Mark Loncar is retired from the United States Air Force and is a graduate of the Defense Intelligence College, now called National Intelligence University. He served in South Korea for 23 months. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: The U.S. faces a growing existential Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program.
Date Originally Written: August 1, 2017.
Date Originally Published: September 18, 2017.
Author and / or Article Point of View: This article is written from the point of view of a U.S. foreign policy advisor.
Background: North Korea recently tested another ballistic missile, the second major test in a month, as part of a nuclear weapons program that, if brought to fruition, could threaten the U.S. Policymakers in the U.S. are understandably reticent because of the serious threat that North Korea may respond with aggressive military action against South Korea and bring the U.S. into another Korean conflict.
The U.S. security commitment to its South Korea ally has not been in doubt since the Korean War started in 1950. However, the positioning of U.S. forces in South Korea has been debated, and over the years, the number of U.S. troops has decreased from the mid-30 thousands before the North Korean nuclear program started in the 1990s to around 28,000 today. Amid the present North Korean nuclear challenge, it is time to reexamine the utility of keeping U.S. forces in South Korea.
Significance: The Korean peninsula is no longer the center of gravity in any hostilities between North Korea and the U.S. as North Korea’s ICBM capability, according to media reports, could reach Honolulu, Anchorage, and Seattle. U.S. policy must adapt to this drastic expansion of the threat in order to end the impasse that characterizes U.S. dealings with the North Korean ICBM challenge. In expanding his nuclear capability to ICBMs, North Korean President Kim Jong-un has turned what was a Korean peninsula-centric issue into more of an eyeball-to-eyeball existential threat to the U.S..
Option #1: U.S. forces remain positioned in South Korea.
Risk: U.S. policy options concerning the North Korean nuclear program will continue to be limited due to the risk of war to South Korea. The presence of U.S. forces in South Korea preserves the status quo, but does not move the U.S. closer to a solution to the North Korean nuclear challenge. Having U.S. forces in South Korea also complicates U.S. – South Korea relations and gives South Korea leverage in how the U.S. should respond to the North Korean nuclear issue, further constraining U.S. freedom of movement to respond to North Korea.
Gain: The presence of U.S. forces in South Korea signals U.S. resolve in the Korean Conflict through a sharing of risk with South Korean allies. This option maintains a U.S. capability to respond quickly and forcibly to North Korean conventional incursions and other hostile actions against South Korea.
Option #2: U.S. forces redeploy from South Korea to present cleaner options for dealing with North Korean nuclear weapons threat. The policy would relocate U.S. forces from South Korea to Japan and other countries and bases in the region. A continued U.S. military presence near the Korean peninsula will help to reassure South Korea and Japan that the long-time security commitments will abide. The redeployment would also represent a continuation of major U.S. conventional capability in the area to counter any North Korean conventional aggression.
Risk: Perception of outright appeasement by U.S. allies. How could the U.S. proceed with redeployment of forces from South Korea without communicating to friends and adversaries that it would be engaging in all-out appeasement of the North Korean regime and surrendering important U.S. and allied interests in Northern Asia to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)?
Gain: The removal of U.S. forces from South Korea would be a major inducement for North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons program or for the PRC to pressure it to do so. Indeed, North Korea’s paranoia concerning U.S. – South Korea intentions toward its regime could be significantly pacified by moving U.S. forces off the Korean peninsula. At the same time, the stakes would be raised for Kim Jong-un and his PRC benefactors to change behavior on terms attractive to all parties—agreeing to a peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and a reduced threat of war on the peninsula.
Second, removing the threat to U.S. forces on the peninsula would present less cumbersome options for the U.S. with respect to the North Korean nuclear weapons challenge, especially concerns about war on the Korean peninsula. The U.S. would also be less constrained in deciding to preempt or respond directly to North Korean nuclear aggression. This is the real capability of such a redeploying U.S. forces from South Korea. North Korea and the PRC would be on notice that if North Korea continued its nuclear weapons ICBM development after a redeployment of U.S. forces off the Korean peninsula, the regime’s action may be met with the gravest of responses.
Third, this option would deny North Korea a pretext for attacking South Korea should the U.S. strike Kim Jong-un’s nuclear facilities. Such a U.S. strike on North Korean nuclear facilities would come only after a U.S. redeployment from the peninsula and the North Korean regime’s obstinate refusal to scrap its nuclear weapons program. In this security construct, any North Korean attack below the 38th parallel in retaliation for a U.S. strike on North Korean nuclear facilities would likely elicit the immediate destruction of the North Korean state.
Other Comments: An opportunity is in reach to have a return to the status quo without a Korean peninsula-centric relationship. This relationship would be more North Korea-South Korea focused, with the U.S. and the PRC overseeing the relationship. The U.S. would no longer be in the middle of the mix with its own forces physically present in South Korea. It may not be the best the U.S. could hope for – that would be a democratic government in North Korea if not an eventual unification of North and South Korea. However, a U.S. redeployment to incentivize peninsula denuclearization and present cleaner options concerning North Korea’s nuclear weapons program may be a more viable alternative than accepting and having to deter a North Korean global ICBM capability, or to fight another war on the Korean peninsula. In the end, by removing U.S. forces from South Korea, friend and foe should understand that if North Korea refuses to scrap its nuclear weapons capability, it will be the North Korean regime alone against the overwhelming power of the U.S..