Bring Our Troops Home (from Korea)

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The
vortex of Korean politics can make even Donald Rumsfeld sound like
the most radical Korean peace activist. “After the cold war,” he
declared on June 3, “U.S. forces have been stationed in South Korea
for too long.” The occasion was the announcement of the largest
U.S. troop reductions from the Korean peninsula since the Korean
War armistice, which took place 51 years ago this month. The Pentagon
is withdrawing one-third of its forces from South Korea and sending
a portion of them to Iraq.

Since
this announcement comes at a time not of relative tranquility but
rather of heightened tensions between the United States and North
Korea, some critics have charged the Bush administration with sacrificing
security in East Asia on the altar of its Iraq policy. “Scavenging
troops from South Korea,” writes Jon Wolfstahl in the International
Herald Tribune, “sends exactly the wrong signal at the wrong
time to U.S. allies and adversaries alike.” These critics are missing
the point. American troops are no longer needed on the Korean peninsula.
The Bush administration’s only mistake is in not going far enough.
An even more dramatic withdrawal of U.S. troops would not compromise
security and could even help unknot the ongoing negotiations between
Washington and Pyongyang.

The
Pentagon announcement comes just before a third round of Six-Party
Talks that bring together the United States, North and South Korea,
China, Japan, and Russia. The previous two rounds went nowhere and
expectations for this third round are low. The United States is
insisting on CVID or the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling
of North Korea’s nuclear programs — before any substantive compromise
can be hammered out. Having declared North Korea beyond the pale,
the Bush administration is stuck in a theological hole: any form
of negotiations looks suspiciously like “supping with the Devil.”
North Korea, meanwhile, has broached various scenarios whereby they
freeze and then dismantle their programs in exchange for energy,
economic incentives, security guarantees, or a mixture of the three.

It
might seem strange that the United States is reducing its military
footprint on the Korean peninsula at this juncture. The Pentagon
points out that the current plan has been on the drawing board since
the end of the Cold War. Troops in fixed positions with slow-moving
tanks, according to the Pentagon, fight yesterday’s wars. Today’s
conflicts require rapid response units that can move quickly and
over long distances. U.S. military presence in Korea — as well as
in Japan — is being refashioned for the instantaneous demands of
the virtual age and to intervene in areas further south as part
of the “war on terrorism.”

This
restructuring was first delayed in the early 1990s during the first
nuclear crisis between the United States and North Korea. Why, during
a second and potentially more serious crisis, is the restructuring
moving forward? Certainly the immediate need for troops in the Iraq
occupation is one reason.

The
deeper issue, however, is the declining utility of American troops
on the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s conventional forces have
deteriorated in strength over the last twenty years, even as Pyongyang
has directed large portions of its stagnant government budget toward
the military. South Korea’s armed forces, which include 690,000
troops, have meanwhile steadily improved its capability. Because
of the high cost of fuel and the lack of critical spare parts, North
Korean military pilots train 13 hours a year, which is what an American
pilot easily clocks in a month. Or to give another example of the
growing disparity of forces, South Korea has the luxury to spend
between ten and one hundred times more per soldier for their equipment
and other needs.

Given
the dramatic reversal of comparative strength between North and
South, the tiny U.S. contingent — around 5 percent of South Korean
troop strength — does not bring much to the table. The U.S. decision
in 2003 to redeploy U.S. forces away from the DMZ has eliminated
their function as a tripwire, the first line of defense against
a North Korean invasion.

Military
boosters emphasize the symbolic value of U.S. troops in demonstrating
the unwavering commitment of the United States to its alliance with
South Korea and to deter any North Korean attack on the South. But
even this symbolism has become drained of meaning. South Korea under
Roh Moo-Hyun wants more equality in its relations with the United
States, which translates into greater control over military affairs.
Younger South Koreans now see the United States — or, to be more
precise, the trigger-happy unilateralism of the Bush administration
— as more dangerous than North Korea.

U.S.
deterrent capacity, meanwhile, now resides in firepower based largely
outside the peninsula, such as the Fifth Air Force and the Seventh
Fleet, both based in Japan. As it did fifty years ago, U.S. airpower
can reduce North Korea to rubble. North Korean leaders recognize
that any attack they might launch across the DMZ would thus be suicidal.
The presence of the remaining 25,000 U.S. troops does not alter
this calculus.

Although
they have only a minor military function and declining symbolic
value, the remaining U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula can play
a vital new role: bargaining chip.

North
Korea has argued that it is under threat of U.S. attack and considers
U.S. troops in South Korea a longstanding provocation. So let’s
try something new by putting U.S. troop presence on the negotiating
table. With the advice and consent of our South Korean allies, the
Bush administration should offer a timetable for the removal of
all U.S. troops from the peninsula. A Democrat would be hard pressed
to offer such a deal. When Jimmy Carter tried to withdraw U.S. troops
from the peninsula, he hit major resistance from Washington insiders.
Only the hawks in Washington have the political capital to push
through a complete withdrawal.

The
complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea would certainly have
its drawbacks. South Korea is spending more now on its defense than
ever before and the Defense Ministry has called for an additional
13 percent increase in the military budget to compensate for the
disappearing U.S. troops. The peace movement in Japan and Okinawa
also want to bid farewell to U.S. troops, so the shifting of U.S.
forces eastward, while a boon for the Korean peace movement, would
not necessarily be a plus for the region as a whole. Still, U.S.
troop withdrawal from the Korean peninsula would be such an enormous
step toward resolving inter-Korean tensions that the benefits outweigh
the costs.

Beset
on all sides for its Iraq policy, the Bush administration needs
a foreign policy victory. It needs to demonstrate that it isn’t
ignoring the Korean peninsula. And it needs to show the world that
the United States, if only after 51 years, does eventually bring
home its troops.

June
23, 2004

John
Feffer [send him mail]
is a regular contributor to Foreign
Policy In Focus
and the author, most recently, of North
Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis
(Seven
Stories). Reprinted with permission of Foreign
Policy In Focus
.

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