Why a Korean Pullout is a Really Bad Idea


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