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Realism and Restraint

Should the United States Pull out of South Korea?

Trump and Moon
Donald J. Trump and Republic of South Korea President Moon Jae-in participate in a joint press conference at Blue House Sunday, June 30, 2019 in Seoul.

Is it time for United States to pull out of South Korea?

The case for staying is usually made in absolute terms: the troops there serve an important purpose. That purpose may be to show commitment to an ally, to maintain stability in the region, or even just to act as a tripwire in case of a North Korean invasion. And certainly, America’s 28,000 pairs of boots on the ground in South Korea must do some good — even if it’s just running community centers at local libraries.

But the question we should be asking isn’t “are American troops useful in South Korea?” It’s “is garrison duty in South Korea the best use for 28,000 American troops?” The answer to that second, more focused question is much more likely to be “no.” The great advantage of the American armed forces is that they are mobile, and can quickly be deployed wherever in the world they are most needed. Stationary duties can and should be shouldered by allies, with American forces held in strategic reserve.

The United States Armed Forces have the best intelligence, the best logistics, and the greatest firepower of any military in the world. Most of America’s allies do not maintain the capacity to quickly concentrate forces wherever they may be needed in the world. The United States does. To waste that capacity on static defense, whether in South Korea or in Germany or anywhere else, is … a waste. If South Korea can’t defend itself against a country with one-half of its population and one-fortieth of its economy, it’s not worth defending as an ally.

Of course, South Korea can defend itself, and will, whether or not American forces are stationed there. American forces should continue to rotate through South Korea and train with the South Koreans, just as they do in Poland with the Polish. And just as there is a case for a Fort Trump in Poland, there is a case for a (modest) Camp Humphreys in South Korea. But it should be a small forward deployment, not a major center of military activity.

The major American military presence in the ROK is an after-effect of a war that ended 67 years ago. If there were not a legacy of American troops left over from that conflict, it is inconceivable that the United States would choose to deploy 28,000 troops to South Korea today. The United States Armed Forces are a precious resource that should not be wasted on sentimental attachments. It’s long past time for most of America’s troops in South Korea to be deployed where they would do most good, wherever in the world that may be.

Written By

Salvatore Babones (@sbabones) is “Australia’s globalization expert” and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive.