In a meeting between South Korean and US defense officials in Seoul last week, South Korea urged the US: “Please, Yankee, don’t go home.”
The US responded, in effect: “Sorry, we’re out of here.”
At issue in the Korea-US Integrated Defense Dialogue was the fate of the Combined Forces Command (CFC), the joint South Korean and US staff that controls both South Korean troops and US forces posted in South Korea. It is commanded by a US general, with a South Korean general as deputy.
During the discussion in the forum with the unfortunate acronym KIDD, the US contended that the CFC should be dismantled, with South Korea taking full responsibility for their own defense. South Korea said that it was not ready to take over, so the command should remain intact. No decision was made public.
Behind this debate was an intrinsically different assessment of the need for US troops for the defense of South Korea against the threat from North Korea.
The US says that the Korean War, which brought legions of US troops to Korea to fight the North Koreans and Chinese, ended 60 years ago. Today, those US forces are needed elsewhere in a time of economic difficulty at home and heavy constraints on military spending.
Moreover, in those 60 years, South Korea has generated an economic great leap forward, established itself politically as a stable democracy and forged a first-class military force. It needs very little outside help.
In contrast, North Korea is an economic basket case in which the gap between the capital in Pyongyang and the rest of the country is widening. Corruption is pervasive, millions of people suffer from chronic food shortages and the inexperienced regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has an uncertain grip on power.
In particular, North Korea’s armed forces are in terrible shape.
Former US director of national intelligence Dennis Blair said in 2009 that the North Korean army’s capabilities “are limited by an aging weapons inventory, low production of military combat systems, deteriorating physical condition of soldiers, reduced training and increasing diversion of the military to infrastructure support.”
“Inflexible leadership, corruption, low morale, obsolescent weapons, a weak logistical system and problems with command and control also constrain the KPA’s [Korean People’s Army] capabilities and readiness,” he said.
Blair, a retired Navy admiral, concluded that the gap between South Korea and North Korea in armed forces “has become overwhelmingly great.”
From all reports, surely North Korea’s forces have not improved by now.
Nonetheless, the South Koreans said that disbanding the CFC and turning over operational control (OPCON in military lingo) might be misread by North Korean leaders and tempt them into assaulting the south. The continued presence of US forces, they asserted, was needed to deter North Korea from miscalculating.
The South Koreans also pointed to the North Korean potential for nuclear arms. That failed to impress the US delegation, who pointed to repeated public assurances that the US’ “extended deterrence,” meaning the so-called “nuclear umbrella,” had been unfurled over South Korea and would deter the North.
The long history of US forces in South Korea has often been troubled. By 1960, seven years after the Korean War, the US force had dropped to 55,000. When then-US president Richard Nixon asserted in his 1969 Guam Doctrine that Asian nations must do more for their own defense, the figure went down to 52,000.
Then-South Korean president Park Chung-hee said in a 1975 interview that the South Korean economy would be able in five years to produce a ground force capable of defending the nation and US ground troops would no longer be needed. Shortly after, then-US president Jimmy Carter announced he would withdraw all US ground troops from South Korea.
That was vigorously opposed by South Korean and US political and military leaders, and Carter eventually relented. Even so, by 1980, the US had drawn its force in Korea down to 38,800. In 1991, then-US president George H.W. Bush ordered all tactical nuclear weapons shipped out of South Korea. By 2000, the troop count was down to 36,300.
When the US continued to pull troops out of South Korea for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, then-South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was alarmed and persuaded then-US president George W. Bush to set a floor of 28,500. Even so, by the end of that year, the Pentagon reported 24,665 troops in South Korea.
Since then, the Pentagon has gotten cagey in trying to hide the actual number from the South Koreans. While it reports on the number of US troops in every other nation on Earth — including five in Mongolia, seven in Laos and nine in Taiwan — the number for South Korea is “not available.”
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.
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