04.06.2018 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

How Likely is it that US troops will be Withdrawn from South Korea?

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On May 4, the New York Times, 2018 citing a number of different sources, reported that Donald Trump had ordered the Pentagon to draw up plans for a possible reduction of America’s military presence in South Korea.  Of course, it is not a question of Kim yielding, but, according to unnamed, but well-informed persons, the signing of a peace treaty between South Korea and the DPRK will reduce the need to keep 28,500 soldiers on the peninsula.

Certainly, it should be borne in mind that the article was based on anonymous statements, and that the newspaper makes no secret of its anti-Trump agenda, and misses no opportunity to paint him in a bad light, as evidenced by its reports on the US’s “intelligence failure.”

This happened at the same time as the “Moon versus Moon” scandal in Seoul erupted. Chung Eui-yong, the Director of South Korea’s National Security Office, who was on a visit to the USA at the time, asked John Boulton, the US National Security Adviser, about the article, and the latter replied that it was “utter nonsense.” And then, on 4 May, in a meeting with journalists, Donald Trump himself clearly stated that such a question was not on the agenda of the forthcoming summit between the USA and the DPRK, all the more so since North Korea had not proposed discussing the reduction of the US’s military presence.

However that has not put a stop to the rumors that such a question really will be up for discussion in the summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, and some people are ready to believe that Mr. Trump is preparing something crafty. Perhaps, they say, the US President really does want to withdraw at least some of the forces, either for financial reasons or to have them available in the event of a possible war with Iran. This decision would be made to look like a step to meet the DPRK, in exchange for the latter freezing its nuclear program and in recognition of its “wish for denuclearization,” especially since in this case both parties would be able to present the withdrawal to their people as a great diplomatic triumph. And, what is more, the withdrawal of troops may be as long drawn-out and gradual a process as North Korea’s disarmament, and, if necessary, both processes could be easily reversed, since there has been no talk of dismantling the related infrastructure.

To be honest, it is an attractive idea. But, to understand how likely it is to happen, it may be useful to have a look at the wider context. On 1 October 1953, the USA and South Korea signed a Mutual Defense Treaty, which allowed the USA to base land, naval and air-force personnel in South Korea, not only on the basis of a UN Resolution on Korea, but under an agreement between the two states.  On 17 November 1954 a Protocol to the talks between South Korea and the USA on military and economic matters was signed, under which South Korea’s armed forces would remain under UN command for as long as the latter organization was responsibility for South Korea’s defense.  That was how the South Korean army came to be commanded by an American general. To a great extent, this was done to ensure that the much-hated Syngman Rhee did not start a war without authorization.

There are currently 28,500 US troops based in South Korea, and these need to be paid for. How exactly that is to be done was set out in the agreement on cost-sharing signed by the USA and South Korea in 1991, which has been periodically renewed since then. The currently effective version is the 9th Agreement, signed on February 2014 and due to be renewed at the end of 2018.

Initially, under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) all costs relating to the US military presence in South Korea were met by the USA South Korea merely provided the necessary facilities and land. However, since the 1990s South Korea has taken on part of the financial burden, and its contributions are normally used to pay the South Korean support staff employed at the US military bases. They are also used for building work and the provision of material and technical support.

In 2016 South Korea’s contributions to the maintenance of the US military pretense totaled 889.3 million dollars, and the figure for 2017, adjusted for inflation, was between 879 and 898 million dollars, depending on the exchange rate. It is likely that the figure for 2018 will exceed 1 trillion won, or 1 billion US dollars, for the first time.

However, Donald Trump, the US president, has more than once stressed the importance of increasing US allies’ share of the cost of maintaining the military presences that guarantee their national security, and the USA made it clear, during the negotiations for the 9th Agreement, that it would require South Korea to pay more.

On 29 January 2018, Elbridge Colby, Deputy Assistant to the head of the Pentagon, said that the question of sharing the cost of maintaining US forces on the peninsula between the USA and South Korea needed to be resolved based on fairness. In 1950, South Korea’s GDP per head of population was just 2 dollars, but now the country is now one of the most rapidly developing nations in the world. The USA now spends more than 3% of its GDP on defense. A large proportion of its spending goes towards maintaining its military presence abroad to support its allies. In that situation the country’s allies will need to increase their contributions.

The first meeting to discuss the terms of the 10th Agreement started on 7 March 2018, in Honolulu. The South Korean delegation was led by Chang Won-sam, a representative of the Foreign Ministry appointed to deal with this question. Timothy Betts, acting deputy assistant secretary of state at the U.S. State Department, represented the USA.   The US not only demanded that Seoul increase its share of the cost of maintaining the US presence (including the cost of any withdrawal of troops from Seoul) but also pay for the servicing of the THAAD anti-missile system, based in South Korea.

The tough nature of the talks did not come as a surprise to anybody, especially since Donald Trump, before negotiations began, had stated that the USA was losing trade income from South Korea because of the maintenance of the 30,000-strong military presence on the peninsula, and that he might have to return to the question of withdrawing the troops if the USA was not satisfied with the outcome of the talks.

On 15 March, at a banquet at the White House, Donald Trump once more stated that if no progress was made in the talks with South Korea (i.e. if Seoul could not be forced to make significant concessions) then the USA might withdraw American troops from the country.

On 13 April the South Korean Ministry of Defense announced that its contributions towards the maintenance of the US forces based in the South of the peninsula could be used to cover the cost of maintaining the US’s THAAD anti-missile system.  This is a concession on the part of South Korea, as a year ago it was insisting that the THAAD costs must be completely covered by the USA

When such declarations are made, the present author always asks the question: what role does the USA’s presence in South Korea play in its new military policy? On the one hand, the USA’s military strategy follows the “places instead of bases” approach. The realities of modern warfare mean that it is more likely that “local” military bases with a permanent military staff would fall victim to a pre-emptive strike than it is that they would be able to do anything; bases are important as infrastructure points where American logistics can quickly send significant contingents when required. On the other hand, locally-based troops are in a good position to gather intelligence and make observations, especially if the US presence in South Korea is seen as directed against China and Russia as well as at North Korea.

Then, as well as the 28,500 American soldiers, approximately 650,000 South Korean troops are based in the southern part of the Korean peninsula: the South Korean army is the 6th or 7th in the world in terms of size and its military budget is 25 times that of North Korea. In other words, it is a very different army from the one that, during the Korean War, was only able to carry out attacks on civilians, and fled from any other kind of confrontation.    However, US military specialists all agree that, although the South Korean army is becoming more and more self-reliant, and is already able to carry out land-based military operations, it is still in need of air and sea support.

And that means that there is a real possibility that American forces may remain in a reunited Korea as a guarantor of security or to quash any possible “North Korean resistance.” And, as far as the writer is aware, when that question was asked at one the security conferences held in April, the Americans and South Koreans declared that, in the event of the reunification of Korea, not only would the USA keep its military presence in the country, but that they were unable to guarantee to China that its forces would not be based north of the 38th parallel.

Thus, in order for all American forces to be withdrawn from South Korea, certain radical geopolitical changes would have to take place in the region, and these, even in the light of the current tendencies, are, to say the least, highly unlikely.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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