground in Korea are essential to containing China, which is becoming a great power before our eyes. On the other hand, others worry that an armed conflict between the US and China over Taiwan, for example, could draw South Korea into an unwanted war.
Since the turn of the millennium, every US administration has sought strategic flexibility for its forces in Korea, an approach that has ramped up amid intensifying strategic competition between the US and China as well as the conflict over Taiwan. As a result, US Forces Korea could possibly provoke more of the very threats that it was established to respond to. 
Even from an economic perspective, the costs and benefits are not clear. What is clear is that the economic impact of US troop presence in Korea is diminishing. First of all, the US and Korea only began splitting defense costs in 1991 as a result of the Special Measures Agreement. While South Korea shouldered 83.5 billion won in 1991, by 2023 its expenditures had skyrocketed to 1.29 trillion won.
In addition, the financial support South Korea gives to the USFK through its donation of land, support for the Korean Augmentation to the US Army program, and exemptions and reductions in taxes and utilities comes in at around 2 trillion won per year. While the existence of the USFK once helped reduce South Korea’s defense expenses, South Korea’s defense spending and sharing of defense costs have increased significantly in recent years.
So what options are available to South Korea, or to the South Korea-US relationship? There is an array of options to choose from, from maintaining the status quo to calling it quits on the alliance. What’s increasingly clear, however, is that maintaining the status quo is becoming more difficult by the day. South Korea’s share of defense costs is rising significantly, and if Trump returns to power in November, the country may face demands it’s unprepared to handle. 
Yet there is another, more serious, problem. If the US troops remain in South Korea, they will most likely morph into a military aimed at containing China, rather than North Korea. This seems to be the unavoidable path that the US will go down, with this stance already being adopted by both sides of the aisle. 
That being said, this does not herald the end of the South Korea-US alliance. Neither Trump nor his advisers have called for the alliance to be dismantled, even as they have talked about withdrawing troops from South Korea.

If incumbent Joe Biden is reelected, then the choices are clear. The odds are Washington will continue to pursue upgrades in the US’ strategic containment of China while striking a deal with Seoul that would gradually raise South Korea’s financial contribution to stationing US troops. 

If Trump is elected, South Korea’s dilemma will go up a notch. The more South Korea maintains that a US troop presence is necessary to national security, the more Trump will exploit that position as leverage to increase Seoul’s contribution. He will also pivot the US-South Korea alliance into an orientation that is more directly confrontational with China. Some are arguing that Seoul needs to build its own nuclear arsenal to prepare for a US withdrawal, but we need to calmly assess the wisdom of that path. 

Let’s think about a situation where US troops withdraw from Korea, or what the alliance would look like with a drastically reduced presence of American soldiers in Korea. US troops are considered conventional weaponry. Even if they pull out or reduce their numbers, we could still maintain a South Korea-US alliance based on an extended deterrence network that includes South Korea in the US’ nuclear umbrella. However, this would likely diminish trust in the US’ extended deterrence. 

People would question whether the US would be willing to sacrifice Washington to save Seoul — especially without US troops on Korean soil. The basic assumption is that the US would not risk retaliating against an attack that did not take American lives. But this stance neglects a key fact. The fewer US troops there are on Korean soil, the easier it is for Korea to minimize Korean casualties, thereby lowering the standards for implementing extended deterrence. 

Yet no matter which path South Korea chooses, we need to debate and prepare for what lies ahead. In the larger scheme, there are two essential tasks. The first is to accelerate the transfer of operational control (OPCON) from Washington to Seoul, something that’s been put off for too long. The second is to improve relations with North Korea, China and Russia — which are at their worst since 1990. South Korea needs to improve its ability to defend itself and soften relations with various countries to prepare for the risks that come with Trump or Washington’s selective isolationism. 

We need to increase our scope of options. Instead of viewing the OPCON transfer as exclusive to the progressive agenda, the Yoon administration and the conservatives need to undergo a great awakening — as opposed to putting all our eggs in the basket of an alliance with Tokyo and Washington.

By Cheong Wook-sik, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute and director of the Peace Network

Please direct questions or comments to []

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles