Why Do We Still Have Troops in Korea?

by , July 15, 2010

Currently, the world’s largest naval exercise – RIMPAC – is underway in Hawaii.  Fourteen nations are participating with 32 ships, five submarines, more than 170 aircraft, and more than 20,000 personnel.  The ever paranoid (just remember, however, that even if you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!) North Koreans are calling RIMPAC a "dangerous military provocation" and a sign that the U.S. is plotting to attack the DRPK.

While the U.S. may not be plotting to attack North Korea, it’s entirely possible that in the wake of tensions over the sinking of a South Korean naval ship in March, the United States – because of a Mutual Defense Treaty with South Korea signed in 1953 that stipulates an attack on either party would summon a response from both – could be drawn into another conflict on the Korean peninsula.  But why should the United States risk going to war against North Korea?

First and foremost, North Korea is not a threat to America.  The United States’ gross domestic product (GDP) is over $14 trillion compared to North Korea’s $40 billion.  The U.S. Department of Defense budget is more than 10 times the size of North Korea’s economy and nearly 100 times North Korea’s military expenditures.  North Korea’s army is substantial – estimated at more than 1 million active duty personnel – but it is not a power projection force capable of bridging the Pacific Ocean to attack America.  And while North Korea possesses a handful of nuclear weapons, it does not have the intercontinental delivery capability to strike the United States.  Moreover, the vastly larger and technologically superior U.S. nuclear arsenal acts as a powerful deterrent.

Just as importantly, South Korea is more than capable of defending itself.  During the Cold War there may have been good reason for the United States to guarantee South Korea’s security as part of a larger strategy of containment against communist expansionism, but the same is not true today. And in the immediate aftermath of the Korean conflict, South Korea was a war-ravaged nation incapable of defending itself.  But the Cold War has been over for 20 years and South Korea’s economy has grown over the last four decades from being comparable to the poorer countries of Africa to the trillion dollar club and one of the world’s top twenty economies – Samsung consumer electronics rival Sony and Hyundai is the world’s fourth largest automobile manufacturer.   In other words, South Korea is a rich country (North Korea is, by contrast, a poor country unable to feed its own people) more than capable of paying for its own security needs.

Ultimately, the current crisis in Korea is a long overdue a wake up call to reassess U.S. policy.  The hard truth is that U.S. security does not hinge on the security and stability of the Korean peninsula – in the absolute worst case of South Korea falling to a North Korean invasion, the reality is that America would still be safe because North Korea is not a global expansionist power that threatens the United States.  That does not mean that the United States has no interest in fostering political stability in the region and containing North Korea.  But those interests can be better served by South Korea and other countries in the neighborhood – Japan and China – working together to create regional security.

And instead of keeping more than 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea as a first responder that would automatically force the United States into war if current tensions escalated to actual armed conflict between the two Koreas, the United States could act as an offshore balancer of last resort to respond only if South Korea and other countries in the region were unable to halt North Korean aggression and such aggression jeopardized US national security.

Read more by Charles V. Peña