Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Should the US retrench from South Korea? Part 2: No

Should the US retrench from South Korea? Part 2: No

A couple of days ago I laid out the arguments for a US withdrawal from South Korea. Today, I lay out the arguments for staying.

This topic is rarely discussed. In the US, the foreign policy consensus for hegemony, forged between liberal internationalists on the left and interventionist neoconservatives on the right, remains strong. It has only just recently come under sustained criticism, likely due to the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan. That consensus takes the US position in Korea as a given. An American withdrawal has not seriously been mooted since the Carter Administration, when it indeed would have been a large mistake.

So what are the benefits of staying?

1. US Forces Korea (USFK) insures that the US retains a strong regional ally in a region the US now deems central

If the pivot to Asia (or 'rebalance' or whatever we are supposed to call it) is to take off, the US will need regional allies. Japan of course is the central US ally in the region. And others are being pushed toward the US by China's belligerent behaviour in the East and South China Seas. But India and the southeast Asian states are not so much pro-American as anti-Chinese.

By contrast, Korea has been a staunch US ally since the 1950s. It has deep inter-operability with the US military. It has never really wavered from the US camp. It even sent soldiers to fight in Vietnam to demonstrate loyalty. It is not the 'reckless driver' that other allies, most notably Israel, have been. While it spends less than it should on defence, South Korea free-rides far less on US power than Europe or Japan. As a percentage of GDP it spends around double what the average US ally does on defence.

The looming unknown question is whether South Korea would line up with the US in a Sino-US or Sino-US/Japanese war. The primary purpose of the pivot is to militarily hedge China (or openly contain it, if you're Chinese). South Korea is wary of this. China is its largest export market, and both Seoul and Beijing share a disturbingly bitter loathing for Japan. Will that draw Seoul and Beijing together? Probably not.

2. China will  claim that the US has 'fled' (or, once the US goes somewhere, it can never leave)

This is the worst possible argument for a US commitment — credibility. Staying some place for no other reason than that staying sends a good 'signal' is not a good rationale. [fold]

But it is pretty clear now that the Sino-US relationship is 'sliding from engagement to coercive diplomacy,' as David Lampton puts it. As East Asia enters toward bipolarity, a zero-sum logic will increasingly kick in, in which a US retrenchment will happily be read by China — one can always count on the Global Times — as US capitulation. Whether the US wants to stay in Korea or not, now it can't leave. It's stuck.

Indeed this is one of the great unseen costs of US interventions: once in, America can almost never leave anywhere without provoking a crisis of confidence about its credibility and commitment. In this vein, the time to withdraw from Korea was in the 1990s, at the peak of the unipolar moment, before the Chinese challenge to US power in the western Pacific, and when North Korea was wobbling. That window has probably closed.

3. South Korea, standing alone, might slide toward a semi-democratic national security state like Pakistan

This cost is almost never reckoned by those advocating withdrawal from Korea. Most advocates of retrenchment from Korea, such as Cato's Doug Bandow, assume Korea to be a stable market democracy that can carry the costs of a head-to-head competition with North Korea. This is so economically, but I am not so sure politically. For thirty years the 'republic' of Korea was more like a Prussianised barracks-state dictatorship than a republic, with one dictator, Park Chung-hee, who genuinely seemed like the Korean version of Mussolini (Park's repression was the big reason President Carter wanted to withdraw from Korea as part of his human rights emphasis in US foreign policy). So thorough-going was the McCarthyite propaganda of dictatorial Korea about the 'reds' to the north that many older Koreans will tell you they actually believed that North Koreans had red skin.

Long, enervating national security competitions, like those between Pakistan and India, or North and South Korea, are corrosive to democratic and liberal institutions. South Korea's dictators used to justify repression and illiberalism on precisely these grounds. It is a huge achievement for South Korea that it managed to create real democratic and liberal institutions. It would have been easy for South Korea to stay a militarised faux-democracy like Egypt today, or Turkey and Indonesia earlier on. A US withdrawal that pushed up South Korean defence spending to 7% of GDP might threaten the South Korean experiment with liberalism and democracy, one of especial importance in the future as an Asian model against the authoritarian 'Beijing consensus.'

4. A US withdrawal might in fact encourage the North Koreans to try again

A common assumption, particular on the South Korean left and among more dovish commentators (me included), is that North Korea has no real interest in unification. Unification means the elimination, if not extermination, of the Kimist elite and their privileges. North Korea, we assume, knows it will lose a war. The (North) Korean People's Army (KPA), while very large, is based on Cold War-era technologies. And like many communist militaries, its force structure is based around a repeat of World War II: the KPA has many tanks, armoured personal carriers, and infantry. It could fight and win the 1943 battle of Kursk. It is however unprepared and unequipped for the sort of modern warfare practiced by the US: C4ISR, overwhelming airpower, stand-off strikes facilitated by space power, the rapid destruction of command-and-control, and so on. As such, the KPA would lose a war with combined allied forces. It knows this; hence Pyongyang built nuclear weapons. They are the ultimate deterrent for an otherwise outdated military.

But it is precisely these 'networked battlefield' technologies that the South Korean military lacks. The ROKA (Republic of Korea Army) is still configured around infantry and traditional homeland defence. It lacks many of the high-tech capabilities of the US military, particularly in the air. The US would indeed 'tank-plink' the KPA and rapidly dissociate its units from each other and Pyongyang by destroying command and control. Can the ROKA do this? As the never ending debate over the reversion of OPCON ('operational control') of the ROKA in wartime suggests, most are sceptical. If not, the KPA might actually hold together in the field in a conflict.

The question is tough: if the US left South Korea, would North Korea see an opportunity for victory, to absorb a successful economy and bail-out its own decrepit system?

So what does all this mean? In brief, the debate over US forces in Korea is far less clear than many think. The Cold War is over. North Korea is no threat to the US, and if South Korea ramped up seriously, it could probably win a war without US assistance. On the other hand, US forces are already there. The costs of staying are minimal, and if the pivot is to really define US grand strategy in the coming decades, then South Korea could be a valuable ally if it will tilt against China.

Image courtesy of U.S. Army Korea (Historical Image Archive).

You may also be interested in