The Skeptics

Offer to Withdraw America's Troops from South Korea to Seal a Nuclear Deal with the North

Yet the alliance is important primarily to the extent that it advances America’s security, not to the extent that it subsidizes one of America’s many prosperous and populous defense clients. And direct threats to the American homeland are precisely the dangers against which Washington should be most alert, since they matter far more than threats against friendly nations, especially those able to defend themselves.

Before negotiations begin, Washington decisionmakers should ponder their priorities. Which is more important, getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons or keeping U.S. forces on the peninsula? Administration officials might wish to do both. And maybe it will be possible to do so.

But an American withdrawal would be the single most effective step to reduce the likelihood of a future U.S. attempt at regime coercion or change. And that would be the best way to fulfill Kim’s reported condition for denuclearization, that “the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed.”

Obviously, the United States would retain substantial military assets aground and afloat elsewhere in the region. (Kim conceivably could insist that American troops leave the region entirely and even that the United States, China and Russia also denuclearize, a possibility suggested by one of my interlocutors in Pyongyang. But this would move beyond the realm of the possible, as Pyongyang would know. That would demonstrate that Kim was not serious about negotiation.)

Nevertheless, backing away militarily would symbolically turn the region’s future over to its members. It would be harder for an American president to make the case for military action if there was little connection, let alone threat, to America. While the United States could intervene without an alliance, there would be neither a treaty commitment to ensure attention nor a troop trip wire to trigger action.

If Pyongyang makes such a demand, the answer should be a quick and easy yes. If genuine détente befell the peninsula, why should Washington’s forces stay? The alliance was created in 1953 to preserve a war-ravaged ROK during the Cold War from North Korea, backed by the barely post-Stalin Soviet Union and Maoist China. That world disappeared long ago.

Seoul is well able to defend itself. The South possesses upwards of forty-five times the North’s GDP, and twice the population. South Korea’s military is better trained and equipped, and could be expanded as necessary to ensure its ability to deter and defeat any DPRK attack. The only serious argument for a continued American military presence is the North’s nuclear arsenal. (In fact, Washington’s nuclear umbrella does not require a conventional presence on the peninsula.)

If the North does denuclearize, then the United States should bring home its forces as a matter of course. If proposing withdrawal would be useful in achieving denuclearization, then the card should be played during negotiations. After all, the overriding objective is to eliminate a potential North Korean attack on the American homeland.

Indeed, the DPRK’s ability to strike U.S. cities would force Washington to rethink its commitment to the ROK in any case. There is nothing at stake in Korea that would justify risking mass death and destruction in America. Better than being forced to back away, the administration should offer to leave in order to preclude the clear and present danger.

Nevertheless, an unnamed administration official told Reuters that if the North brings up the withdrawal of U.S. forces, “things could get ugly quickly despite the summit.” Instead, the aide hoped they would “present something more realistic.” Naoko Aoki of the University of Maryland similarly asserted that this demand would be “a nonstarter for the United States.”

Why isn’t withdrawal a realistic option? Indeed, the president seems in sympathy with this view. In mid-March, he complained, “We have a very big trade deficit with them, and we protect them.” In his view, the United States was losing money on both trade and “the military,” with “32,000 soldiers on the border between North and South Korea. Let’s see what happens.” Although the White House said the president was not proposing to remove the troops, that would be the logical response. It certainly would make no sense to keep losing money on “the military” if the South no longer needed defending.

To reject withdrawal would treat the alliance as an end, not a means, and one worth the risk of nuclear war. The Korean Peninsula played an important role during the Cold War, but the threats have lessened, and would fall even more dramatically with the North’s denuclearization. Moreover, the ability of allied states to protect themselves and Northeast Asia has dramatically increased. Further, the United States and South Korea can cooperate when convenient without being formally linked militarily. Trade is one such tie, despite the president’s seeming antagonism to any economic agreement which allows Americans to purchase other nations’ products.