(Part one of this post, in favor of leaving, is here.)
US SecDef Gates recently reaffirmed in very strong language the US commitment to Korean security. This served as a catalyst to extensive discussions among my colleagues about the value of the US commitment to SK. This is part 2 of the debate. My own thinking tilts toward the opinions in this post.
So here is why we should stay:
1. If we leave, everyone in Asia will read it as a sign that we are weak and that we are leaving Asia generally. Yes, this is the credibility argument straight out of the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan debates. But the world sees US power today as wavering; we are the tottering giant, especially in Asia. If we leave during the GWoT, that image will be confirmed, and the Chinese will push hard in Asia. A US departure will touch off an arms race as regional uncertainty rises. Asia is not where Europe or Latin America are in terms of regional amity. The US presence is more needed in this region, and it earns the US the friendship of the local democracies. It is hard to see how a spiraling arms race, as Japan and China openly start competing for regional leadership, plus perhaps India and China, would help the US. The US could very well be pulled back in later. A US departure from Korea (and Japan next?) will be read as a clear victory for China in the Sino-US regional competition.
2. It also means that the US will lose SK as an ally, because without the troops, they’ll feel, rightfully, that the US abandoned them. It would be nice to assure SK security without the ground forces, but US infantry on the ground (the USFK logo above) sends a much greater signal of commitment than air and sea power. SK will slide into China’s orbit if the US leaves. It’s already edging that way now. If America bails, it loses them. It is correct that SK no longer needs us to win a second Korean war though. So after unification, US retrenchment from Asia would be more possible and likely. But if America sticks with the Koreans through these difficult times, it will have them as good allies long into the future. Consider how loyal Kuwait and Germany are to the US because of historical goodwill. When Korea finally does unify – and it will happen as the post-Cold War North is in a permanent economic and legitimacy crisis – the Koreans will be deeply grateful if the US is here, or deeply resentful, and likely very pro-Chinese, if the US is not.
3. Unless the US demobilizes the troops of USFK, it must to rebase them somewhere else. That will require money, construction, hassle, etc. So long as the Koreans are paying for them – and they are, somewhat – and so long as they have Korean popular assent – and they do (USFK is not hated as US forces in Iraq are, e.g.) – then why withdraw them? They are not seen as occupiers; their establishments are already in place; the locals do not mind (too much) their presence.
4. Finally, DoD is restructuring USFK so that the bulk of any warfighting will fall of the ROKA. The primary US contribution to a second Korean war will be airpower. The ROKN already outguns the NK navy significantly, and the US ground presence here (28.5k) is too small to be really meaningful against the NK army (1.1 million). In other words, the costs to the US military in lives and dollars is shrinking. The US is dumping most of the burden on the locals, and Koreans generally seem to accept that this is really their responsibility.
So rather than leave, the US should continue to push South Koreans to pay a lot more under the USFK Status of Forces Agreement. This is renegotiated every 2 or 3 years, and SK’s portion of the burden has regularly. Right now, as best I can determine, SK pay about 47% of the (USFK) bill. For an OECD economy, that is low. So we could probably squeeze them for more, as Walt would recommend, but I don’t think we should leave.