On Monday, North Korea and South Korea reopened an emergency hotline connecting the two countries that had laid dormant for nearly 14 months. Coming on the 68th anniversary of the armistice that ended open hostilities between the Koreas, the episode was another reminder of the South’s complicated relationship with the North and decades-long partnership with the United States, which has militarily backed Seoul and kept troops stationed in the South since the armistice was signed.
Today, however, those troops are no longer needed to keep South Korea safe. Moreover, withdrawing the more than 28,000 U.S. troops stationed there could relieve North Korea of one of its primary external threats and thereby push it toward better relations with Seoul and even Washington. Correspondingly, the United States should call home its troops from South Korea.
Those accustomed to hearing of the “indispensable” U.S.-South Korea alliance may bristle at this suggestion. After all, the United States originally stationed troops in South Korea to protect it from its stronger northern neighbor. But much has changed in the past seven decades. A generation after South Korea’s economy skyrocketed and North Korea’s Stalinist economy led to a massive famine in the country, the North’s economy is, by some estimates, less than two percent the size of the South’s.
Add to this Seoul’s high levels of military spending and investment in advanced defense and deterrence capabilities — including systems to intercept North Korean missiles and a plan to strike North Korean leadership — and there is no question: Seoul is already able to defend itself from North Korea or could easily make it so within a few years. (Of course, Seoul does not make a show of this. It is nice to have the world’s biggest military on call.)
However, South Korea’s ability to defend itself alone is only half the reasoning behind a U.S. troop withdrawal. The other reason is that doing so could reduce the risk of war in Korea — a war that could imperil global trade and push Pyongyang to target Americans with nuclear weapons. North Korea, which technically remains at war with the United States, has long pushed for an end to the U.S. military presence in South Korea. By satisfying this demand, Washington could allow Pyongyang to take real steps toward normalized relations and even long-term peace with South Korea and the United States, removing threats to U.S. safety and prosperity.
But how can Washington be confident that satisfying North Korea’s demands will not simply end in disappointment, as so many past diplomatic initiatives with Pyongyang have? The answer is simple: U.S. troops really do threaten the North. On top of the great military imbalance between a powerful U.S.-South Korea alliance and a relatively weak North Korea, large-scale U.S.-South Korea military exercises — often close to the North Korean border and in reaction to North Korean nuclear weapons progress — have made it easy for the North to dream up nightmare scenarios. Such exercises are ostensibly defensive, but Pyongyang naturally sees two countries with which it is still at war rehearsing for invasion.
Pyongyang’s claims that U.S. troops are preparing to “invade” North Korea and “dominate the whole of Korea” may be a little less reasonable if there was no evidence to back them up. But since North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was exposed in the early 1990s, U.S. officials have threatened and contemplated strikes against its nuclear facilities. This is maximally provocative, of course, since Pyongyang views its nuclear weapons as an insurance policy against a more powerful Washington (which has aggressively enforced its nonproliferation regime against Iraq and Libya in the past). With U.S. troops gone from the peninsula, however, U.S. claims that North Korea should not fear invasion would become far more credible.
This is why gradually withdrawing troops under certain conditions — as opposed to just dropping the U.S. demand that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons (which it has had for 15 years now) or repealing related United Nations sanctions — is needed for a real try at peace. All the talk in the world is unlikely to convince Pyongyang that the United States is not a threat. As long as U.S. troops remain in South Korea, all the North will see is a much bigger enemy with its fist cocked back, ready to strike. Without U.S. troops and their military exercises, though, that enemy becomes far more distant; threats from the United States (real or imagined) will lose their teeth, and diplomacy can move along.
Is any of this guaranteed to work? The past three decades of U.S. policy toward North Korea should caution anyone against optimism. But the status quo can certainly be improved upon. Washington would be wise to prioritize better relations on the peninsula and pursue long-term peace. Withdrawing U.S. troops can help get us there at little cost to a now self-sufficient South Korea. What are we waiting for?