Mutually Assured Benefit: Why America Must Stay in Korea

Seoul doesn’t free ride, and Washington doesn’t lose in helping its ally.

The Republic of Korea’s economic miracle story of the late twentieth century has often been hailed as strong evidence of the United States’ success with its post–World War II East Asia policy. Washington’s security commitment to Seoul has undeniably provided a strong foundation for the latter to survive and thrive on a divided peninsula, whose peace is under constant threats from both sides of the DMZ. Doug Bandow’s counterargument to my earlier piece on the National Interest claims that Washington should withdraw its troops from Korean soil for the following reasons.

First, he claims that the Korean Peninsula does not matter much to the security of the United States, for the collapse of South Korea would not bring North Korea any closer to American soil. Second, that Washington should not waste its resources serving as a deterrent to the two Koreas and defending a much more prosperous and well-armed Seoul against decrepit and nuclear-armed Pyongyang, because such an act allows South Korea to free ride without seriously considering improving its military stature. And finally, that withdrawing American troops would break the current deadlock on denuclearizing negotiations with North Korea and assure Pyongyang that America is not a danger to its survival, thus putting an end to the North Korean question.

But these three reasons do not make persuasive arguments for troop withdrawal when considering the following factors.

The first entails America’s security and economic interests in South Korea and in East Asia as a whole. This region is in a middle of an economic boom that has brought about tremendous wealth, not only for Asians but also for Americans. China, Japan and South Korea are all on the list of the United States’ top ten trade partners, and in return, the three countries all have the United States included in their top-five lists. Apparently, America played a vital role in bringing about the Asian economic miracle. The presence of its armed forces in the region reduces the chance of conflict between Japan and China; prevents states like Taiwan, South Korea and Japan from seeking nuclear weapons; and enforces an open trade–based environment that binds East Asian countries together. No Asian country can take on America’s job as a regional policeman, for each lacks both credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of its neighbors.

The United States clearly understands that in order to continue benefiting from East Asia’s economic growth and avoid a breakdown of the regional order, it must prevent all sources of instability on the Korean Peninsula from erupting into full-scale wars. As stated in my previous post, the presence of American troops has helped achieve this end, because it simultaneously deters attacks from North Korea and constrains dangerous retaliating actions from South Korea. Bandow has stated that “the chief danger on the Korean peninsula is not aggression but mistake,” and I believe that pulling out U.S. troops is more likely to increase miscalculations between the two Koreas than not doing so. Deterrence does fail, sometimes; however, look at how deterrence kept the United States and the Soviet Union from fighting one another, or how America’s show of force gives it the dominating position in international affairs, or how America’s presence on Korean soil has preserved the peace for more than sixty years. It is evident that Washington must keep its troops stationed in South Korea, because a damaged trading system in East Asia resulting from conflicts would cost America a higher price than that of maintaining its military presence. Moreover, the collapse of South Korea would not bring North Korean troops closer to American soil, but it would definitely take away thousands of American jobs and push American troops in the region to a passive position.

Critics of the U.S.–South Korea alliance often fear that the guarantee of an American security umbrella for Seoul may prompt the junior partner to act in a provocative manner, which would drag Washington into unnecessary conflicts with Pyongyang. However, these fears ignore one important element in the bilateral relationship. Since 1978, U.S. Forces in Korea and the South Korean army have merged their forces and formed the Combined Forces Command. Under the structure of the CFC, American and South Korean commanders share the control of the joint forces, which means neither side can make military decisions without the consent of the other. This measures helps America allay the fear of entrapment, because South Korea cannot carry out unilateral provocative acts against North Korea.

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