Time for U.S. Forces to Leave South Korea

July 24, 2014

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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

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44 thoughts on “Time for U.S. Forces to Leave South Korea

  1. Needless to say I cannot express my disagreement with this essay strongly enough. I will just make a few brief comments.

    First, US troops are in Korea now not simply because of the Mutual Defense Treaty but because it is in the US interests to contribute to the alliance to deter an attack by north Korea. The author would do well to include an analysis of how US interests would be enhanced by removing US forces from Korea.

    Second, an analysis of north Korean interests and strategy would be useful to understand how the north will react to what is in effect a key strategic objective it has been seeking since the Armistice and that is a split int he ROK/US alliance. Although the author mentions some of the comments and concerns of ROK and US policymakers he does not conduct an analysis of what the north might do and how it will exploit this de facto split in the ROK/US alliance (although he mentions extended deterrence I do not think that will have the same deterrent effect as a combined ROK/US force).

    Third, I am surprised that there is no discussion of the actual command relationship of the ROK/US Combined Forces Command. We should keep in mind that the ROK US Combined Forces Command has no “Title 10” authority over ROK forces. Just as US Title 10 authority is to provide organized, trained, and equipped forces to the ROK/US Combined Forces Command, the ROK JCS has the ROK responsibility to provide organized, trained, and equipped forces to the ROK/US CFC.

    QUOTE 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. END QUOTE

    This is the usual US perspective that illustrates the lack of understanding of the command relationship. The ROK/US Combined Forces Command was established in 1978 by both the ROK and US governments in agreement. The ROK/US/CFC is a completely combined command, with near equal distribution of ROK and US personnel through the entire command (the command. not the subordinate units of course). But the important point is that the ROK/US CFC answers equally to both governments through the Military Committee. The ROK/US CFC is not a US Command (like most press. pundits, and the population in Korea the author makes the same mistake of equating the ROK/US CFC and US Forces Korea which is the Title 10 authority over US military forces in Korea but it has no relationship with the ROK/US CFC except as a force provider – just as the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff is a force provider of ROK forces to the ROK/US CFC when it determines that it is in the ROK interests to commit forces to the command). ROK forces are not under US “OPCON” and as I have said there is no such thing as OPCON transfer – it is a myth – there is only the dissolution of the ROK/US CFC. If we are going to have a discussion of OPCON transfer then all the key elements and relationships and processes and procedures should be discussed and analyzed. This paper falls short of a thorough discussion of command relationships and instead relies on the popular talking points of the press and pundits and those who do not want to remain committed to the alliance (both in the ROK and the US).

    There is much more to say on this but I will have to stop here. The bottom line is I strongly disagree with the author’s proposal.

    1. What exact “US interests” are served by our presence on the Korean peninsula. You criticize the author for not considering them yet you fail to catalogue them yourself. Please elaborate.

      1. The country’s in China and Russia’s backyard. That has always been and always will be the reason why it’s crucial to for the US to maintain a military presence in the peninsula. In fact, that’s the only reason there was a Korean War in the first place.

    2. Colonel Maxwell, it seems to me that the arguments that MAJ Lee is making is valid–from 8 years spent as an intel officer and an FAO. It is true that the ROK military is not pulling its own weight when it comes to budget and C4ISR. Nor are they considering an alternative which guarantees lasting peace on the Korean/Choson peninsula where I worked for ten plus years.

      1. South Korea has an annual defense budget of close of 30 billion, while the North doesn’t even have one billion. Most experts agree that the latter wouldn’t even last a month in an all-out war as they would simply run out of munitions and supplies. Besides certain intelligence capabilities, South Korea does not need the support of the US. The only real threat are the North’s missiles, (a capability that the South does not have due to a non-proliferation agreement with the US, and would be able to develop in a very short amount of time if said restrictions were to be lifted), for which a tripwire is in place as a means of retaliation. In what way are you suggest that South Korea isn’t ‘pulling its weight’?

    3. Everything is a moot point in this article…we are still AT WAR with the North…they are prepped for conflict for taking the south, and we can stay there and deny them the opportunity, or leave and let them run down the peninsula, which is their stated goal…the Chinese will not lift a finger, and to think otherwise is a miscalculation. Our troops there afford the region stability as well. The major is denying history, and he denies the fact that NKSOF still infiltrate the south monthly…we are STILL at war. Read GEN Singlaub’s book where Carter relieved him for the same arguements Carter was making in this article. Forces remained.

      1. Why does nobody mention the simple fact that South Korea is MORE THAN CAPABLE of fending for itself? It has a defense budget thirty times the size of North Korea. The South has a modern Navy and Air Force. The North only has an over-sized Army, which mostly consists of ill-trained, ill-equipped and malnourished personnel that spend most of their time growing crops. Even the capabilities of its ‘largest special ops force in the world’ in largely unknown and highly suspect. The only real threat from the North is a missile strike, something that is apparent by the fact that whenever the South and US conducts exercises in disputed waters, the only course of ‘rebuttal’ for the North is to launch a missile. However, it is highly unlikely that the North would actually utilize this tool in a preemptive manner, as it is not a fugitive state and the location of its leadership is blatantly obvious, as is its actual goal which is self-preservation, not global dominion.

  2. Agree with Mr. Maxwell, this analysis is all about the OPCON issue with scant regard to the larger policy and security issues. What would a ‘Pivot to Asia’ look like with the US pulling out of the ROK? Would that move reassure a Japan and Philippines worried about aggressive Chinese moves? How would these two allies look on an Obama Administration which refuses to get involved with Syria, Ukraine, or Gaza? As for South Korea, why give up an iron-clad guarantee of US commitment to help defend them in the face of a less predictable Kim Jong Un? A withdrawal now may push Park even further into the arms of Xi, as she looks for guarantees against Kim and his missiles. BLUF: using a minor issue (OPCON) to justify a major move (withdrawal) ignores the larger context of the area.

    1. This is a bluff. It stinks. It may even be interpreted by certain adversaries as Obama “lead from behind” or run away strategies which have given green lights to Al Qaeda, Iran, Russia and China whom are all attempting to seize vast amounts of territory. They really believe their own dribble despite the massive losses.

  3. Once again, we have the “Lets go to war” crowd chiming in to eventually ignite a Pacific war…of course they will be safely ensconced at some Washington beltway after hours club, all the while even more of the “Cream of the Crop” of American youth will be wasted once again, thus allowing the rest of the 99.5% of Americans, illegal Aliens, et al to continue to destroy our country. The author is dead on the mark in his assessment of the current situation in S. Korea. The handover will be postponed continuously IOT maintain the status quo there, as it has been on-going for years past. I would take the author’s suggestion even further & re-locate ALL U.S. bases/staging areas out of the First Line of the Pacific AOR island chain (S. Korea, Japan, Philippines) & move back to the second line of islands (NMI/Guam, E. Timor/Indonesia, NZ/Australia, Singapore) or back to HI, AK or other potential locations on U.S. soil. This would not mean giving up our current treaties, etc., but we would maintain an active training/exercise annual schedule with these countries & increase the number of MEUs in both the Pacific & IO.

      1. The major has also written papers on withdrawing from Europe. He is tragically wrong in that paper also.
        Small minded people (even Army Majors) see the US as a country in decline. This is the mindset of someone of a very liberal anti American mindset.
        One of the things a country in decline does is reduce its global footprint and decrease its ability to project power throughout a region. The major reveals his left wing political bent by showing how the money saved could be used to fix problems in the VA instead of putting it into the active Army. The VA is a problem caused by incompetent administrators more interested in lining their pockets that treating our nations vets.

        1. First, thanks for the comment.

          Second, I never wrote a paper demanding a withdrawal from Europe so please get your facts straight. While I have basic knowledge in Europe with US policies, my focus is northeast Asia, so you are tragically wrong there.

          Third, I said with the saved dime we can also prevent the budget cuts (which means helping the ongoing personnel cuts down to 420,000) so it’s actually helping the active duty. And all the current active duty members will eventually be in the VA so it’s actually helping the active duty members.

          Lastly, I am a registered conservative so you are actually tragically wrong on all three of your points.

  4. As a 30 year North Korean intelligence SME for the USMC, I have to agree with Maxwell and disagree with the author. I spent all of February 2014 in Korea participating in a joint exercise with the South Korean’s and I can tell you first hand, they are not ready to “defend themselves.” The North Korean’s have not been deterred by the South Korean military, they have only been deterred by the promise of U.S. involvement if war broke out. Although not preaching “doom and gloom,” any realist who is familiar with the theater should realize that the NKPA has the ability to pick the time and place of their own choice to initiate conflict. The idea of technological superiority leveling the battlefield is simply incorrect on the Korean peninsula. As the NKPA “Red Force” commander during two CAPSTONE events, I ended both events early by decisively winning the conflict early. The exercises were then “reset” because the Blue forces needed more playing time. The Korean peninsula is one of the most difficult areas in the world to fight, especially with the mindset that is prevalent in both the South Korean and U.S. senior military leadership. A strong, vibrant U.S./South Korean military alliance is the only thing keeping the peninsula safe.

    1. “A strong, vibrant U.S./South Korean military alliance is the only thing keeping the peninsula safe.”

      This is clearly in the interests of the South Koreans but is it vital for the U.S.? So what if the Korean peninsula isn’t safe? Are they going to stop selling us Samsung phones or Hyundai cars? No. Furthermore, South Korea is exceptionally mercantilist and benefits from the trade relationship than the U.S. does. South Korean consumers are extremely reluctant to buy U.S. goods even with the lower prices due to the free trade agreement.

      While I was attending the Korean AF Staff College as an exchange student, I often asked my Korean classmates/hosts about how they felt about the U.S. withdrawing from the peninsula. To a person, the first thing they mentioned was that it would cost them too much to replace us-even the pro-U.S. officers said this. Nothing was mentioned of friendship or the alliance, it was simply about the money for them.

      I don’t see the strong downside for the U.S. if something bad happens to South Korea. We’re spending way too much money to defend people that don’t take their own defense seriously enough. If South Korea were to be taken over by North Korea tomorrow, we could buy what we currently buy from them from Japan, Taiwan, China, etc. As for the morality of that, well, we haven’t liberated the multitudes of oppressed people who live in Zimbabwe, Syria, Iran, Cuba, etc.

      This is not to say I don’t like Korea. On the contrary, I speak the language, married a Korean, and love their history, culture, food, geography, etc. However, 60+ years of our sweat and money is enough. Think of all the separated U.S. families caused by the one-year remotes over the past decades while so many Korean youth go to great lengths to avoid military service. The Koreans would balk at spending the money on the facilities necessary for everyone to have an accompanied tour. Proof enough they aren’t worth it.

  5. I would like to see the US forces back in the US. First we need to legalize owning guns in South Korea, not just for hunting. During WWII, Japan wouldn’t invade the US because of us civilians being armed. Same would occur in the Korean peninsula.

    I disagree with MRMcCaffery, Obama wanted to invade Syria, if it wasn’t for Putin and Alternative media proven Obama’s buddies, the rebels were behind the chemical attack we would be at war there.

  6. I definitely agree with the author. It is time to leave South Korea. We have more troops defending Seoul than our own border. Why should we protect them if they are distancing themselves from us? Park obviously wants close ties with Xi Jinping and Xi seems to favor the southern part of the peninsula. Well said.

  7. I think it is time for our men in women to come back home. It’s about time the sons and daughter of South Korea stand up and take responsibility for their own country.

    1. The sons and daughters of South Korea “stand up and take responsibility” for their country every day. Half a million of them make up the South Korean Army, while we have less than 30,000 total troops there.

      They also have compulsory service for all their 18 year old men.

      They’re more than pulling their weight. Our force in Korea has already been significantly reduced. Not sure what you want those 30k troops to do back home, but they’re far more useful protecting our interests in one of the most critical parts of the world, East Asia.

      1. In the decline of the Roman empire they hired out the responsibilities of defending Rome interests to mercenary armies. Our security and strategic interests mandate that we maintain an ability to project power worldwide. The Korean War itself is an example of what happens when a country decimates its military and fails to protect its interests. Ditto WW2. The major and many of the commentators are espousing the same isolationist policies that got us into both wars.

      2. Have you by chance seen a ROK soldier? Meek, timid, staring at his watch waiting for his 24 months to end. They are a week military, yes week because that’s how long they would last if anything ever happened. Scary to think that out 30k over there are worth more than ROKs 500k.

  8. Thanks for the feedback and comments.

    Obviously this is a sensitive issue to many service members, especially to those who served overseas alongside our Korean brethren. I do know of the ‘myth’ and the dissolving of the CFC in case of a “transfer.” But I believe this came to a reality when the entire peninsula and US citizens believe of it’s existence. Moreover, I chose not to discuss it because I wanted to show the ‘bigger’ picture and aimed for audiences that are not military terminology friendly (and the word limitation of this article).

    It goes without saying the most important issue at hand is the construction of a combined command structure. To military members alike, it is widely known that the current ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command is to be dissolved after the “transfer.” To replace it, generals and policymakers from both countries have been considering the following: inheriting part of the core CFC features and establishing a small commanding apparatus in Yongsan and it’s intelligence corps in Pyeongtaek.

    Military experts like COL (R) Maxwell have opposed the CFC dissolution resulting the so-called “mini-CFC” contending that could undermine South Korea’s commanding authority. Moreover, even with the new mini-CFC, Seoul and Washington need to draw up a proper joint operational plans (OPLAN) and procedures to replace existing ones such as OPLAN 5027 and 5029, which were crafted on the premise that the U.S. was to lead wartime operations.

    With that all being said, I believe that even without the Joint CFC, North Korea would likely never utilize its nuclear weapons because Kim Jong-Un and his colleagues recognize that a nuclear war would represent the annihilation of the regime. This outcome is counter to the ultimate goal of Kim family regime and his staff, who want to maintain their supremacy. They will not jeopardize their dictatorship or status by unleashing their nuclear weapons on the world. As previously seen North Korea will undoubtedly, however, continue its provocative rhetoric by conducting another nuclear test or a limited but deadly attack against South Korean interests either on the peninsula or in another country (controlled strikes similar to the November 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong-Do or as with the case of sinking the South Korean Navy’s corvette, Cheonan in 2010.

    In short, I believe the relevance of USFK and the wartime OPCON transfer has lost its meaning and the conventional forces are obsolete in the 21st century.

  9. Chris,

    Thanks for the article. You make valid points, and while I agree that Strategic Alliance 2015 must go forward, unilateral American retrenchment from the peninsula would, at this point, be irresponsible and dangerous. I spent two years in 2nd ID and participated in many combined training events with the ROK Army; they’re certainly a capable force.

    Perhaps a better strategy concerning the DPRK would call for increasing bilateral relations with China. The US and ROK must present to China the best argument possible that reunification on the Korean peninsula under ROK terms is in China’s best interest, (or at least not a threat). Doing so might disincline China from further maintaining the DPRK as a buffer, and even enlist China as a partner to stabilize the country in the event of a collapse.

    I’m encouraged by the recent US-China and ROK-China track 1 dialogues, and hope that China’s realization of a stable, economically viable and unified ROK is the best outcome for China’s strategic interests.

    1. Frank, thanks for the note. I wrote an article a few months back regarding China-nK relations and urging Xi to take action.


      Xi took giant steps towards by officially visiting Park instead of Kim in his recent trip. On top of this, if the US and sK both can convince China, everything might be possible. But I’m not sure if that will ever happen in the upcoming years.

  10. Looking at nK actions from a western perspective is doomed to failure, as They do jot view logic as we do. Withdrawal will be seen as a sign of weakness. Having spent more than a decade in the ROK, deterrance is fostered by a continuing presence. As pointed out in earlier post, nK is immediate concern but long range concerns involve China and Japan. US forces maintain a balance that maintains the peace.

  11. “I can tell you first hand, they are not ready to “’defend themselves.’”

    Holy crikeys. What’s it been, 61 YEARS since the end of the Korean War and our partnership with the ROK and they can’t defend themselves? What does that say about 1) our ability to build partner capacity, 2) the fundamental idea of forward stationing US troops as deterrents and trip wires when a host nation military doesn’t care enough to build their own organic capabilities, or 3) the cost-benefit analysis of forward presence versus strategic attack in order to protect vital national interests?
    If after 60 years the ROK cannot defend themselves then it probably WAY past time to reassess how we secure our regional interests.

    1. You got that right. I believe MG MacDonald once complained aloud that the ROK forces are worse than Iraqi troops because the ROK JCS kept pestering him with phone calls for further instructions when the DPRK rocketed Yonpyong. back in ’11.

  12. The author obviously does not understand the dynamics of Southeast Asian countries and the stability that the US forces stationed in South Korea provides for the entire region. The author needs to read ‘The Grand Chessboard.’ US forces leaving South Korea would throw the entire region into turmoil.

  13. I served in South Korea in 2005. I can tell you that the ROK Forces are quite capable and very ready to defend themselves. Heck, they even had plans to launch an offensive… so this means that they are not only capable of defending – but also capable of attacking.

    Major Lee is correct in his analysis. The United States not only spends billions on defense of this nation (which is a waste), but because our troops are there, we also contribute to millions in their economy each year. Here’s an example. When I was a Captain, I thought I was going to live on base at Yongsan. The housing officials working on base (South Koreans) told me this was not possible, and that off base housing would be provided for me. My off base housing was about $4500 a month in Seoul. I was provided a 4 bedroom highrise apartment overlooking the river in Seoul with an indoor/outdoor glass balcony. I went back to the base to protest and demanded a small barracks room. I had just came in from Iraq and I felt these accommodations were a waste of U.S. taxpayer money. Once again, I was told that I could not live on base since I was an officer – but not at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel or above.

    Therefore, the South Koreans make money off of U.S. taxpayers through a twisted scheme of mafia style economics where we pay them to live in apartments off base. By the way, because of my job (Counterintelligence and Antiterrorism) – I traveled so much on the peninsula that I was only in my apartment about 8 days a month, so I just left the keys to the apartment with the Sergeant Major so that NCOs and Officers visiting Seoul could stay for free without paying to stay at the Dragon Hill Lodge.

    We are also paying Koreans to work on our bases because we don’t have and can’t get enough U.S. civilians to want to live and work in Korea. I can’t blame them. The air quality there is poor, except in the south and in the north.

    Living conditions for our troops in the north are absolutely appalling! I was part of an Antiterrorism / Security Inspection team and I visited a base near the DMZ where Soldiers in a two story barracks only had one working latrine with only one working shower. The place was in need of repair and the NCOs and Soldiers had done all that they could do to keep it working. I askedif they had reported it to the chain of command and they said they had informed their Command Sergeant Major and Colonel. I asked how long it had been this way and they said for about 4 months. I spoke with the Colonel during my exit briefing with him and he said that he thought the problem had been fixed (meaning he never went in to inspect his Soldiers living quarters). I had seen better living conditions in the field and in the desert. So, when I got back, I submitted an anonymous report to the 2 star General in charge of the area – who I used to work for when he was a Colonel… he took care of his troops and within a week he had the South Korean civilian maintenance crews conducting repairs on that entire base.

    The South Koreans have developed an attitude that Americans are there to serve them and cater to them, and in some cases to have our GI’s marry their daughters so that their entire family can benefit from being married to an American – and hopefully solidify that union with the conception of a baby. That alone makes this one of the worst places for young unmarried troops!

    So, we should pull out within a year and simply conduct about joint exercises with the ROK each year in an effort to still show we are committed to fighting with them in the event they face off with North Korea. However, we should quite spending billions on a nation that doesn’t need that big of an umbrella – and put that money back into our own country. Separately, we should also quit paying North Korea the aid we have been providing since the treaty… they have not and do not live up to the treaty, and the treaty was never meant for the U.S. to pay this aid forever. After over 50 years, I think it’s time to put a stop payment on this check and cancel any further transactions to them!

  14. This is the third article in a row that I have read published in this forum – written as a personal expression by an active or activated reserve officer – that makes no sense… This is not a reflection of adaptability; it borders on political pandering and promotes a dangerous idea. It is not the job of the military officer to be concerned with domestic spending issues – that is a congressional problem – if military officers aren’t “telling the story” of how dangerous our world is and how we need to stay engaged “i.e. remain forward deployed” who will? Wanna make sure that you go back to Korea when it’s hot; just tell the world that we need to go home and we’ll deploy from there – the wolves won’t mind. I would speculate that your Columbia professors are very happy with the article.

  15. North Korea is on the ropes. America needs to stay there until North Korea can no longer effect a damaging invasion. With the US out of there, it gives the North an incentive to invade. Result: 61 years of peace down the drain for a short term financial savings.

    1. Agreed eventually the citizens of North Korea will see past the brainwashing and see the reality of what they live in and decide they want to fight to free themselves from the dictatorship they live under.

  16. As a Korean, I’m very grateful for all the support from Americans have given in defending Korea. Until I see a democratic non-totalitarian state in Beijing and Pyongyang, I hope Americans never leave.

  17. Would the editor of this website consider removing “an active duty Major in the U.S. Army” from the byline and instead replace it with “Christopher Lee is a graduate of West Point and a graduate student at Columbia University with eight years experience in Korea. The views expressed are his own.”? Mentioning his military affiliation and active status has led the foreign press to quote his position as an official one. This article is not just analysis. It is political speech. Chris and his editors should not be associating his views with the military in any way. If Chris is writing in an official capacity, then it’s his duty to consult the public affairs guidance on the issue of SA 2015. If he is not, then he should not allow himself to be identified in a byline as an active duty officer.

    1. Max,

      Thanks very much for reading and for commenting.

      It is unfortunate if any media outlets represent the author’s views as an official position, as they do so irresponsibly. The author clearly states that the views expressed are his own, and so long as he does, according to both DoD and Army guidance, he is not prohibited from taking a position on public issues, even if he is identified as an Active Duty servicemember.

      Furthermore, we value the experience of our authors, and seek to maintain maximum transparency regarding that experience. This is why we include biographical information for the author of every piece that we publish. We would like our readers to understand the perspective from which our contributors write, and we could not in good faith remove this key piece of his bio without also doing so for all of our pieces, including a response to this piece by a professor from the Naval War College, whose relationship with the federal government we also make clear.

  18. I find it interesting that the article and very few (or none) of the comments mention the armistice conditions and the role of the United Nations in that agreement. Commander, UNC is also one of the hats worn by General Scap, and the relationship with UN sending states is something that goes beyond the bounds of OPCON control and SA2015. Also, what of our other treaty alliances in the region, specifically that with Japan? Might this be an opportunity to merge our separate bi-lateral agreements with South Korea and Japan into a NE Asian regional “defense” treaty? Certainly worth a thought in our role as intermediary and mutual friend to these two key allies. Lastly, as for strategic interests, anyone who doesn’t think the United States has no vital interests in this region hasn’t been paying very close attention to world events, and our globalized economy. Our interests in this region could be argued as more vital than any in the Middle East. Put that is for the politicians and think tank brains to sort out. Let me get back to my “exercise.”

  19. Interesting dialog here. I see that many argue that we need to keep forces on the Peninsula to counter balance China. For how long? We’re $18 trillion in debt – that’s $100 bills stacked from the Earth past Uranus. The “war” has been ongoing for the past 60 years. The ROK has made massive strategic advantages economically and militarily during this time. These are the folks who brought us Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo and LG. They have a GDP of roughly $1.1T while nK’s is $28B (CIA World factbook) …and we’re talking about a peninsula that’s roughly the size of California – South Korea is roughly 1/3 the size of California. The geography has not changed. So why is it that after 60 years and dynamic prosperity the ROK’s can’t even take lead on defending their own home against a nation whose population is always on the verge of starvation? And maintaining alliances does not NECESSARILY mean that massive amounts of forces need to be in country. We had no forces there in 1950 when the north invaded and the South’s military was significantly outmatched in terms of forces and equipment. Yet the US still quickly made short work out of the nK forces that had boxed in the Pusan perimeter once we got there. We could do the exact some thing again, especially considering the ROK’s current capabilities – at a fraction of the cost of stationing 28k troops in the south indefinitely. We should at least consider the opportunity costs of our current strategy. The US is not in decline but we do need to get our fiscal house in order, especially our debt – we spend approx. $220B of tax revenues annually (approx. 6% of the budget) just paying interest on that debt. That’s more than four times what we spend on education or national intelligence. A few years ago one recently retired CJCS named Mullen named our debt as the biggest threat to national security. And if this really is about China and strategic advantage, well they’re deficit spending is about half of ours in terms of GDP and last year they had a trade surplus of $259B while the US had a trade deficit of $486B. Perhaps its time for a Pacific Pivot to be balanced with a Pivot to the Pocketbook and a regional alignment that leverages a more off-shore approach that includes more investments in naval, cyber and stratlift capabilities.

  20. First. I’m a Korean American. My family immigrated to the USA when I was six years old. I attended the US Naval Academy. I am extremely proud of my heritage as well as my service to the US Military.

    Now these are just my views and opinions. You can throw around all the metrics and statistics of WHY and HOW S. Korea SHOULD be able to defend itself without the assistance of western powers. However, I believe the S. Korean CULTURE needs to change first. My perception is that S. Koreans view military service as a burden. When I was stationed at Yongsan military base I had the opportunity to interact with military personnel throughout the country amongst the different branches of the Korean Military…senior level down to enlisted. I found those military personnel WHO choose the military as a career to be highly competent. HOWEVER, I found the vast majority of those conscripted / forced into military service to be mentally ill equipped to go into battle if necessary. Many of these conscripts are JUST PUTTING IN THEIR TIME. Many in S. Korea claim to have high Nationalistic Pride. I always wondered what would happen to the military forces if conscription was abolished. The opinion amongst many Koreans is that the VAST Majority would not enlist. For those of you who remember the Baseball Exemption Bowl..

    How absolutely stunning. Do these baseball players realize that their home country borders a country run by a fanatical dictator… a nuclear equipped dictatorship. Well of course they know. But they prefer not have to fight for their freedom….

  21. US Forces are 4 USAF Squadrons and equivilent to one Division of Infantry..that is less forces than USA/USAF defending the Phillippines in 1941! Yess Korea is America’s TAR Baby…too few forces to defend the South Korea,,and too far from the US to have the time to send more….But HOW CAN THE US Do those things if we are streched out in EUROPE, The Middle East and Afghanastan..?

  22. South Korea continually improves it’s ability to defend itself in the event of an attack from North Korea. In 1950, North Korea had the Soviet Union and “Red” China providing aid. Today, China will help defend North Korea, but they won’t support North Korea invading the South. Russia is struggling on several fronts and isn’t happy about another nuclear power on the border.

    The US could remove some troops from South Korea without putting the country in jeopardy. By taking a step backward, it puts pressure on the North to cut back on it’s military. The US troops in South Korea are there to maintain peace and deter an attack by North Korea. Spying on China and Russia should be left to the CIA.

  23. I think they should become the Great Korean Republic.South Korea is so weak and North Korea is pretty strong and it would save us a bunch of money. They need to do it already.

  24. Very interesting article missing is the multiple financial pork barrels that would disappear from small businesses in SK to the powerful mic with there greedy tentacles that have the US Taxpayer by the balls for decades — and the sheepish US people in a vice grip of exaggerated fear