Should the US Pull Out of South Korea? (1): Yes


(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 The are stationed north of Seoul by the DMZ, although they are being slowly withdrawn south of the DMZ to Pyeongtaek.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?

6 thoughts on “Should the US Pull Out of South Korea? (1): Yes

  1. Pingback: Should the US Pull Out of South Korea (2): No « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

  2. First of all, great blog.

    I’ve felt the USA’s presence in Korea these days was less about North Korea moving on the South but more about China moving on North Korea. Imagine a scenario where NK collapses rather quickly. Some NK generals do a Ceausescu and put Kim against a wall and shoot him. China might quickly move into NK’s north to “secure” its border. South Korea is going to move north to help its brothers. China of course could argue its been the North’s protector for so many decades and presses further south, maybe at the invitation of some nominally ruling generals who feel they’ll get retirement villas in China and not a trial in the South. And what happens when China and ROK forces meet? If there are US forces in that mix (medical staff, advisers, etc.), it’s much less likely there’s going to be shooting. To wit, a US presence might stay the Chinese hand.


    • Thanks for the compliment. I appreciate that. I don’t get that too much 🙂

      I think your short scenario basically nails it, and I agree that the likelihood of a coup is higher than we think. NK is becoming increasingly militarized, and when Kim III takes over when Jeong Il finally dies, your scenario will have even greater relevance.


  3. Pingback: What the Yeonpyeong Shelling Taught Us « Asian Security Blog

  4. China will do not nothing, they are realy occupied wanting to be the first economic power, for them N Korea is a bother, The future of Korea is similar of that of Germany, N Korea economy doesn’t support a war at long term with S Korea, with 1,200US$ per capita is weaker than Cuba. Instead South Korea is the 13 power with a bigger army than Japan, France and almost comparable with Russia. South Korea over 27,000US$ is not more the poor country of 1962.


  5. Pingback: What I Learned Teaching IR in Asia (1): Learning to Love US Hegemony | Asian Security Blog

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