For over half a century, the U.S. “hub-and-spokes” system has served as the informal security system of East Asia. The U.S.–Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance has been a key element within this bilateral security structure. Since the end of the Korean War, the United States has maintained significant levels of U.S. forces in South Korea, although there have been several force adjustments and withdrawals over time (Levkowitz, 2008). The accomplishments of the alliance and the U.S. presence on the peninsula, however, are often seen as ambivalent (Cha, 2003a). On the one hand, U.S. forces have been effective in preventing a second invasion of the DPRK; on the other hand, they are seen as an occupying force by many South Korean people. A part of the South Korean public views the U.S. presence as an obstacle to North-South reconciliation (Cha, 2003a, 281), following the bettering of inter-Korean relations as a result of Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine Policy”. At the end of 2002, for example, anti-American demonstrations took place in South Korea, after two South Korean schoolgirls were accidentally killed by a U.S. army vehicle. Anti-American demonstrations, in turn, prompted a number of prominent conservatives in the United States to call for the pullout of U.S. forces from an “ungrateful” South Korea (ibid, 283). Such actions―anti-American demonstrations within the South Korean society and calls for the pullout of U.S. forces from Korea by annoyed U.S. analysts and policymakers―are often charged with emotions. Indeed, it is a very serious question whether the United States should withdraw its forces from South Korea or not. However, it is an issue that should be handled pragmatically (as emotions and foreign policy do not fit together).Should the U.S. pull its troops out of South Korea? My answer is no. U.S. forces must stay in South Korea. U.S. presence on the peninsula is crucial in order to deter the DPRK’s hostile regime from launching another attack on South Korea, thus preventing the outbreak of a second Korean war. Furthermore, a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea would seriously weaken America’s position as East Asia’s security guarantor.
First and foremost, the U.S. must stay in South Korea to deter the DPRK’s hostile regime. Pyongyang’s most recent actions―the testing of a nuclear bomb as well as the launching of long-range missiles―reveal, that the DPRK’s intentions toward the ROK and the U.S. are still hostile. Although North Korea has become a very weak state, it is still threatening (Cha, 2003b). North-South relations might have improved over the last years as a result of Kim’s Sunshine Policy. Nevertheless, Pyongyang is still determined to achieve nuclear weapons and missiles capable of reaching Japanese and American territory. In addition, the DPRK’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il is quite incalculable in his behavior. Due to this insecurity, the presence of U.S. forces is absolutely necessary to provide security and stability on the peninsula (as it has been the case over the last 56 years). Without the presence of U.S. forces on the peninsula, deterrence against Pyongyang would not be sufficient. The reaction of the South Korean government to the most recent adjustment of U.S. forces in South Korea made this very clear. Seoul was initially shocked by the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw 12,500 soldiers from South Korea by the year 2005. As a result of Seoul’s opposition to change U.S. deployment in Korea, the withdrawal was postponed. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had to assure the ROK government that the adjustment would not degrade the deterrence capability against North Korea (Levkowitz, 2008, 140). (Indeed, the reduction from 37,000 to 25,000 U.S. forces has not weakened U.S. deterrence capability against Pyongyang.) Seoul’s reaction, however, revealed one fact: the ROK is not yet ready to defend itself alone. U.S. withdrawal therefore would lead to a shift of the balance of power on the peninsula as it would seriously degrade deterrence capability against the DPRK. As a result, Pyongyang could be motivated to launch a second attack on the South. Many South Koreans recognize that their country is not prepared for self-reliant defense. That is why―despite anti-Americanism in the South Korean public and political elite―the official line of the ROK government has been “Yankees stay here” (Doug Struck in theWashington Post, March 14th, 2003; Cha, 2003a, 283), not “Yankees go home”.
In sum, American forces―thanks to superior technology and fighting power―remain crucial in order to deter the DPRK. North Korea remains a threat. Deterrence, however, still works (Kang, 2003). So why should the U.S. pull its troops out of South Korea? There is no reason to do so.
Second; the U.S. presence on the peninsula does not only serve American and South Korean interests. For more than 50 years, the U.S.-ROK alliance has been a key element in the U.S. bilateral security structure that has served as the informal security system of East Asia. It has provided security and stability not only for American allies like South Korea and Japan, but for the region as a whole. The United States should maintain its position as East Asia’s security guarantor. Withdrawal from South Korea would seriously weaken America’s position in the region. Long-standing U.S. allies would definitely question America’s commitment to East Asia. Being feared of U.S. abandonment, they might look for other partners than the United States. In the case of South Korea, for example, the ROK could turn its eyes to China. Withdrawal from South Korea would not only weaken America’s position in East Asia. It would further weaken America’s global position as the number one great power. In East Asia, the United States should maintain a balance of power which is favorable to U.S. interests so that it remains a decisive actor in the region. By pulling its troops out of Korea, however, the U.S. would give up a formidable geostrategic position in East Asia. As a result, the balance of power would shift not in favor of America, but in favor of other countries (especially the PRC).
Instead of leaving South Korea, the U.S. should renew and transform its alliance with the ROK in order to meet global and regional challenges (see INSS Special Report, September 2007; Chang-hee Nam, 2006).
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Cha, Victor, 2003a. “America and South Korea: The Ambivalent Alliance?”Current History, 102,665 (Sep), pp. 279-284.
Cha, Victor, 2003b. “Weak but Still Threatening,” in Cha, Victor and David Kang.Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies. New York: Columbia, pp. 13-40.
Chang-hee Nam, 2006. “Relocating U.S. Forces in South Korea.”Asian Survey, Vol. 46, Issue 4, pp. 615-631.
INSS Special Report, September 2007. “Moving the U.S.–ROK Alliance into the 21st Century.” Available at: http://www.ndu.edu/inss/Research/SRsep07.pdf; last access: July 1st, 2009, 05:00 PM.
Kang, David, 2003. “Threatening but Deterrence Still Works”, in Cha, Victor and David Kang.Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies. New York: Columbia, pp. 41-69.
Levkowitz, Alon, 2008. “The seventh withdrawal: has the US forces’ journey back home from Korea begun?”International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 131-148.
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- Martin Armbruster (Author), 2009, "Yankees stay here", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/198353