Phasing Out US Forces in South Korea


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Despite North Korea's missile rattling on the Fourth of July, the United States is moving ahead quietly with plans to reduce American forces in South Korea beyond levels already set.
Today, U.S. forces in Korea number 29,500, of which 15,000 are in the Second Infantry Division and 10,000 in the Seventh Air Force. The rest are in logistics, communications, and intelligence, and small Navy and Marine Corps units. The Pentagon has announced that those forces will be cut to 25,000 by September 2008.
Now under consideration is a further reduction to a small token force or possibly a total withdrawal sometime after 2008. As a senior U.S. military officer, pointing to the U.S. commander in Korea, General B.B. Bell, said: "Bell's mission is to turn out the lights in South Korea."
The reasons for the coming phaseout:
* The U.S. Army and Air Force are stretched thin because of Iraq and Afghanistan. All U.S. forces elsewhere must be prepared to respond to contingencies now unseen. Some U.S. troops from Korea have already served in Iraq and more are likely to deploy there as that conflict goes on.
* The South Koreans are able to defend themselves with minimal help from the U.S. if North Korea attacks. "They are very capable," said Admiral William Fallon, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, "I believe quite capable of providing for the defense of that country."
* Anti-Americanism is rampant in Korea, starting with President Roh Moo Hyun. An expert at the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Larry Niksch, reported last week: "Polls have shown majorities or substantial pluralities of South Koreans in favor of the withdrawal of U.S. forces."
* At the same time, Seoul's posture toward North Korea borders on appeasement, compared with the hard line of the U.S. South Korea is tilting toward China, the potential rival of the U.S. in Asia. And South Koreans are ever more critical of Japan, the foremost ally of the U.S. in Asia.
* With U.S. military spending going through the sky because of Iraq, the $11 billion the U.S. had planned to spend on upgrading bases in Korea could be better spent elsewhere, notably on Guam, the U.S. island territory in the western Pacific that is becoming a vital U.S. military base.
The coming pullout of U.S. troops will be the culmination of a gradual slide that started after the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War. When the shooting stopped 53 years ago this month, the U.S. had 326,800 troops in Korea. By 1960, that had dropped to 55,800. It fell again, to 52,000, when more soldiers were needed in the Vietnam war.
The late President Park Chung Hee said in 1975 that in five years South Korea would no longer need U.S. ground forces to help defend his country. President Jimmy Carter said in 1977 that U.S. ground forces would be withdrawn in five years but ran into so much opposition from the Pentagon, Congress, South Korea, and Japan that he dropped the plan.
Even so, the decline continued. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to bring the force down from 37,500 to 25,000 by the end of 2005 to make more units available for duty elsewhere. He was persuaded by South Korean military leaders, many of whom have been at odds with President Roh, to hold that off until 2008.
Now, a combination of slipping U.S. Army readiness, U.S. distrust of the South Korean government, Korean attempts to veto U.S. deployments from Korea, disagreements over command structure, South Korean restrictions on U.S. training, and arguments over U.S. bases being returned to South Korean control seem to have added impetus to U.S. plans to withdraw.
On readiness, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, wrote President Bush last week lamenting that "Army briefing charts show two-thirds of the brigade combat teams in our operating force are unready." He said the Army's Chief of Staff, General Peter Schoomaker, was dissatisfied with the Army's readiness.
U.S. officials said American misgivings about South Korean political and military leaders had caused the U.S. to stop sharing much intelligence with the South Koreans because they feared it would end up in North Korean hands.
As Niksch of the CRS said in his report, "the Pentagon appears to view South Korea's position on these issues as providing justification for further U.S. troop withdrawals after September, 2008."
In reply to a query, a spokesman for the U.S. headquarters in Seoul said: "No reductions have been announced below 25, 000."