(See Part 2, in oppostion of withdrawal, here.)
Last month US SecDef Gates pledged the most formal statement yet of US “extended deterrence” to South Korea in history. Extended deterrence is an IR theory term. A country deters aggression against itself by a powerful military. A strong military drives up the costs of conquering a country, and so it deters aggression. During the Cold War, the US extended its deterrence to its weak and exposed allies. Countries like West Germany and South Korea could not withstand a communist onslaught alone, so the US pledged to defend them by extending its security umbrella. Such ‘collective security’ made everyone safer against the communists. In Korea, this has always included the use of nuclear weapons, as Gates made clear again week.
The US Forces in Korea (USFK) total about 28,500 men. The are stationed north of Seoul by the DMZ, although they are being slowly withdrawn south of the DMZ to Pyeongtaek. Elsewhere, I have argued that this shift implies a loosening of the US commitment to SK. And lots of smart people – Bruce Cumings, Selig Harrison, and Brian Myers – have argued that the US should leave SK altogether. Chalmers Johnson said the US refusal to withdraw from Asian bases after the Cold War helped convince him the US had become an empire.
So here is the debate as I see it. Here are the reasons to leave:
1. In terms of raw US national interest, the value of the Korean alliance has decline dramatically. The Cold War is over, so the original rationale of US extended deterrence here is gone. Even if NK invaded SK and won, i.e., if the peninsula were reunified on communist terms, it would not matter that much to US security. Japan and China would still be around to balance/contain a communist united Korea. This is essentially the retrenchment argument. The Soviets were a genuine global threat that required a global US response. No one in world politics today poses such a threat – not China, NK, or Islamism. The US is a very secure great power – safe behind two oceans, a large nuclear arsenal, and the world’s most capable conventional military. Walt makes this argument regularly at Foreign Policy.
2. A more ‘moral,’ or altruistic approach would grapple with the social fact of South Korea’s long-term friendship with the US. It has stood by us for a long time as a reliable ally. It is a friend. It has participated in the coalitions of the willing in both Iraq and Afghanistan, even though it didn’t really want to go. Compared the to Europeans, the Koreans take their alliance commitment to the US very seriously. But even by this reckoning, we could arguably leave SK without great loss. SK has clearly won the intra-Korean competition. NK would lose a war with SK, even without US help. In a presentation I saw last moth in a conference at Changwon National University, my friend James Strohmaier of Pukyong National University presented this powerful graph of per capita GDP in the North and South. SK is purple; NK is blue. Obviously the race is over:
NK’s military, while large, is badly behind the South in technology. No one I have heard here thinks NK could win, even with the use of its nukes. So if SK can win this thing all by itself, what is the point of the US staying?