America’s Gradual Goodbye to Korea

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BUSAN, South Korea — This week my university hosted a forum on the Korean-American alliance with Ralph Cossa and others from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. CSIS is the kind of center that anyone into geopolitics would find useful, and Cossa is a great Asia hand.

The forum was informative, but too much of it passed what seems to me the growing mismatch between US alliance commitments around the world and US capabilities to meet them. It is what Paul Kennedy famously called ‘imperial overstretch.’

Most of the speakers reaffirmed the US commitment in direct, unambiguous terms – an expected response given North Korea’s exceptionally bad behavior last year. But to my mind analysts need to be more forthright in admitting the great trouble the US will likely have defending Korea in the future.

Consider the following data points of what should rightly be considered Uncle Sam’s ‘partial abandonment’ of South Korea:

1. US Forces in Korea (USFK) are now just 28,500 servicemen, the smallest number they have been in the history of the force. Most of them, as far as I can tell, are air and naval staff, not infantry. In short, the ground war – the hard, brutal slog of 1950-53 – will be bore mostly by the South Korea army this time.

2. US tactical nuclear weapons were removed from Korea in 20 years after the Cold War. Given North Korea’s nuclear program, ROK elites have been hinting for the last few years that they might like to see them come back or at least discuss it. The US has rejected this.

3. The Combined Forces Command (CFC), which places wartime authority in Korea over both US and Korean forces in the hands of a US general,  is still scheduled to be abolished. This ongoing pact of U.S. leadership in the time of war, is widely viewed in Korea as a signal of US commitment to South Korea’s defense. Originally it was to be abolished in 2012. Abolition has been moved to 2015, because of recent North Korea behavior and a reluctance of South Korea to take over, but the CFC is still scheduled to go. The Koreans too have made noises about retaining this, but the US has held firm that it too will go.

4. U.S. public opinion surveys from the Chicago Council of Global Affairs (2008, 2010) only find the 40-45% of American actually want to fight in South Korea if a war comes: “Americans also show an inclination to take a hands-off approach to confrontations between North and South Korea.” This should not surprise anyone, given the American exhaustion from the war on terror. Consider the Libya intervention (which I support). This was mostly an inside-the-Beltway affairs (the ‘professor’s war’); US public opinion support for it is tepid. As a result, US involvement is very light. Obama is badly constrained by huge US public reticence to fight yet another big war – which is most certainly what a Korean conflict would be. Libya is far more likely to be the US model in Korea should another war break-out, rather than a re-run of what happened 60 years ago.

5. U.S. forces are being relocated away from the demilitarized zone to a city south of Seoul – Pyeongtaek. This strikes me as a critical data point, and one that Koreans most definitely worry about. Seoul is the obvious target in any serious war, so USFK’s placement between the KPA (North Korea People’s Army) and our ally’s capital signaled strong American commitment to South Korea, both reassuring South Korea and deterring North Korea. USFK, even when it was larger, was never enough to stop the KPA on the ground. Its role was basically a symbolic trip-wire. That is, by stationing US forces in the likely combat zone, immediate US fatalities would have a catalytic effect on US public opinion. Emotionally provocative images of dead American servicemen would engage America in what might otherwise be yet another unwanted war in a ‘country far away about which we know little.’

People find this morally objectionable – and it is  – but that does not make it inaccurate.  Indeed NATO did the same during the Cold War. Multinational units were stationed along the West German border with East Germany and Czechoslovakia. If the Red Army crossed the line, initial casualties would be spread around the alliance in order to insure that all allies would have skin in the game. This would help stiffen the willingness of allies in NATO’s backyard to stick to their commitment to fight. While I doubt that USFK planners are so callous as to openly reason this way, it is clearly the case that US forces south of Seoul reduce American exposure and give the White House the ‘wiggle room’ it did not have before.

6. And yet, even if all of the above were irrelevant, the real elephant in the room that casts doubt on all US alliance commitments (not just Korea) is the crushing national deficit and debt. The US is now borrowing $1.5 trillion per annum. This is the largest peacetime borrowing in US history (and only matched once – in WWII). It represents a staggering 10% of GDP. America’s publicly-held debt is now $9 trillion.

These budget constraints will place major limits on any US use of force in the future. Again, the current Libya campaign should be seen as a model for what US war in the age of austerity will look like – hesitation, buck-passing to allies and international organizations, ‘leading from behind,’ no ‘boots on the ground,’ cost-efficient air-power, etc.

The only way to close that massive $1.5T gap is to either cut spending or raise taxes (or inflate it away, I suppose – but who wants a re-run of the 1970s?). So long as the GOP remains firmly opposed to tax hikes, then spending must be cut. And no one really believes $1.5T in cuts can be found without huge defense cuts. Defense, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security (together: SS/M/M), plus interest on the debt, compose 80% of the budget. Interest payments cannot be cut obviously; we can’t just unilaterally stiff $9T of bondholders. Nor is there much saving to be found in the remaining 20% of ‘discretionary spending.’

That leaves just the ‘big four,’ as the Simpson-Bowles Commission called them: Defense and SS/M/M. This is an absolutely classic example of the guns-vs-butter trade off. We can have a big defense budget or big entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid), but we can’t have both. Consider that the entire US national security budget (Defense, Veterans Affairs, and the relevant parts of the Homeland Security and Energy Departments) costs about $1T. That means you could cut all US national security spending and still not balance the budget.

Indeed, half a trillion dollars in deficit spending would still be left over. Just 5 or 6 years ago, when the Bush administration was running 4-500 billion dollar budget deficits, people fretted that such numbers were enormous. Nowadays, that would be progress. This budgetary mathematics all but mandates major US retrenchment, unless Americans are willing to dramatically lessen their entitlement expectations to make room for defense. And to no one’s surprise –except the hawks I suppose– Americans do actually favor major defense cuts in order to save SS/M/M. Americans, if they must choose, want checks for grandma more than they want aircraft carriers. This is why Michael Mullen, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, argued recently that the US budget deficit is now the single biggest threat to US national security.

The Sustainable Defense Task Force, organized by several members of Congress, does in fact recommend US cuts in Korea. (Read Kaplan at Slate.com for superb analysis on the approaching critical mass regarding defense spending.) The likelihood of major cuts in places where American really don’t want to be (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan) and places Americans believe can afford their own defense (Western Europe, Japan, Korea) means that it is very likely that US forces will not be in these places in, say, 10-15 years. The money just isn’t there anymore.

In short, America’s accelerating sovereign debt crisis, much reduced force structure in Korea, and low public opinion support for more interventions, badly constrain our ability to meet our alliance commitments here, and many other places. This doesn’t mean we should get out; this is no personal endorsement. But it does mean that probability of major US assistance on which Korea has built its security for two generations is diminishing fast. We need to be honest about that. Call it the end of empire, retrenchment, imperial overstretch, whatever; but US allies need to recognize this. The days of free-riding are just about over.


Dr. Robert E. Kelly is an Assistant Professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University. You can read this essay, and more, at his website, Asian Security Blog.


Read Joshua Stanton's article, "It's time for the U.S. Army to Leave Korea."

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