Why Are American Forces Still Guarding the Korean Peninsula?

Seven decades ago Americans found themselves at war in a country most people couldn’t locate without a map. That included two young army officers, Charles Bonesteel and Dean Rusk, a future Secretary of State.

On August 10, 1945, the Pentagon tasked them with determining a convenient division of the Korea peninsula. Since they knew nothing of Korea, then a Japanese colony, they consulted a National Geographic map and settled on the 38th parallel, or latitude.

World War II was rapidly heading to a close, with Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s surrender announcement just days away. The Soviet Union had entered the war and Red Army units were heading for Korea. There were no American troops nearby, but when Washington proposed that the two governments split the peninsula’s occupation Joseph Stalin surprisingly agreed. He probably thought that would encourage the U.S. to allow the U.S.S.R. to share in the occupation of Japan. He also might have believed the concession would encourage the Truman administration to be more cooperative in Eastern Europe.

Some Koreans blame America for the peninsula’s division. However, the alternative would have been for the entire peninsula to be occupied by the Soviet Union and then turned into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Without the threat posed by another Korean government, backed by America, the communist state might have evolved differently and perhaps slightly less brutally. However, its rulers never exhibited any liberal instincts. One Korea very likely would have just meant a larger totalitarian horror.

The 38th parallel turned out to be a propitious choice for a border. It cut the peninsula in half but placed the capital and almost two-thirds of the population under American control. The original expectation was that the country would be reunited when considered ready for independence, but the deepening Cold War resulted in development of two separate Korean states. In 1948 both the US and Soviet Union withdrew their troops.

Moscow anointed the young anti-Japanese guerrilla commander Kim Il-sung to run the Soviet zone. Despite being barely 33 when tapped as leader in a society which revered age, he demonstrated a talent for consolidating and wielding power. He also benefited from surplus Soviet military equipment and returning Korean personnel who had fought with the Chinese communists.

The US military returned nationalist exile Syngman Rhee to the South over the objections of the State Department, which had refused to issue him a passport. Alone among those Koreans contending for power he spoke English, which gave him an enormous advantage with the occupying Americans, ignorant of all things Korean, including language. Irascible, authoritarian, difficult, and stubborn, he took control of what became the Republic of Korea. The ROK was freer than the North, but his government did not hesitate to jail, torture, and even kill opponents, especially accused communists.

Both leaders threatened to forcibly reunify the peninsula and border incidents were common. However, Washington, afraid that "its" Korea would start a war, refused to provide heavy weapons. Once both occupation forces withdrew an opportunistic North Korean invasion probably was inevitable. Kim repeatedly lobbied Joseph Stalin for permission to strike. Moscow finally agreed but wanted to remain in the background. The Soviets drew up invasion plans and provided pilots who flew North Korean (and later Chinese) planes but contributed no ground forces. Stalin did not want war with America.

DPRK forces poured across the border the morning of June 25, 1950. The South Korean forces were routed, Seoul was abandoned, and Rhee, along with broken military units and masses of civilians, fled south. Truman decided to intervene militarily. Secretary of State Dean Acheson had treated the ROK as outside of America’s "defense perimeter" and even Gen. Douglas MacArthur judged the Korean peninsula to be of minimal strategic importance. However, Truman feared the global impact, especially the effect on European nations still recovering from World War II and sheltering behind US troops. And allowing destruction of a new nation that Washington helped establish just two years before would have been widely seen as an act of bad faith.

The Truman administration won United Nations backing since the Soviet Union was boycotting the organization to protest its failure to seat the People’s Republic of China. However, the administration did not go to Congress; instead, Truman famously called intervention a "police action." By failing to follow the Constitution, stage a public debate, and win legislative approval, he ensured that popular support would wane and congressional criticism would rise when troubles arose.

Ill-prepared occupation troops from Japan were rushed into combat, to poor effect. Nevertheless, US forces held on in a close-run battle for Pusan in the peninsula’s southeast. MacArthur then staged a risky but successful landing at Inchon, near Seoul, well behind the North’s lines, and a reverse rout ensued. By late October the allies had captured North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang and some troops had reached the Yalu, bordering China.

MacArthur confidently predicted that allied forces would be home by Christmas, but the PRC had other ideas. Lacking diplomatic relations with America, the Beijing government attempted to send warnings indirectly, through India, for instance, that it would not tolerate allied forces on its border. Alas, Washington was not listening. Around Thanksgiving hundreds of thousands of Chinese "volunteers" hit the divided allied armies. Yet another rout occurred, with Seoul again captured. But the US and allied forces rallied, recapturing the ROK capital. Then the lines stabilized near the 38th parallel, leading to another two years of war. In July 1953 an armistice was signed, but a peace treaty was never signed.

China soon withdrew its forces. America never left. Initially the South would not have survived without US support. The country was ravaged by war and lagged economically behind North Korea. Rhee ruled arbitrarily and undemocratically. In any renewed fight the DPRK could easily draw on support from its two giant neighbors. However, in the 1960s South Korea took off economically, speeding by a largely stagnant North. Democracy finally arrived in the ROK in the late 1980s. After Mao’s death and the Soviet Union’s dissolution Pyongyang lost its military allies, which recognized Seoul diplomatically and began dealing even more with the latter economically.

At this point Washington should have set a timetable for shifting defense responsibility to the ROK and withdrawing US forces from the peninsula. (It would have made equal sense to do the same in Europe after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact dissolved.)

Foreign and military policy, including alliances, should reflect circumstances. In 1945 Washington was able to bloodlessly secure at least half of Korea from long-term tyranny. In 1950 Washington had become captive to circumstances leading to war which it had helped create. When the war ended deterrence was a better policy than abandoning a weak state to a bloody fate.

All that was over by the early 1990s, however, given the growth in the South’s advantages. Today the ROK possesses roughly 53 times the economic strength and twice the population of the North. South Korea also enjoys a vast lead in technology, industrial resilience, and international support. Seoul’s military is smaller – a matter of choice, not financial necessity, obviously – but better equipped and trained. The gaps in the South’s existing force that result from reliance on the US could be remedied in cooperation with Washington.

South Korean officials often indicate that they would prefer not to spend more on the military. Once while visiting Seoul I was informed that the ROK had health and education needs to meet: so did America, I responded, but no one was willing to fund its defense. The South obviously could outspend and outbuild the North to create whatever military Seoul believed to be necessary. After all, the DPRK has difficulty feeding its own people – a half million or more North Koreans died of starvation in the late 1990s.

The response of the "alliance-forever" caucus in both capitals is that the relationship now goes far beyond just protecting the ROK from North Korean conquest. However, Washington and Seoul could cooperate to advance shared interests without Americans paying for South Koreans’ protection. Security commitments should be a means to an end, not an end, to be preserved forever irrespective of changing circumstances.

There also is lots of talk about how the "mutual" defense treaty and American troop deployment have "dual uses," being ready to confront other regional contingencies. Again, creating a tripwire against the North is distinct from whatever other missions Washington and Seoul might jointly contemplate. Even if the US was inclined to undertake all manner of dubious interventions elsewhere for no good reason (say, invading Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam, or Indonesia) Washington could station its troops elsewhere, on Guam, for instance, or bring forces from the U.S.-less convenient, but feasible. And the US could negotiate with the South for emergency base access even if America did not underwrite the ROK’s defense.

Of course, what most Washington policymakers mean by this argument is treating South Korea as part of a containment system for the PRC. However, Seoul has consistently sought to avoid turning Beijing into a permanent enemy. South Koreans know that China will always be their neighbor. And the PRC is likely to have a long memory. Joining with the US against China – turning the South into a potential platform for war – would make the ROK a target. Seoul would do so only to defend South Korea from attack. US officials routinely complain that the South is soft in its dealings with the North, reluctant to participate in the THAAD missile defense system, careful in its criticism of Beijing for human rights abuses, and more. A request for co-belligerency would receive an even more hostile response.

Which leaves the nuclear issue. Washington currently claims to extend a nuclear umbrella over the South. That seemed to entail little risk when America was purporting to deter Moscow and Beijing, which had no interest in using nuclear weapons on the peninsula. However, the North’s development of nukes – perhaps 20 or 30 bombs, with the potential to make a similar number from existing nuclear material – transforms the balance. Now America’s commitment to go to war for the South against the North risks incineration of US forces in Korea and nearby, in Guam and Okinawa, for instance.

Worse, Pyongyang’s development ICBMs may and probably will eventually put the American homeland in danger. Members of the Kim dynasty – we are on the third generation – have proved to be risk averse, preferring to enjoy their virgins in this world rather than the next one. So they won’t attack the US without good cause, meaning in response to an existential threat to their rule and nation. But that could result from a conventional conflict. In 1950 Beijing saved the DPRK. That wouldn’t happen in the future. However, if Washington pressed on to defeat North Korea the regime could threaten use of nuclear weapons unless the US retreated to the status quo ante. There is nothing at stake in the peninsula that would warrant taking such a risk.

This possibility is best met by American disengagement from the peninsula. The South should purchase and develop conventional weapons capable of maintaining deterrence. And it should consider creating a countervailing nuclear arsenal. Park Chung-hee began such a program, which he abandoned only under great US pressure. Today a majority of South Koreans say they favor acquisition of nuclear weapons. And some defense intellectuals and political figures favor the idea as well.

Doing so would result in obvious downsides. Nevertheless, knowledge that the ROK could go down this path would encourage China and Russia to put greater pressure on the North to reach a non-nuclear modus vivendi with its neighbors and Washington. Moreover, a South Korean bomb – especially if matched by Japan and perhaps other East Asian states – would constrain potential Chinese adventurism. The US need not give its assent to such a course. All Washington would have to do is get out of the way.

At least the issue should be debated. The usual Washington establishment paladins casually insist that Americans should risk Los Angeles, Seattle, and many more cities, if necessary, to protect Seoul. They should have to publicly defend that policy, rather than simply assume it into being. In fact, enforcing nonproliferation against allies looks more self-evidently wrong than right. Washington’s prime duty is to defend the American people which it represents. It should not put them in great danger to protect others, especially when the others are capable of defending themselves.

Last week’s 70th anniversary of the Korean War sparked a spate of conferences and commemorations. Many participants expressed wonder at the fact that the alliance had lasted so long. The fact that it has not changed despite the dramatic transformation of the Korean peninsula, region, and world actually is a problem. The seven decade-old pact is obsolete, making the US less safe.

Americans and South Koreans still could and should be friends. Washington and Seoul still could and should be partners. But the relationships and responsibilities require drastic change. Now is the time to plan a different future.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.