Start Admitting that the US Commitment to SK is Weakening


The Korean press has been filled for months with the coverage of the US military’s redeployment from north to south of Seoul. Usually these reports include protestations from both sides that the military commitment of the US to the South has not diminished.

I just can’t see how that can be the case. I want the US commitment to remain strong, but I think this is wishful thinking.

1. The US has slowly reduced its ground forces in Korea over the last few decades. US force totals are now around 28k and may sink below 25k by 2015. By contrast, the US has about twice that number in Japan and Germany, neither of whom are as directly threatened as SK.

The common response is that the US can provide the same level of protection with fewer people because of today’s greater lethality per US warfighter, as well as the continuing cover provided by the US air force and navy. Essentially this is a Rumsfeldian transformation argument. The ‘transformation’ of the US military has made each US solider more individually effective, so you need fewer of them for the same job. This is achieved through better training, and use of IT to coordinate firepower better. Smart soldiers and combined arms have multiplier effects we didn’t enjoy during the Cold War. So instead of blowing up a whole valley to kill the enemy, you only need the firepower to blow up a part of it, because IT (‘the networked battlefield’) will tell you exactly which part the enemy is in.

I find this moderately compelling, but the verdict is not really in yet on transformation. (See Thomas Ricks at Foreign Policy and Fred Kaplan at Slate, who have long chronicled the ups and downs of this notion.) While it seemed to work well in Afghanistan, it was an abysmal failure in Iraq, where low force totals were the single biggest US problem until the surge. Transformation and smaller forces also seem to run against a basic military lesson – more is better. Ceteris paribus, a larger force should improve options and create a greater cushion to absorb casualties and defeats. I think we all assume that NK’s military is clapped out, but it is over 1 million strong, and US totals seem awfully low. Also, should the US be involved in another war – as we are now – at the time of a conflict with the DPRK, more is again better. It just seems awfully risky.

2. US forces are being moved south of Seoul. To me, this is the most obvious sign of decreased willingness. During the Cold War, US troops were purposefully strewn along the DMZ, so that if there was a conflict, US lives would be lost almost immediately. Dead Americans would then rouse US public opinion to commit to the war. NATO followed the same logic in central Europe. The more flags on the initial coffins, the more likely collective security would be honored.

It seems willful blindness to say that the US is not looking to avoid casualties and therefore the public opinion chain-gang effect by this southward move. This may be good for the US. It lowers the likelihood of an immediate public outcry, and so gives DoD and the White House some time in a crisis. But if I were South Koreans, I would be nervous.

Similarly, US forces will no longer be located between Seoul, the capital, and the DMZ. 20m people live in greater Seoul – 40% of the national population. It is extremely exposed. It is only 30 miles from the DMZ; it is extremely dense, and it is filled with skyscrapers and high apartment tower blocks that would fall easily if it hit by NK artillery. (Picture the horrifying WTC collapse happening dozens of times.) I imagine the ROK army will be put in the US place, but still if I were a Korean, I would be pretty spooked that the US is no longer protecting what would obviously be the primary target if the DPRK drove south.

3. In 2012, the US will relinquish wartime authority to control SK forces. This abolition of Combined Forces Command (CFC) is marketed as restoring sovereignty and control to the South, but an obvious extra for the US is that it is no longer obligated to command in the case of a war. Again, this gives the US more wiggle room.

4. Finally, I think US public opinion is hardly deeply committed the defense of SK anymore. The Cold War is over. If SK were to go communist now, it would not matter to US security as much as before. And Americans are exhausted from Iraq, Afghanistan, and the general stress of the GWoT. To the extent Americans even know where SK is, most of their political images will be of a wealthy country (Samsung TVs, etc, etc) that should be able to defend itself. The American attitude, and probably that of DoD, is burden-sharing. Allies should carry more of their own defense. NK is SK’s problem, let them fix it; it’s their war, let them fight it.  Only 41% of Americans think we should aid the South against the North with combat troops (p. 18 here).

In sum, the bulk of smaller US forces will be 100 miles from the DMZ, south of Seoul, and we don’t have the authority to command the SK military in a fight most Americans won’t see as critical for national security. In other words, we are reserving options for ourselves, including just how much we want to commit.

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11 thoughts on “Start Admitting that the US Commitment to SK is Weakening

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