Reduction of USFK and the Direction of the ROK-US Alliance Transformation


Translated by NKR Intern Se-Young Hwang


On July 14th, 1950, as the situation turned unfavorable during the Korean War, then-president Syngman Rhee sent a letter to General MacArthur. The letter requested the UN commander ‘to exercise the command authority of ROK armed forces so long as the current hostility continues.’ This one letter became an instrument that legitimized the stationing of United States Forces Korea (USFK) in South Korea along with the transfer of command authority of the ROK armed forces. The armistice agreement was reached in 1953 and the Mutual Defense Treaty between South Korea and the US became effective in 1954. The Mutual Defense Treaty was a kind of institutional mechanism that guaranteed the stationing of USFK in South Korea. The UN Security Council Resolution 333, adopted in June of 1975, recommended the dissolution of the United Nations Command (UNC), yet USFK is still playing a pivotal role in peace and prosperity of South Korea after ROK/US Combined Forces Command (CFC) was established in 1978. USFK has become imprinted as indispensable to the national security of South Korea for South Koreans who are facing real threats from North Korea; and their concerns are deepened whenever discussions on withdrawal or reduction of USFK are taking place.


The reduction of USFK was pushed in the Nixon, Carter, and George H. W. Bush administrations. When the US announced its plan to withdraw the 7th Division and 2nd Division in accordance with Nixon Doctrine, South Korea, who was inferior to North Korea’s defense power at the time, strongly opposed. Later on, consultation happened between the two states with the conclusion to withdraw the 7th Division and to relocate the 2nd Division to the rear area. As the US agreed to assist with South Korea’s five-year plan to modernize its armed forces, controversy over the reduction of USFK was settled. The Carter administration also actively considered a reduction plan to withdraw all US ground troops stationed in South Korea and to keep only the Air Force and Navy, but it was canceled due to the opposition of the South Korean government and the brakes put on by the US Congress and the US Department of Defense (DOD). The George H. W. Bush administration, amid the structural changes of the post-Cold War, also discussed the reduction of USFK. In fact, 7000 troops were reduced in line with Nunn-Warner Amendments, and the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division was dissolved. In addition, the tactical nuclear weapons that had been maintained for thirty-three years since their deployment on the Korean Peninsula in January 1958 were also completely withdrawn in December 1991 in accordance with the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, which withdrew all tactical nuclear weapons deployed overseas except for NATO.


Thirty years have passed since the George H. W. Bush administration reduced USFK, and discussions on the reduction of US troops in South Korea are underway again. President Trump’s stance is so firm that concerns are spreading that it may actually lead to reductions, but the reality is that it is not easy due to various constraints. Above all, the reduction of US troops is possible only after the approval of the US Congress. This is because the US Congress has established a check mechanism that prevents the US government from unilaterally reducing the number of US forces in Korea by stipulating it prohibits reducing the size of US forces in Korea to less than 28,500 in the annually revised National Defense Authorization Act. There is an exceptive clause that says “reduction is possible if consultations are completed by the ROK-US military authorities and proves such reduction is in the interest of the US.” However, it is difficult for the Korean government to actively engage in discussions on the reductions of the US forces due to public sentiment. Even if the US government promotes reductions by taking advantage of the exceptive clause in National Defense Authorization Act, the issue of relocating the reduced US forces will also perplex the Department of Defense. No matter how much the reduction is promoted gradually, not only will it be difficult to find an area to relocate the large-scale of troops that will be reduced, but the cost will be enormous. Reduction is not easy in reality, because the USFK is now playing a pivotal role in maintaining stability in Northeast Asia and defending the US mainland beyond the level of suppressing the North Korean threat in terms of regional stability. This is especially true when considering the increasing value of the USFK due to the recent confrontation between the US and China and the advancement of North Korean ballistic missiles. In particular, in Bob Woodward’s book ‘Rage,’ then-Secretary Mattis said that President Trump’s argument on the withdrawal of USFK was the most cost-saving way to keep US troops in Korea, and further insisted that it is a way to prevent Third World War. It is worth paying attention to this case where the strategic value of the USFK was emphasized. In addition, the perception of Americans makes it difficult to reduce US forces in Korea. According to the survey targeting the Americans on July 17th, only 27% of Americans supported the withdrawal of US forces in Korea, while 43% opposed to the withdrawal. As such, the US Congress, the DOD, and even Americans believe that the reduction of USFK is not in line with the US strategic interests.


If the Trump administration pushes for reduction despite the factors mentioned above, how should South Korea respond? And what direction should the transformation of the ROK-US alliance resulting from the reduction of US force in Korea take? If the actual reduction of US forces in Korea is decided, the psychological impact on the Korean government and its people will be more than expected. This is because of the unconscious inertia that “USFK is the national security to South Korea” which lasted for 70 years after the beginning of the ROK-US alliance. Now it’s time to get out of this unconscious inertia. It is necessary to draw a detailed roadmap in preparation for this by shifting the perception that USFK is a ‘constant’ factor. South Korea has made a leap forward in terms of military power and it is ranked as the sixth largest military power in the world after Japan in the GFP (as of 2020), which ranks the world military power every year. It is clear that the USFK has brought incalculable security benefits to South Korea, but it has also hindered the establishment of our military’s independent operational capability. Therefore, I would say preparation for this is more urgent than ever. When we look at the past cases, if the reduction of US forces in Korea is pushed ahead, it is highly likely that it will occur mainly with ground forces rather than naval and air forces. There should be no negligence in preparing an institutional mechanism that can guarantee the reliability of providing nuclear deterrence (nuclear umbrella), which is regarded as the most incomplete area, and it should be driven in conjunction with the wartime operational control transition and defense reform.


The reduction of US forces in Korea will eventually lead to a change in the ROK-US alliance and accordingly, the direction of alliance transformation must be newly established. The ROK-US alliance has not only established binding institutional mechanisms, but has also established and implemented a common operational plan, stationing of USFK, regular joint exercises, and a consultation system. In this regard, South Korea and the US have maintained a firm alliance system which is unprecedented throughout the world. While maintaining this basic framework, the ROK-US alliance, which is still an asymmetrical relationship that takes security instead of giving the state autonomy (in other words, the relationship is between the security provider and the beneficiary country) must be transformed into a more symmetrical and balanced relationship. Empirical studies show alliances does not always bring positive results. For example, by analyzing 177 wars that took place between 1816 and 1965, only 48 cases (27%) showed that allies participated in the war by complying with their pledges; 108 cases (61%) showed allies being neutral; and 21 cases (12%) showed that allies had a low credibility of the alliance and fought against each other. The findings of A.N. Sabrosky’s research greatly implies wariness of blind faith in an alliance. Of course, it may be unreasonable to compare the current ROK-US alliance to the above research results, but it is worth considering in terms of establishing the direction of alliance transformation. In the end, it should be noted that the direction of the ROK-US alliance may change depending on the degree of shifting the perception, from the teleological point of view that ‘The ROK-US alliance is national security to South Korea,’ to the instrumental point of view that believes, ‘The ROK-US alliance is a means of South Korea’s security.’


***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

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