On January 12, 1950, then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson made a tragic mistake: When publicly describing those areas of vital interest to the United States, he omitted the Republic of Korea (ROK), suggesting that it was not within the "defensive perimeter" for which the United States would fight. Within about six months, soldiers of the communist regime of North Korea, with the support of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, invaded South Korea.
The consequences of inadvertently signalling a lessened U.S. commitment to the ROK proved to be a bloody war that ravaged the Korean peninsula for three years at a cost of some 54,000 American dead, 100,000 wounded and tens of billions expended. It ended at last in an armed truce, a tense and sometimes extremely tenuous standoff between the aggressive, hyper-armed forces of the North at the command of the maniacal Kim Il Sung and the smaller defense forces of South Korea.
From that time to the present, the United States has sought to make its commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea as unequivocal as possible. In the face of a massive and growing military threat to South Korea’s security from its neighbor to the North, every Administration since Truman’s has decided that this required the presence in the ROK of a significant contingent of U.S. military personnel. The only president who seriously explored the possibility of removing those forces — Jimmy Carter — was persuaded in short order, thanks to the political firestorm his proposal created domestically and internationally, not to risk a new crisis in Korea by altering the status quo.
Thanks principally to this tangible and unflagging American participation in the security of its Korean ally, the peninsula has known thirty-six years of peace. Unfortunately, some in the United States Congress are prepared to jeopardize that peace — and run the risk of having to commit vastly larger forces and resources to address any conflict that might ensue — in the name of reducing the costs of maintaining the 46,000 U.S. personnel presently stationed in South Korea.
Congressional Efforts to Reduce the U.S. Commitment to Korea
A principal sponsor of the initiative to cut the American presence in Korea is Senator Dale Bumpers (D-Arkansas). It is expected that he will ask Senate consideration of an amendment to the Department of Defense authorization bill that is a lineal descendant of President Carter’s ill-advised troop withdrawal proposal. This amendment would mandate a major reduction of 10,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. That figure represents one-third of U.S. ground forces and one-fourth of total U.S. forces stationed in the ROK.
Worse yet, the amendment also calls for the initiation of U.S.-ROK discussions leading to phased annual reductions in the number of U.S. Army personnel stationed there. Sen. Bumpers has made no secret of his interest in obtaining the complete withdrawal of these ground forces at the earliest possible moment.
This course of action is no more advisable today than it was when President Carter proposed it over a decade ago; were it to become law, it could be fully as portentous as Acheson’s decision to leave Korea outside of the U.S. "defensive perimeter:"
- North Korea remains an unpredictable and aggressive threat to the ROK’s security.
- South Korea’s indigenous military capability and economic strength are vastly greater than they were in 1950, but remain unreliable as deterrents to an attack from the North.
- The international situation in East Asia is exceedingly fluid at the moment, raising profound questions about the effect of a U.S. withdrawal from the ROK on others in the region and the confidence with which one can count on external factors to help maintain stability in Korea.
- It is difficult to conceive of how the U.S. guarantee to Korean security — which Sen. Bumpers insists he wishes to preserve — will be as convincingly expressed, to say nothing of implemented, should American ground forces be greatly reduced or removed from the peninsula.
The Threat to South Korean Security
As CBS News vividly conveyed in a series of powerful reports from north of the DMZ during the week of 24 July, North Korea bears an eery resemblance to the fanatical, mind-controlling state George Orwell warned against in 1984. It is ruled by Kim Il Sung, one of the world’s most despotic tyrants. Ever since he initiated the 1950 invasion of the South, Kim has been monomaniacal in his obsession with the idea of unifying the Korean peninsula under his communist government’s rule.
Toward this end, Kim Il Sung has pursued a relentless program of militarization of his society, its isolation from external influences, and a systematic effort to undermine the ROK’s ability to deny him his objective:
- In virtually all categories of combat power North Korea maintains a quantitative edge over South Korea.
- Deterred since 1953 from direct military adventure by the presence of American ground forces, Kim Il Sung has relied on terrorism and other active measures to advance his political goal — and he has done so with unequalled gall. To cite but a few examples of Kim’s brutal handiwork:
- Kim has sought to weaken South Korea’s resolve to defend itself and thereby create opportunities for subversion or outright invasion.
- Indeed, assertions that North Korea is encouraging the radical student movement in South Korea and otherwise fostering actions in the South cannot be discounted.
- North Korea’s self-imposed isolation serves to immunize it totally from outside influences.
The Kim regime has an army of 1 million men, approximately 50% more than the Republic of Korea.
It has a 2 to 1 edge in tanks, artillery and other armored equipment, and a 3 to 1 advantage in naval vessels, including a monopoly on attack submarines.
Reportedly, eight North Korean plants are now manufacturing chemical weapons and army units are being trained to fight in a chemical warfare environment.
Press reports indicate that a concerted effort to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities may also be underway in North Korea.
Two-thirds of the North’s forces are deployed close to the DMZ, well postured, trained and equipped to launch an invasion of the ROK.
Kim’s forces have continued to invest substantial resources in activities directly inimical to the ROK’s security.
Particularly notable in this regard is the persistent effort to build tunnels capable of sluicing the North’s forces underneath the DMZ to surface behind the South’s defensive fortifications.
In 1976, North Korean soldiers viciously murdered American servicemen with axes without provocation.
In 1983, Kim Il Sung failed in his attempt to have ROK President Chun assassinated in Burma; he succeeded in the process, however, of killing a substantial part of Chun’s cabinet.
In 1987, North Korea blew up KAL Flight 858 leaving 115 people dead. For whatever political purpose, North Korea is both prepared and willing to use brute force.
Kim’s thoroughly indoctrinated masses remain unexposed to Western news sources or even to evidence of efforts in the Soviet bloc and China to reform the communist systems in those countries.
As a result, it would be a serious mistake to conclude that the threat North Korea has long posed to the ROK is receding simply as a function of the trend in other parts of the communist world, a trend often described as the end of the Cold War.
South Korea’s Ability to Provide for Its Own Defense
South Korea has, since the end of the Korean War, undergone an economic miracle of astonishing proportions. The ROK’s burgeoning industrial capability and accompanying prosperity have encouraged the perception that it, like other American allies, may not be contributing a fair share to its own defense.
In fact, the Republic of Korea spends 5.5 percent of its GNP and one-third of its national budget to defend itself. In so doing, it tops all NATO nations in the proportion of its GNP devoted to defense, except for the United States and Greece. Indeed, that proportion is roughly twice the percentage of GNP allocated to defense by seven out of fourteen NATO nations. As a result, South Korea contributes substantial numbers of aircraft, ground forces and materiel toward its own defense.
South Korea also contributes substantially to supporting the costs of American forces in the ROK. The government of South Korea provides annually $300 million in direct budgetary support of U.S. forces and $1.6 billion in subsidies such as free use of some facilities and reduced utility costs. While the United States may have arguments with its allies about the share of the burden for the common defense they bear, and while it may be possible to insist that they bear more of it, South Korea is arguably among the least deserving of such criticism.
In the final analysis, however, it is the fact of American forces in Korea — particularly ground forces — that underpins the ROK’s security. Absent the certainty that an attack on the South would immediately and significantly engage U.S. troops, it is far from clear that the North would be dissuaded from exploiting its numerical superiority over its neighbor to the South. A process of disengagement of such troops as envisioned by the Bumpers amendment can only stimulate renewed speculation and concern on this point — with serious implications for the region as well as for South Korea itself.
Unpredictable Dynamics in East Asia Argue for Stability in Korea
The proposed reductions in American forces in Korea are all the more worrisome given both the unusually fluid situation that obtains virtually throughout East Asia:
- The current instability in the People’s Republic of China and a leadership struggle to succeed Deng Xiaoping that will likely intensify in the future may lead to significant changes in Chinese foreign policy. A reversal of the PRC’s recent policy of restraining North Korean adventurism cannot be ruled out. At the very least, given the current preoccupation of the Chinese leadership, it would appear imprudent to rely upon Beijing to curb North Korea’s aggressive ambitions.
- The Soviet Union has offered a steady stream of proposals concerning the security in the Asia-Pacific region. Many of these appear to have been offered more for public relations purposes rather than for serious negotiation. They, nonetheless, encourage reassessments by U.S. friends in the area about the extent and nature of the Soviet threat — notwithstanding the steady growth of Soviet military capabilities which such proposals tend to obscure. Any draw-down of American forces at this time will surely encourage such adverse reassessments.
- The Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) major losses in Japan’s July 23 elections for seats in the Diet’s Upper House may presage a similar outcome in the elections for the lower house and result in a new party in power there for the first time since 1955. What this portends for the future direction of Japan’s foreign and defense policies is not known.
- The continued instability in the Philippines needs no elaboration. At stake is not only the retention of U.S. base rights, but also the very future of that nation’s democratic government. America’s withdrawal of forces from Korea will likely intensify pressures in the Philippines for similar draw-downs in the United States’ presence there.
A successor government will, however, surely adhere to the view that the defense of Japan is inextricably linked to the security of the Korean peninsula. Thus, its perceptions of U.S. intentions — particularly that a potentially dangerous vacuum will be created with American disengagement from Korea — may well encourage Japanese tendencies, either toward militarism or pacifism, contrary to the United States interests in the region.
It goes without saying that the perceived lessening of the American commitment to Korea’s defense could also have an adverse effect upon the significant steps being taken by South Korea toward genuine democratic government. Should Seoul have reason to feel more uncertain about its security posture, the government will understandably be less willing to tolerate the sorts of freedoms and rights the United States has sought to encourage there. Indeed, South Korea is already susceptible to destabilizing tactics as it copes with a fractured national assembly that assures President Roh only a plurality of support, a series of corruption charges against past leaders including former-President Chun, a small group of increasingly radicalized students, and an unrelenting North Korean threat.
A unilaterally decreed withdrawal of 10,000 U.S. troops can only compound these domestic problems, provide new opportunities for Kim Il Sung’s machinations, and inspire new doubts about American commitments to the security of other friends and allies in the region.
The Bumpers Amendment Budget Flim-Flam
If the foregoing were not sufficient grounds for concern about the Bumpers amendment, there is also the matter that its putative benefits for the United States are more illusory than real. Notably, the proposal aims at reducing U.S. defense expenditures and signal to allies Korea and beyond that they must do more to defend themselves.
It has been estimated, however, that to move the 10,000 troops from South Korea back to the United States will actually incur additional near-term costs of over $450 million. Assuming these relocated troops are not eliminated from the force structure, new accommodations will have to be found for them stateside — which will, in all likelihood, prove to be even more expensive to maintain than their current, Korean-subsidized deployments.
On the other hand, if — as appears to be Sen. Bumpers’ intention — these forces are to be eliminated from the active duty rolls, then some savings might accrue, once the costs of relocating them have been absorbed. Under these circumstances, the U.S. ability rapidly to return them to Korea in the event of conflict there would be significantly attenuated. This obvious reality inevitably raises questions about the security guarantees Senator Bumpers and his cosponsors are so quick to offer as they argue for a reduced American presence in the ROK.
The conditions on the Korean Peninsula that have dictated the continuous and robust presence of U.S. troops in South Korea have not fundamentally changed. Clearly, it is unwise to reduce the most tangible evidence of the American commitment to South Korea in the face of North Korea’s continued numerical military superiority and its demonstrated proclivity for force. Until North Korea demonstrates that it has abandoned its sinister intentions — and the Soviet Union halts and substantially reverses its military build-up in the Pacific — no U.S. forces should be withdrawn from South Korea.
Even if these conditions were satisfied, the Bumpers legislation would be an unwise means of bringing about changes in its forces in the region. Particularly under present circumstances, passage of this amendment would — like the 1977 Carter proposal before it — mean implementing a far-reaching policy shift without any consultation or coordination with allies, without any sound political/military assessment of the threat, and without requiring any concessions from North Korea. The United States’ friends elsewhere in the region loudly protested Carter’s plans at the time; they would surely have profound misgivings about America’s commitment not only to Korea but also to their own security should the Bumpers legislation become law.
It would be a tragic irony if, just as the fruits of a policy of peace through strength are being harvested — continued economic and democratic political development of the Asia-Pacific region and growing recognition of the failure of communism, the United States would choose to downgrade its presence in the ROK and allow the Soviet Union to exploit the current flux in East Asian politics.
The Bumpers legislation neither saves money nor advances the interests of the United States and its allies. It is expensive to implement and will encourage dangerous political forces. What is more, it punishes the ally most responsive to sharing the burden of defending the Free World. The United States cannot afford once again to encourage the belief that South Korea is outside America’s "defensive perimeter."