July 19, 2020 | Military Times

Penny wise, pound foolish: The flawed logic of withdrawal from South Korea

July 19, 2020 | Military Times

Penny wise, pound foolish: The flawed logic of withdrawal from South Korea

The Trump administration announced it is considering withdrawing troops from South Korea because of Seoul’s failure to meet U.S. funding demands in the Special Measures Agreement/burden sharing negotiations. The secretary of defense is being put in a tough spot because per the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act he must certify prior to any withdrawal that the reduction will not significantly undermine the security of U.S. allies. In addition, the NDAA states proper consultation with allies (South Korea and Japan) must be conducted.

Although the size of the withdrawal is not specified, the Pentagon should consider the worst case of the total number because President Trump has expressed his desire to remove all troops over the years. He floated the idea of withdrawal from Korea and Japan during his campaign if the allies did not increase their funding levels for the U.S. military. He made the statement that he wanted to bring home U.S. troops “at some point” at his post summit press conference in Singapore in 2018. In 2019, he demanded some 400 percent increase in burden sharing from South Korea and the negotiations remain stalemated in the summer of 2020. The surprise announcement of the possible withdrawal of 9,500 U.S. troops from Germany has recently again put removal of troops from Korea in the spotlight, though it will be more difficult for the president to unilaterally decide to withdraw troops due to congressional action.

The secretary is faced with two challenges if he wants to construct a rationale for withdrawal for any number of troops up to the 28,500 currently stationed there. First, he must describe the threat from North Korea in a way that minimizes it and shows that the withdrawal of U.S. troops will not impact deterrence of a North Korean attack or the defense of South Korea. The secretary is also going to assess the impact on the U.S. Japan alliance. Complicating the strategic calculus is China. A significant reduction in U.S. troops in the region may be interpreted as a loss of U.S. strategic resolve and will likely invite further Chinese activity such as what occurred when Chinese and Russian aircraft penetrated the Korean Air Defense Identification Zone in the vicinity of the Korea-Japanese disputed islands of DokDo. This will complicate U.S. efforts in the South China Sea and elsewhere to maintain a free and open INDOPACIFC.

Second, he must plan for the return and stationing of U.S. troops in the continental U.S., Hawaii, Guam, or Alaska. This entails three major considerations. First is the level of effort, time, and expense required to move 28,500 troops, their dependents, and their equipment off the peninsula. A second issue centers on the decision whether to retain the force structure from Korea or deactivate all units and distribute their personnel and equipment within existing units in the United States. A final consideration is that if the force structure is retained, the military will have to construct most of the facilities to station these organizations within the U.S., all of which will be funded by U.S. taxpayers.

Additional strategic issue is what North Korea would do (e.g., When would they attack?). Pyongyang is unlikely to attack during this drawdown because that would “trip the wire,” as U.S. forces would be affected. The United States could probably deter an attack over the two to five years it would likely take to withdraw all forces, because the smartest thing for Kim to do would be to wait until the withdrawal is completed. It may seem counterintuitive, but if Kim thought there was a withdrawal date for U.S. troops, he would “self deter” and not attack until the withdrawal was complete.

Instead of withdrawing troops, the administration and South Korea should suspend current negotiations and agree to sustain the current level of funding for the next two years. During that period, negotiators should update the Status of Forces Agreement to adjust the desired cost categories, agree to the funding level for incremental costs, and determine the proper funding period which up until 2019 had been five years.

The threat

North Korea is an existential threat to South Korea. It has a 1.2 million man active-duty military, making it the fourth largest in the world. Although equipped with outdated Russian-based equipment and employing modified Russian and communist military doctrine, its numerical advantage is formidable with some 70 percent of forces offensively postured between the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Pyongyang. The artillery that is positioned just north of the DMZ can range most of the 25 million South Koreans in the greater Seoul metropolitan area. This threat is commonly described as the “tyranny of proximity,” which reduces the freedom of action of the ROK/U.S. alliance due to the possibility of a massive artillery strike on the South Korean capital.


Military and Political Power North Korea U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy