It's Time for the U.S. Army to Leave Korea

U.S. President Barack Obama gets a hug as he rallies U.S. troops at Osan Air Base in Osan, outside Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Joshua Stanton blogs at OneFreeKorea.

Proceeding against the advice of my cardiologist, I must concede that for once, Ron Paul is actually on to something. The ground component of U.S. Forces Korea, which costs U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars a year to maintain, is an equally unaffordable political liability on the South Korean street. We should withdraw it. Every Saturday night off-post brawl is a headline in the muck-raking Korean press, for which the American soldier is inevitably blamed, and for which angry mobs perpetually demand renegotiations of the Status of Force Agreement to give Korea's not-even-remotely-fair judicial system more jurisdiction over American soldiers.

The South Korean people do not appreciate the security our soldiers provide. The way some of them treat our soldiers ought to be a national scandal. Many off-post businesses don't even let Americans through their front doors. The degree of anti-Americanism in South Korea is sufficient to be a significant force protection issue in the event of hostilities.

South Korea does not have our back. South Korea made much of the fact that it sent 3,000 soldiers to Iraq, where they sat behind concrete barriers in a secure Kurdish area of Iraq, protected by peshmerga, making no military contribution and taking no combat casualties. Their contribution to the effort in Afghanistan has been negligible, which is more than can be said of their contribution to the Taliban (previous President Roh Moo Hyun reportedly paid them a ransom of up to $20 million in 2007 to free South Korean hostages who took it upon themselves to charter a shiny new bus to bring Christianity to Kandahar). South Korea has been an equally unsteady ally against China.

The American security blanket has fostered a state of national adolescence by the South Korean public. Too many of them (some polls suggest most) see America as a barrier to reunification with their ethnic kindred in the North. Maybe nothing short of a North Korean attack on the South can encourage more sober thinking by South Koreans about their own security, but I suspect a greater sense of self-reliance and even vulnerability might.

During my service in Korea, as U.S. taxpayers subsidized South Korea's defense, South Korea subsidized Kim Jong Il's potential offense with billions of dollars in hard currency that sustained the very threat against which we were ostensibly helping to defend. South Korea never made North Korea's disarmament a condition of this aid. Instead, that aid effectively undermined U.S. and U.N. sanctions meant to force North Korea to disarm. What does South Korea have to show for this colossal outlay now.

Because South Korea, now one the world's wealthiest nations, expects up to 600,000 American soldiers to arrive protect it from any security contingency, successive South Korean governments actually cut their nation's defense rather than modernizing it and building an effective independent defense. Consequently, South Korea still has a 1970-vintage force structure, designed around a 1970-vintage threat, equipped with 1970-vintage weapons.

This is partly the legacy of ten years of leftist administrations, but it's also the legacy of military welfare that allowed South Korea to defer upgrading its equipment, building a professional volunteer army, and organizing an effective reserve force to deal with security contingencies. Worst of all, South Korea diverted billions of dollars that should have been spent on modernizing its military into regime-sustaining aid to Kim Jong Il, to be used, as far as anyone knows, for nukes, missiles, artillery, and pretty much everything but infant formula. To this day, South Korea continues to resist accepting operational control over its own forces in the event of war.

The U.S. Army presence in Korea is an anachronism, defending against the extinct threat of a conventional North Korean invasion. The far greater danger is that if Kim Jong Il assesses our current president as weak, he will choose more limited or less conventional means to strike at our soldiers and their families. Given the reported presence of Taliban operatives in Seoul, he might even plausibly deny responsibility for an attack.

Thus, while I don't go so far as to accept the Princess Bride Doctrine ("never get involved in a land war in Asia"), I do not believe it is wise for us to have our forces within easy artillery range of Kim Jong Il, such that he may freely choose the time, place, and manner of our involvement

I offer two qualifications here. First, this is not to suggest that we unilaterally abrogate the alliance with South Korea. Our air and naval installations in Korea provide useful power-projection capability and are far more secure, ironically, than our many scattered and isolated Army posts.

I can imagine any number of contingencies for which we'd want to have the ability to move people and supplies into South Korea in a hurry.

Second, this is not to suggest that Ron Paul is not an anti-Semitic crypto-racist advocate of a thoughtlessly escapist foreign policy, and broadly speaking, an imbecile. This is just one occasion in which he inadvertently, in the fashion of a stopped clock, aligns with the correct result.

By Joshua Stanton:
Reprinted with permission from The New Ledger.