It’s time to reconsider U.S. military ties with South Korea

Biden administration officials headed to Seoul in late May to discuss a path toward a new “Special Measures Agreement” (SMA) that will define the parameters of U.S.-South Korea military cooperation for years to come.

The conversations, the US embassy said, “underscore the enduring vitality of the US-ROK alliance, which remains the linchpin of peace, security and prosperity for Northeast Asia, the broader Indo-Pacific and beyond.” The South Koreans have a more practical goal of containing costs, taking “the position that our defense burdens will be distributed at a reasonable level to ensure the conditions for the stable deployment of” US troops.

The U.S. presidential election is still more than five months away, but officials in Washington and their foreign friends are already preparing for former President Donald Trump’s possible victory. Their goal is to capture the amount of “America Last” policies that Trump is likely to challenge.

So it is with those committed to the American alliance with the Republic of Korea. The policies and rhetoric of then-President Trump causes a lot of misery in Seoul and resulted at an impasse above sharing costs. South Korean officials welcomed the return of the status quo after Trump’s defeat, with the Biden administration allowing the ROK’s cheap ride to continue.

However, South Korea now faces the possibility of Trump’s return. At best, it would mean a repeat of his insistence that South Koreans pay more to protect America. At worst, this would mean a withdrawal of American troops. The result was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in both capitals.

In response, the Biden administration has accelerated negotiations on the next SMA. The new agreement will not enter into force until 2026, but would be binding for the new government. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed to have disinterested motives, but it’s hard to ignore that closing the deal before the next President’s inauguration would deprive Trump of the opportunity to set policy.

It’s no surprise that the conversations took place went well, as both parties have an incentive to be ready before the campaign heats up. Today, South Koreans pay about $1.2 billion annually to guarantee the U.S. military presence. The two governments are likely to implement a small increase in the ROK payment.

Some proponents of an alliance argue that Washingtongets a good deal. For example, that of Troy University Dan Pinkston cited “The amount Korea contributes by paying for all the electricity the US forces use here, the land used for military exercises, the salaries of civilian workers at the bases and so on.” As a result, Pinkston claimed “it is actually cheaper for the US to have these troops stationed here in Korea than to send them back to the US.”

Pinkston also pointed out “the intangibles at the core of the alliance that the US benefited from, such as Korea’s support in cyber warfare, anti-piracy operations around the world, counter-terrorism campaigns, support for Washington in the UN and others.”

In reality, the arrangement is a good deal for South Korea anyway. In exchange for a billion dollars and change – 90% of which is spent in the ROK — Seoul is guaranteed that the world’s superpower will use military force, including nuclear weapons, to protect it from all enemies.

South Korean payments are not a contribution to the US, which maintains its garrison for the benefit of the South. U.S. forces act as a tripwire to ensure that political leaders in Washington have no practical choice but to wage war for the ROK regardless of U.S. interests. The troops serve no other effective role, especially in the confrontation with China, the most obvious East Asian challenge to American influence.

Furthermore, contrary to Pinkston’s view, South Korea does not provide a cheap location for U.S. military personnel. The force structure does not exist in isolation, but is based on security obligations. If Washington cuts its aid to Seoul, it should eliminate corresponding units, personnel and hardware rather than relocate them.

The alliance as such also offers no additional benefits for the Americans. Washington defends the ROK; Seoul is not defending the US. Moreover, Washington and Seoul can work together on other issues of mutual interest even without a U.S. security guarantee.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration appears determined to avoid any debate over Washington’s involvement in South Korea. However, Trump could thwart this expensive collaboration by going beyond host country support and rethinking the U.S. troop presence altogether.

There are a number of good reasons to consider such a move. First, the costs and risks of the alliance are growing. The Korean War was terrible, but American liability was limited to the battlefield. Washington fought fiercely without endangering the homeland.

That would no longer be the case today. In recent years, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea hoped that its conventional threat against Seoul, which is uncomfortably close to the border, would provide sufficient deterrent to allied military action, including preemptive U.S. strikes. Now Pyongang has a nuclear arsenal that is expanding and a missile force that is expanding in range. The Asan Institute and Rand Corporation warned about thisIn a few years, “North Korea could have 200 nuclear weapons and several dozen intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and hundreds of theater missiles for delivering the nuclear weapons.”

While a preemptive strike from the DPRK would be suicidal, Pyongyang is likely more interested in deterring U.S. involvement in a Korean conflict. If war broke out, would an American president be willing to risk one or more American cities in defense of the South? Should an American president does that?

Such a conflict would be a human tragedy. The ROK is a valuable friend and the ties between the American and South Korean people – family, cultural, economic and more – are strong. Nevertheless, such interests do not justify risking America’s survival.

In reality, the South is capable of defending itself. Trump asked sensibly: “It’s a very prosperous country, so why wouldn’t they want to pay?” In 1953, South Korea was an economic wreck; the population was impoverished and politics was authoritarian. Without American support, the North’s Kim Il-Sung would likely have absorbed the South. However, the ROK soon began to race past the DPRK economically. Twenty years later, Seoul embraced democracy, and now the country has achieved a major international presence.

Although the ROK military lags behind the country’s resources, the force is capable. A US military official travels to the ROK described his army “as one of the best in the world.”

“From someone who has worked with many different countries, I put them at the top of their capabilities,” the official said — not as “an absolute replacement for a U.S. capability, but combined it is very strong.” And that’s without trying to replace the American armed forces. (Ironically, some South Koreans are more concerned about losing American money than troops, for fear of fewer sales and jobs.)

The prospect of an American withdrawal is not without concerns. A transfer of defense responsibility increases the possibility that South Korea could seek nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the North. This idea terrifies the usual suspects and has led US policymakers to desperately try to convince the South Koreans that US “extended deterrence” remains strong.

This was reflected in last year’s figures so-called Washington Declaration, which assumed that Washington would continue to risk the destruction of American cities and the slaughter of the American people to protect the South. Even if South Koreans believe Americans would do that, why would we? A ROK bomb may not be a good solution, but it could be to be the best between several bad options.

The SMA negotiations are of little importance compared to such issues. Why would Washington risk the future of its people to protect a nation capable of conducting its own defense, regardless of the price the latter is willing to pay? American personnel should not be rented out to even the best of friends, especially if the US does no vital interests are at stake.

Instead of arguing over host country payments, the two governments should reform the relationship and limit America’s role. The current treaty must become a blueprint for mutual cooperation. Next, the presence of U.S. forces should be phased out, ending host country support after the withdrawal is complete.

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