Why a Korean Pullout is a Really Bad Idea

July 31, 2014

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In a recent article for War on the Rocks, U.S. Army Major Christopher Lee recommended that President Obama pull troops – immediately – from South Korea. Lee based his argument mostly on cost, noting that South Korea was now a wealthy country with an advanced military that should assume the burden of its own security. At the operational level, there might be a case for improved savings. As a strategic matter, however, it is a seriously flawed proposal.

First, let’s dispense with the argument of cost. Lee rightly notes that the non-personnel costs of the U.S. presence in South Korea run over a billion dollars a year, with the Republic of Korea contribution lagging behind at about $765 million. Not to put too fine a point on this, but: so what? America’s Korea commitment is hardly a budget-buster. (The United States is a country that spends nearly $60 billion a year on pets.) Moreover, Lee’s recommendation does not take into account how budgets are actually passed: he notes that the President “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 [VA] and the continued automatic spending cuts.”

Well, in theory the President could try and do that, but that’s not how it works. Money in the budget is simply not that fungible. Savings in one place – say the Department of Defense – cannot usually be earmarked for use in another – say the Department of Veterans Affairs. Otherwise, Congress would be trading off pieces of departments in order to plug holes in other departments all day. It’s not impossible, it’s just unlikely; the VA, the DoD, and the general deficit do not all exchange funds across budget lines at will.

But let’s agree that no one wants to waste any taxpayer money. Thus, the more important question is whether a force on the Korean peninsula is worth even one dollar; Lee thinks not, and it is here that he avoids far more important problems than cost.

Lee sidesteps the fact that our ally, South Korea, is technically still at war. We have a truce, not a peace, with North Korea. That may not matter much to us, but it matters to Koreans, North and South. Had Pyongyang undergone regime change of some sort a few decades ago and finally dispensed with the bizarre Kim dynasty, or had not successfully tested three nuclear weapons since 2006, we might be having a different conversation. In some better world, I would agree that we could ramp down our Korean presence. We just don’t happen to be living in that world.

Because he’s looking at this as an operational and budgetary problem, Lee seems less concerned about deterrence and resolve than I am. He argues that the South Koreans are capable of defeating the North if attacked. That might be true, but where deterrence is concerned, it is also irrelevant. The issue isn’t whether the South can win: it’s making sure that the South doesn’t have to fight the North in the first place.

This is where the argument becomes even more convoluted: once U.S. conventional forces are gone, Lee offloads any further burden of deterrence onto the U.S. nuclear guarantee: “The OPCON transfer would not change the security guarantee of extended deterrence under the United States’ nuclear umbrella.” In this concept, apparently, the South is protected not only by its own top-notch military, but by a promise on the part of the United States to start using nuclear weapons in Asia even if there has not been a single American casualty and even if North Korea does not use nuclear weapons in an attack on the South.

Here, Lee wishes away the deterrence problem by presenting nuclear weapons as a kind of dummy variable that puts the deterrence equation right should the U.S. conventional withdrawal throw it out of balance. The United States, however, removed nuclear arms from the Peninsula over two decades ago – and has since politely refused any further discussion about returning them there. Yet Lee’s strategy essentially amounts to saying: “We’re leaving, immediately and much to the chagrin of our ally, but everyone be warned: we have nuclear weapons.”

This is merely an updated version of the Eisenhower-era strategy (such that it was) of “Massive Retaliation,” and it is based on the same idea: to save the cost of expensive conventional forces by replacing them with vague nuclear threats. Massive Retaliation was a poor substitute for a strategy even in its day. It was more an act of desperation than any kind of actual deterrent, an obvious attempt to rely on a U.S.-based nuclear crutch rather than a sturdier force in Europe. It was unworkable and dangerous, and it was soon junked.

Speaking of history, perhaps we ought to think about the historical record before simply pulling out of Korea. Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung approached Soviet leader Josef Stalin repeatedly after World War II to seek permission for an invasion of the South. Stalin, fearing a greater war, refused him, and later only relented when the eldest Kim pointed out that the Americans, by treaty, had finally quit the Peninsula in 1949 and returned home. This, for both Stalin and Kim, was an indication that an invasion would not provoke a U.S. response. This was a terrible miscalculation, and it was grounded in a U.S. troop withdrawal.

The North Koreans, particularly the old marshals of the Korean military for whom the Korean War is still a sacred memory, would no doubt love to see a replay of 1949, and would consider it a great victory. They would be able to gloat that they had achieved what even their big brothers in China had been unable to do for over 60 years: a Korea whose soil is completely untainted by American boots. Moreover, removing American troops from Korea will signal to the Chinese that we want no further U.S. presence in their region, and remove one more complication in any Chinese strategy of expansion or intimidation.

In sum, a pullout would raise North Korea’s stature, reduce China’s dwindling influence over its client, and leave Pyongyang – in its own eyes – a peer to Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo. How is any of this a good idea?

Lee’s proposal also takes place in a vacuum, as though nothing else is happening in the world. By focusing on costs and planning in one part of the map, Lee treats foreign policy as a menu from which one may pick and choose options at will, rather than as a coherent whole. American credibility is under attack on all fronts: Russia, Syria, and Iran are but three places where perceptions of resolve matter. (Or would have mattered, had we cared enough to insist on being more proactive two or three years ago.) What message would it send, as Ukraine is being dismembered and NATO struggles with its responses, if the United States leaves behind an ally still in a state of war?

If the only goal is to move 28,000 U.S. troops around a map and save some money, Major Lee’s withdrawal looks like a terrific idea. Again, however, this is operational myopia: it may well be that on the gaming table, the South can defeat the North without U.S. help, but this is not about operations, it is about strategy. Specifically, it is about politics, including trying to shape the enemy’s perceptions and willingness to engage in risk. The regime in Pyongyang is the same one that attacked in 1950, and is still at war with one of our closest allies. The consequences of yet one more American disengagement, after a string of foreign policy disasters, might well end up costing far more than any budget-conscious planner could envision.

It’s possible that U.S. strategy is outdated and overstates the risk from North Korea. It’s also possible that much of Pyongyang’s rhetoric is meaningless, or a blustery show meant for domestic consumption. Considering, however, that just yesterday a top North Korean military official threatened a nuclear strike on the White House, it might be a bit too early to be so complacent, especially with U.S. foreign policy in so many difficult binds across the globe.


Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. His most recent book is No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (University of Pennsylvania, 2014). The views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter: @TheWarRoom_Tom.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

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12 thoughts on “Why a Korean Pullout is a Really Bad Idea

  1. Major Lee is correct and the author missed the key point that the cost to benefit value of a massive U.S. presence is limited.

    Worse, the military argument for forward deploying troops, aircraft, and ships is a fantastic way to lose them to a surprise attack. We live in a world of ballistic missiles and satellites – NK certainly has the ability.

    Finally, personnel costs are everything! The economic drain of 30,000 troops is something that any state or local politician would beat their mother for 30,000 jobs in their state or home town.


    1. @GAB

      You commit the same mistake as Major Lee in your analysis. You do not account for the political and strategic situation which are of the utmost importance.

      Forward deployment is about resolve and quick response. Sure there are risks but risks also apply to the North Koreans too. If the North Koreans can lob missiles, the US and South Korea can do it better.

      Whatever moves a player makes, there is a cost and that applies to everyone whether the US, South Korea or North Korea. This is the mistake that a lot of people think, as if America’s enemies have a free roll of the dice.

      Now some would argue that America is not doing enough in terms of responses in foreign crises. My question is that do you know EVERY counter-move America is making? How can one be sure in their judgement when they don’t have all the information?

      The costs of not allowing the DoD to consolidate facilities or truncate weapons programs are more costly than personnel.

      1. “If the North Koreans can lob missiles, the US and South Korea can do it better.”

        This is utter rubbish – our track record on surprise attacks is abysmal, and putting airfields with range of tactical artillery systems, as we have done in Korea, is lunacy.

        The North Koreans are not deterred by forces that they can destroy within 5-minutes of starting a war. And five-minutes is all the NK will need to hose down Osan and Kunsan airfields with missiles.

        The political deterrence value of 30,000 troops and hundreds of billions of dollars of equipment could be served with at most one thousand troops.


        1. GAB quite thinking linearly on this subject.

          The point of troops in South Korea isn’t to stop an invasion if the North Koreans decide to attack. The point is for them to:

          A. slow down the North Korean attack until reinforcements from outside South Korea arrive, namely from Japan, Guam, Hawaii, and for naval vessels to come into the theater operations. thus most of the forces allocated for combat operations in Korea are actually NOT in Korea. thus your whole point of forward loss of equipment and troops is minimal.

          B. the primary reason US troops are in South Korea is that if they should die in large number is now becomes political impossible on the domestic scene for any US president to not act to help South Korea. So to sum it up in realist, callous, non political correct way: they are there to die.

          The deterrence aspect is predicated on point B. If you remove US troops from Korea, then all you have is the word of the United States to say it will honor its treaty.

          Keep in mind Ukraine made an agreement (not treaty) that the US would keep its territorial integrity if it gave up its nuclear weapons. A treaty is more credible than an agreement, but if political situation is right a sitting US President may decide to not help South Korea for domestic political decisions or even short term budgetary concerns.

          As for budget issues. The current American foreign policy is primarily based upon international trade once you strip it down to the bones.

          south korea is the 15th largest economy in the world. south korea is the United States’ 6th largest trading partner for over 100 billion in trade, with a 20 billion trade surplus in the United States favor.

          You think it is a good idea to let such a valuable economic entity go without some firm US support?

          The size of the People’s republic of China’s share of South Korean trade is increasing. Pull out firm commitments and no doubt they cozy up more to mainland china for their own security and economic security.

  2. The author also adopts a rigid strategic perspective that ignores cross-cutting interests of the different players involved.

    Arguably, the only reason there is still a North Korea today is because the Chinese prop them up. Instead of stopping there and assuming the Chinese are nefarious, the author should perhaps consider the threat that US forces deployed on mainland Asia poses to Chinese strategic planners. He should consider that perhaps the only reason why China is not openly collaborating with South Korea to bring down an annoying monarchical regime is because of their reluctance to help American troops entrench themselves on the Yalu.

    28000 US troops are deterring North Korea sure, but who else and what else are they deterring, and is all of that also in the US interest?

    Interesting how the North Korea file gets lumped into the China containment file, despite the overwhelmingly obvious truth that without China on board, the North Korean problem is not going to be resolved. The same reason why China fought on the side of the North before still exists, and rather than insisting on the Chinese to throw away their reason and strategy maybe we should explore the possibility that convergent interests are more valuable than US prestige.

    1. Do you think it is in China’s best interest to have a democratic unified Korea right next to them? A unified Korea might not be overtly against them but they will be great regional rivals to China.

      You cannot be sure that a unified Korea will allow US troops to stationed near the Yalu river. Even America might not want it.

      Another reason that China still allows the Kim regime to rule is that they divide America’s attention and resources in East Asia.

      The Chinese do not want the worst scenario in where there is a unified Korea which most likely will be democratic and American forces that have their eyes focused only on China.

    2. Chinese military planners love North Korea. It is an awesome way for there to be a giant sucking sound for US troops and equipment if they ever seriously decide to go for Taiwan or South china Sea. Even if Korean activities do not go open hostilities it is something the US must pay attention to and devout enough resources in reserve for.

  3. The Major’s essay is certainly well within his core competencies and well thought out WITHIN those bounds.
    In general Majors are EXCELLENT tacticians, though there are fewer who are excellent strategists and long term geopoliticians, which is a GOOD THING.
    His job is to take his boss’s requirements, and form an action plan which delivers the desired result
    The geopolitical issues tend not to be in his area of purview.
    Perhaps it is time for a stint at the War College where young officers have their awarenesses expanded to the next level? Where excellent tacticians become competent proto-strategists, where they acquire the tools to make themselves into good strategists.

    1. CR,

      Where are the great U.S. strategists?

      The national debt is 17.6 Trillion, debt is at 104% of GDP – we’re broke!

      All these fantasies of grand strategy are worth the value of the greenback in five years – nada!


      1. GAB,
        I applaud your concern for government spending and fiscal responsibility, but I’m afraid your unrelenting support for these subjects have put blinders over your eyes my friend.
        While I’m sure Major Lee has the best of intentions and his recommendations would save US dollars in the short term, when it comes to foreign policy you have to look one level (or several) above that and think strategically, as Professor Nicholas states. I would argue that pulling out of S Korea in the long term would actually cost us more than keeping out troops deployed there as there is no way any US president would allow an aggressive and repressive communist nation to invade its democratic neighbor. Especially on the Korean peninsula where we’re the ones who devised the treaty and drew the border.
        The argument for saving dollars and cents is one that is black/white to its supporters. You have to look at the bigger picture and to the future to know that basing troop movements and our military footprint abroad on how much $$ we could save if we brought all of our troops home is simply a failure to accept the world we live in and the responsibility we have as world leaders.