Time for U.S. Forces to Leave South Korea


American foreign policy towards the Republic of Korea (hereafter, South Korea) has focused on a substantial amount of military and economic support and is primarily based on the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Republic of Korea (1953). The mutual defense treaty continues to be the cornerstone of the security relationship between the two, which guarantees peace and stability by extended deterrence—28,500 United States Forces Korea (USFK) troops on ground and the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

The combined threats of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and conventional forces, as well as the specter of the collapse of the Kim Jong-Un family regime, compel the United States government to continue its strong military defense of, and economic devotion to, South Korea. The need to protect South Korea against its neighbor to the north also drives—in part—America’s ongoing “rebalance” or “pivot” towards Asia.

President Barack Obama recently reaffirmed America’s dedication to Seoul and the mutual defense treaty during his official visit to South Korea in April 2014. During that visit, the president promoted his “pivot” and pledged a continuing U.S. commitment to a strong alliance with South Korea. Obama reminded South Korean President Park Geun-hye that recent developments in North Korea, such as significant increased activity at Punggye-ri nuclear test site coupled with multiple long-range missile tests, beckoned for fiercer efforts toward denuclearization.

Although the mutual defense treaty has secured the alliance for nearly six decades, transformations from both sides in the last decade suggest that a fundamental change is overdue. Based on new fiscal realities and Seoul’s proven ability to defend its national borders, the U.S. government should immediately conduct the transfer of the wartime operational control (OPCON) to South Korea. The country’s robust military force and its ongoing procurement of advanced military systems, combined with its first-rate economy, afford South Korea the ability to defend itself from most aggressors without substantial involvement of American conventional forces. The OPCON transfer would not change the security guarantee of extended deterrence under the United States’ nuclear umbrella. In addition to the transfer, President Obama should turn away from his status quo approach and implement a new security alliance toward South Korea—one that strongly cultivates an autonomous military without extended assistance from the United States.

Dating back to the Korean War, South Korean forces were under heavy scrutiny and control of the United Nations Command (UNC). U.S. forces played a significant role in establishing a democracy in South Korea. Even today, following this paradigm, U.S. troops and conventional weapons retain extensive control of Seoul. While continuously being forward-deployed to South Korea, U.S. forces also created the Combined Forces Command (CFC), led by an American four-star general. Under the current agreement, South Korean forces would be under this four-star’s command, and he would take the wartime OPCON and oversee the battlefield if a shooting war (presumably with North Korea) emerges. General Curtis Scaparrotti is the current commander of UNC/CFC/USFK and responsible for seamlessly leading, organizing, training, and equipping all forces on the peninsula under Title 10 authority.

Despite the substantial number of forward-deployed U.S. personnel in South Korea, both sides have been gradually working toward giving full autonomy to the South Korean military. In 1994, for the first time in nearly four decades, U.S. forces transferred the peacetime OPCON to South Korea. The next and final step in achieving full autonomy for the South Korean military is to solely take over the wartime OPCON. Nonetheless, there has been much controversy over the necessity and practicality of such a step. Scaparrotti, who endorses a cautious 2015 transfer of power, stressed to the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the South will have to meet a variety of benchmarks before any OPCON transfer can go through; it is important to note that the transition is conditions-driven.”

Many policymakers from both sides, including U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and South Korean National Security Adviser Kim Kwan-Jin, extrapolate that the OPCON transfer is unrealistic. Given the continued threat South Korea faces from nuclear North Korea, the argument goes, the handover should not be considered because there has been growing anxiety over Seoul’s independent exercise of its military operational control. Due to a series of pressing issues, from political predicament to national tragedy, Park’s national security team has not been able to sufficiently prepare to retake the OPCON in December 2015. Moreover, CFC would be dissolved after the transfer and many military experts contend that “it could send the wrong signal to a provocative North Korea.”

And if Capitol Hill is concerned, South Korean officials are outright anxious. They worry that decreasing America’s position in its defense could “embolden North Korea.” South Korea’s then-Defense Minister Kim Kwan-Jin also challenged the establishment of an OPCON transfer date in October 2013:

Considering North Korea in the next two to five years and the security situations on the Korean Peninsula, I thought it will be inappropriate to change the command structure as scheduled.

Likewise, American officials recognize the delicacy of the transfer and its immediate effect on America’s own well-being. According to Obama,

Some of the missile technology being developed, the nuclear weapons being developed when matched up with a thoroughly irresponsible foreign policy and the provocative approach by the North Korean regime, poses a threat to the United States.

All factors considered, it has been extremely difficult to agree on a synchronized and seamless transition.

The transfer of the wartime OPCON was initially proposed in January 2003 by then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, just after a left-wing Roh Moo-Hyun ascended to the presidential office on an anti-American platform. Rumsfeld was fighting the Global War on Terror and required resources elsewhere. He said that USFK were too fixed to the peninsula. Rumsfeld immediately “authorized a realignment program to reduce and relocate U.S. forces” and began further talks of the handover.

Rumsfeld found a willing ally in a progressive Roh, who was ambivalent about the future of the U.S.-South Korea alliance and was willing to commit to a wartime OPCON transfer. From 2003 to 2007, the demands of the Iraq War altered the security posture in the ROK, and the deployment of the 2nd Brigade from Korea to Iraq began a major effort to realign USFK forces south of Seoul. In 2007, Roh submitted a proposal that demanded the OPCON handover occur instantaneously. Although many Korean conservatives saw the decision as “controversial” and a “weakening” of the U.S. defense commitment, both sides agreed to conduct the handover on April 17, 2012. However, a series of North Korea’s provocative rhetoric in 2010 and concerns about the adequacy of South Korean forces delayed the OPCON. Seven years and another postponement after Roh’s proposal, the transfer still has not been executed.

US Forces in South Korea
Click for a timeline of the U.S./ROK relationship

The Park administration has maintained the traditional South Korean stance of postponing the transfer dates, which was hinted at during meetings to further delay from 2015 to 2017. Park’s Vice Minister of National Defense, Baek Seung-Joo, argued in May 2014 that “before OPCON can be transferred, South Korea must upgrade its ‘kill chain’ ability to hit North Korean [all] missiles on their launch pads.” Arguments and excuses such as these serve as prime examples of why a mutually agreed upon OPCON transfer date will seemingly be forever mired in political and military quagmire.

Having served three years in USFK and partaken in multiple policymaking briefs, I understand the fragility of this transfer and its constant delays. Recently, both countries agreed to resolve the timing of and preset conditions for the wartime OPCON transfer by this October. However, fellow service members are similarly pessimistic and anticipate yet another delay in agenda, purportedly to create just cause to leave behind a considerable fighting U.S. force in South Korea.

However, since the signing of the treaty back in 1953, South Korea has gone from a poor authoritarian state to one of the world’s wealthiest nations. A 21st century South Korea has a “market economy that ranks 15th in the world by nominal GDP and 12th by purchasing power parity.” South Korea’s overall military strength ranks ninth in the world and it also possesses a vast body of military machinery, including 2,346 tanks and 1,393 aircrafts. According to Yonhap News, South Korea spends a “yearly average of $38.52 billion on defense.” Certainly, the South Korean government views the defense of its national borders as a top priority.

Based on the sheer size of their military forces and the stability of their economy, South Koreans can evidently defend themselves autonomously from potential conventional attack on its peninsula, so why do Koreans continue to doubt their capability and postpone the transfer? There are two ways of viewing the issue: on one hand, the transfer can be seen as a testament to a more capable and stronger South, which is ready to defend itself; on the other hand, the transfer can be interpreted as a sign of abandonment by South Korea’s biggest supporter. A senior U.S. military officer presently stationed in South Korea noted that Seoul’s reluctance to establish an official OPCON date could be explained by its wishes to “hedge against its powerful neighbors, namely, Japan and China.” The officer contended that “the role of OPCON is to keep the Americans in, the North Koreans out, the Japanese down, and the Chinese cautious.” Supporting this officer’s assertion is the awareness that South Korean military officials persistently hold SECRET/NOFORN meetings regarding OPCON and refuse to share information with Americans because they have their own agendas.

Still, the ultimate gains of the OPCON transfer outweigh most contentions that the handover to a supposedly ill-prepared South Korea is dangerous. First, as evidenced by the minimal financial support it provides to offset the cost of stationing U.S. forces in the peninsula, South Korea has done more damage than good to the U.S. According to the Senate Armed Services Committee report, U.S. military non-personnel costs in South Korea totaled about $1.1 billion in 2012, while Korean payments totaled $765 million. Simply put, South Korean payments have not kept pace with rising U.S. costs.

Second, Obama can redeploy most, if not all, of the 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea and utilize the conserved budgetary allocations to mend domestic delinquencies, such as the beleaguered veterans affairs administration and the continued automatic spending cuts. If Obama redeployed the troops presently stationed in the peninsula, the U.S. could save an estimated $100 million per month excluding the cost of two annual exercises, deployment of thousands of reservists from mainland, mandatory maintenance and service of weapons systems. This projected figure was calculated based on 28,500 service members’ allotted overseas finances (Overseas Housing Allowance, Hazardous Duty Pay, Cost of Living Allowance, and Assignment Incentive Pay) in South Korea.

Third, South Korea is capable of defending itself, as evidenced by its considerable military manpower and budget. South Korea has increased its maximum range of ballistic missiles from 300km to 800km and increased the payload limit from 500 kg to 1,000kg. South Korea also purchased $540 million worth of U.S. weapons systems in 2011, and recently reported that for their next main fighter aircraft they will purchase the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Lastly, as proven by the manifold postponements, the South Korean government will continue to delay the transfer, which will result in a never-ending journey, if Washington does not force Seoul’s hand on this issue.

I advocate the establishment of a firm transfer date. Obama must take a resolved stand on this matter and press Park to select an exact date to take the reins of her country’s own defense. It is time for the U.S. to end its status quo policy and force the handover. U.S. conventional forces no longer hold the same tactical value as they did during the Cold War, and America’s fragile economy cannot continue to withstand the financial drain. South Korean policymakers’ claim that American forces on the ground serve as a valuable geopolitical asset is obsolete; rather, America’s continued presence in South Korea is nothing more than a drain on U.S. taxpayers and a waste of valuable resources.

For the last six decades, the U.S. and South Korea have built an inseparable alliance and have ensured a peaceful, secure, and prosperous environment for the peninsula, with the exception of provocative, yet controlled, strikes from North Korea. South Korea’s pledge to democracy and a market economy have afforded the country the luxury of stable economic dominance. Along the same lines, its affluence has helped to maintain a robust defense posture, which supports both nations’ security interests. South Korea is a proven ally that can defend its homeland. Even without conventional force, the extended deterrence of U.S. nuclear umbrella reinforces the assurance of stout defense against North Korea. Hence, there is no reason for U.S. troops to be stationed in South Korea.

The security alliance between the two countries has widened to incorporate political, economic, and social cooperation. However, the alliance should now adapt to changes in the 21st century security environment, considering the U.S. government’s budget constraints and South Korea’s questionable commitment. An enduring and capable U.S. military presence on the peninsula cannot stop a sporadic nuclear launch by North Korea nor can it guarantee the sojourn of provocative controlled strikes. While the treaty will remain the foundation of the U.S.–South Korea security relationship, the transfer and redeployment of the U.S. troops will not jeopardize the enriched partnership both countries have built for the past 60 years. If South Korea is attacked, along with U.S. nuclear capabilities, American forces based in the region can deploy to the peninsula within a day.

President Obama is wasting time and valuable resources by assisting an economically and militarily robust ally that will continue to delay the OPCON transfer and most certainly never agree to allow USFK to leave the peninsula. Billions are being spent by Washington to protect our South Korean ally, both conventionally as well as with extended nuclear deterrence. The ground force has lost its significance and there is a better and less expensive way to provide security and continue to deepen strong bilateral relations. In order to do so, President Obama should immediately conduct the handover and redeploy USFK troops to American soil.


Christopher Lee is an active duty Major in the U.S. Army.  A graduate of West Point, he has served for eight years as an intelligence officer.  He is currently a Foreign Area Officer for the Northeast Asia region and a graduate student at Columbia University.  The views expressed are his own and not those of the United States Army or the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: UNC – CFC – USFK