Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the proposed removal of 12,500 U.S. troops from South Korea — a third of the 37,500 U.S. troops stationed there now — is part of a larger-scale realignment of U.S. forces around the world. Large numbers of troops in Germany, Japan and Korea are, essentially, a remnant of the Cold War.
“Future dangers will less likely be from battles between great powers and more likely from enemies that work in small cells that are fluid and strike without warning anywhere, anytime,” Rumsfeld told a security conference in Singapore last weekend.
All that is true, but it doesn’t necessarily explain why the deployment in Korea should be reduced by a third at this time (the reduction is expected to be completed by late 2005). The explanations tell us something about the evolving relationship between North and South Korea, and perhaps give an indication of how the U.S. should play this one.
Chalmers Johnson, University of California-San Diego professor emeritus, head of the Japan Policy Research Institute and one of nation’s leading academic experts on east Asia, said the move is more focused.
“First of all, they want to punish South Korea,” Johnson said, “and second, the way things are going in Iraq, they need the troops there.” The Pentagon had already announced 3,600 troops now in Korea will be redeployed to Iraq.
But why should the United States want to punish South Korea, a close ally and military protectorate since the 1950-53 Korean War?
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has been for more South Korean independence and less reliance on the United States and has intensified efforts to find a new relationship with North Korea.
Last Saturday, North and South Korea announced they will open their first cross-border road and rail links by October and South Korean interests will finance a new industrial park in Ceasing, six miles north of the demilitarized zone.
So South Korea is handling the North on its own and not bothering to consult the United States, which, whatever Rumsfeld might say about moving beyond, does seem locked into Cold War mode when it comes to North Korea.
“You can talk about Old Europe,” Johnson said, “but the United States’ vision still embraces Old East Asia. Things are changing in ways we have barely begun to recognize.”
North Korea knows it has to rejoin the world economically and politically. China, its only friend, keeps reminding it.
South Korea is ready to negotiate on a new, less confrontational relationship, but sees the United States as almost an impediment to its plans.
The situation is complicated by the possibility that the North might have a nuclear weapon and remains insular and suspicious.
The best course for the United States would be to let North Korea’s neighbors handle that still-nasty regime.
Pulling out troops should be part of a longer-term strategy of political and military disengagement, while encouraging more trade, that assures North Korea the United States will not attack and puts the neighbors on notice that the United States won’t come to their aid if they fail to control North Korea.