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Would a US Troop Withdrawal from South Korea Reduce the Nuclear War Threat?

Would a US Troop Withdrawal from South Korea Reduce the Nuclear War Threat?


By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Program Director, Political Science at American Military University

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Tensions between the United States and North Korea are on the rise again. Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said on Monday that North Korea was “begging for war” after testing its first thermonuclear device on September 2, 2017.

“Enough is enough,” Haley told the U.N. Security Council. “We have taken an incremental approach, and despite the best of intentions, it has not worked.”

Haley’s approach toward North Korea is called “mirror imaging.” In other words, the U.S. leadership is projecting its own values upon North Korea’s decision making. It appears the Trump administration believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seeks to pick a fight with the United States.

North Korea Believes China Is the Key to Influencing the United States

However, it is also possible that, just as the Trump administration believes China is the key to influencing North Korea, Kim Jong Un probably believes China is his best chance to influence the U.S. on North Korea’s behalf. After all, China holds over one trillion dollars of U.S. Treasury notes.  In addition, the U.S. conducts over a half trillion dollars in trade with China per year, which is more than with any other country.

What Kind of Influence Does Kim Want China to Exert on the United States?

As I wrote previously, Kim desperately wants an end to the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (UFG) annual joint military exercises between South Korea and the U.S. and a withdrawal of U.S. military forces from South Korea. The U.S.-South Korean Combined Forces Command conducted the UFG exercise this year from August 21-28.

North Korea perceives these exercises as preparations for a military invasion of the North.

In exchange for these concessions, North Korea says it is willing to cease both nuclear weapon and ballistic missile testing. At this point, North Korea has not demonstrated a capability to mate any of its nuclear weapons with any of its ballistic missiles. However, at the rate the North Korean nuclear missile program is going, reaching that capability does not seem too far off (not years off, as was previously estimated by some intelligence experts).

The bottom line is that the U.S. should agree to diplomatic talks with North Korea as soon as possible to stop any further weapons or ballistic missile testing. Given that the UFG exercises are conducted with South Korean military forces in South Korea every year, South Korea would be expected to participate in these negotiations as well. The U.S. should invite China to these negotiations to ensure North Korea follows through on any negotiated agreement.

Smaller Exercises Could Replace UFG to Maintain War Training for US and South Korean Forces

As I previously recommended, UFG could be replaced by smaller exercises that would maintain training for U.S. and Republic of Korea forces. Removing U.S. ground forces from South Korea is something that might also be a reasonable trade-off at this point.

After all, South Korea has greater overall military capability than North Korea and can defeat an invasion from the North without U.S. ground forces. North Korea’s bloated armed forces outnumber those of its southern neighbor by a large margin. In terms of soldiers and artillery pieces, North Korea enjoys a two-to-one advantage over its old enemy. Yet a preponderance of soldiers carrying light arms does not translate into military dominance. North Korea’s armed forces might be the largest in the world today, but their weapons and equipment are largely obsolete.

The fact that North Korea is outclassed in almost every field of conventional warfare means that its threats against the South are almost always expressed in terms of “sending down a rain of fire” or some such Pyongyang-like language. It has been assumed for decades that a war would be triggered by a pre-emptive attack on the South’s cities and civilian population using the North’s large arsenal of missiles, notably a variant of the old Soviet Scud missile.

South Korea’s much smaller armed forces, by contrast, benefit from some of the best U.S.-supplied weapons and equipment, including more than 2,000 tanks and hundreds of F15 and F16 fighter jets.

Also, the South Korean army is better-fed, a factor which, while reminiscent of a previous era to European armies, remains significant in North Korea, where defectors to the South often talk of the debilitating experience of hunger during their own military service.

This imbalance also helps to explain why the North Korean regime has gone to such lengths to build a nuclear arsenal. Only by possessing this ultimate weapon can North Korea’s rulers seize an advantage over the South and ensure themselves against military defeat.

In addition, without U.S. ground forces in South Korea, the U.S. would not risk as many lives in a ground war on the Korean Peninsula, if one were to occur.

Some analysts might be concerned about not having the ground-force trip wire ensuring U.S. participation in a conflict on the Korean Peninsula. However, the United States will still have air and naval forces stationed in South Korea as well as their bilateral treaty alliance. Removing U.S. Army troops from the Korean Peninsula and negotiating with North Korea should help to prevent a potentially devastating ICBM nuclear threat to the United States.

About the Author

Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Military University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen served as a Defense Attache in South Korea from 1995-1997.