Japan's Security Needs U.S. Troops in S. Korea

Visiting Scholar, RIETI

Currently, the U.S. forces in South Korea (USFK) consist primarily of ground troops from the U.S. Army and aircraft from the U.S. Air Force. Recently, the United States has undertaken moves to relocate some of its ground forces farther from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the peninsula. This decision is motivated by tactical and operational considerations, not by strategic factors. However, there were good political reasons to keep at least a symbolic U.S. military presence between Seoul and the DMZ, which is a matter of strategic importance. But of much greater importance for Japan is the recent announcement that the United States plans to permanently cut a large proportion of the U.S. Army presence in South Korea. Concept of transformation.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is committed to "transformation," a concept developed prior to his appointment but which he has embraced. While ill-defined, transformation is based on the notion that high-speed networks can link aircraft-carrying precision weapons (e.g., cruise missiles or GPS-guided bombs) to highly mobile infantry units and special forces teams. Transformation advocates argue that the United States can, to a considerable extent, do away with heavy armor, artillery, and mechanized infantry units which require large numbers of soldiers.

Until the decision to intervene in Afghanistan and Iraq, Rumsfeld was reliably reported to want to cut the U.S. Army to eight divisions (from the current 10). But the U.S. Marine Corps, which has few heavy units, has remained at a 3-division strength. The transformation in most likelihood will continue even if Rumsfeld loses his position as a result of the exposure of the torture of Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody.

Transformation proponents also point out that the North Korean conventional threat has declined due to equipment obsolescence, lack of training, and the pathetic physical condition of the soldiers. However, they also note that the Pyongyang regime has invested heavily in nuclear weapons and missiles. As a result, some believe U.S. forces in South Korea should be transformed to match this changing threat.

Furthermore, the U.S. Army is stretched to the breaking point. New commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan combined with older ones in Europe and South Korea-using forces about half the size of those under former President Ronald Reagan-have resulted in widespread manpower shortages. The Stryker brigade, based in the United States but intended for emergency deployment to South Korea, has already been deployed to Iraq. Several thousand U.S. soldiers are scheduled to deploy from South Korea to Iraq next month.

In addition, more Americans sense increased South Korean hostility to U.S. forces. Consider the demonstrations that followed the accidental deaths of two Korean schoolgirls caused by a U.S. Army vehicle. At about the same time, encounters with North Korean vessels resulted in the deaths of several South Korean sailors. There were, however, no anti-North Korea parades in South Korea.

South Korean animosity toward President George W. Bush is not equivalent to anti-Americanism. But the fact remains that many Americans doubt the strength of the U.S.-South Korean relationship at present. Some think that reducing the U.S. military presence on the peninsula will lessen tensions between Seoul and Washington.

Though it is possible that these moves will be reversed, as things change right now the United States is poised to permanently downgrade its presence on the Korean Peninsula.

If these changes do take place, they will have a dramatic impact on Japan.

The Seoul-Washington military relationship is a critical element of the ties that bind South Korea to the United States. A decline in the U.S. presence on the peninsula will weaken the alliance between Seoul and Washington. The militaries of the two countries will stop enjoying the close relationship that a large U.S. presence creates and South Koreans will doubt the credibility of the American commitment.

The U.S. ability to influence South Korea will decline while the South Korean capacity to make itself heard in Washington will also diminish. American deterrence will also decline.

A North Korean attack is unlikely but one must be ready for low-probability events. North Korea will interpret the U.S. move as a sign that the United States does not care about North Korea. Moreover, as events in Iraq have demonstrated, heavy ground forces are still very relevant to fighting a war. A USFK shorn of most of its army forces will be less potent.

It is, of course, possible that North Korea will collapse. If North Korea does disappear, it will create a major vacuum in Northeast Asia which South Korea alone will not be able to fill. Seoul will need massive foreign financial assistance to deal with unification. It will also require political support. In this context, a large U.S. military presence in the country will be the best symbol of this support and of the commitment of the United States and its allies to the stability of the peninsula.

All of these developments will have negative consequences for Japan. Although Tokyo contributes to South Korean stability through non-military means by maintaining the Self-Defense Forces and hosting U.S. troops in Japan, it relies to a considerable extent on the United States to maintain military stability in South Korea.

Japan's interests go beyond just preventing North Korea from attacking. They include keeping South Korea within the U.S.-Japan orbit-as a partner, not satellite-and insuring that when unification takes place, the entire peninsula remains aligned with Japan and the United States.

How can Japan deal with this possible threat to Japanese interests?

American policy-makers should realize how important the U.S. ground presence in South Korea is to Japan. The current administration has not been responsive to the needs of its allies, but this may change as the failure of the invasion of Iraq becomes more obvious. Convince policymakers

Moreover, the deployment of U.S. forces in South Korea is not an immediate issue. It is one that will develop over years, probably into the next administration, and Japan's government and politicians can start a discussion on this issue not only with the highest levels of the U.S. government but also with senators, congressmen, congressional staffers, and military analysts, who play a role in formulating policy.

In doing so, they should aim to convince American policy-makers that it is essential for security in Asia-a region that generates over $7 trillion a year in combined GDPs and whose trade and investment enriches the United States-that the United States maintain a large presence on the Korean Peninsula.

* The article was reprinted from International Herald Tribune / The Asahi Shimbun on July 12, 2004. No reproduction or republication without written permission of the author and The Asahi Shimbun.

July 12, 2004 International Herald Tribune / The Asahi Shimbun

July 16, 2004

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