Extra! Korea

April 24, 2010

Should America withdraw from Korea?

Filed under: geopolitics, opinion, the future — extrakorea @ 12:26 pm

“Nations have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, but only permanent interests.”

–old British adage

Sorry for the lack of posts. Among other things, I’ve been absorbed by George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, and the following post takes ideas from and is inspired by it.

The blogger One Free Korea has argued that the time has come for American forces to finally, permanently withdraw from South Korea, and the M-hole, ROK Drop, and Monstrous Kushibo have weighed in with opinions from themselves and/or their commenters.

Here’s my take.

If you had told Americans in 1941 that Japan would become one of America’s closest allies, or in 1957 that the Soviet Union would collapse in thirty-four years, they probably would not have believed you. What seems impossible today could be tomorrow’s future. Given that, we can assume that there could be very large, unexpected geopolitical changes, and that it would be foolish to place all of America’s East Asian eggs in one basket, Japan. Here are some possible scenarios, and notice how in many of them, it is to America’s advantage to retain some kind of presence in South Korea.

North Korea survives

Despite the multiple stresses of a failed, unpopular currency reform, the death of Kim Jong-il, and the youth and inexperience of his designated successor, North Korea somehow manages to survive. If Russia becomes resurgent and belligerent (see below), then it could become the recipient of everything that it needs: oil, new military equipment, money, and food. It could go from being a boxed-in basket case to a very real threat to South Korea.

North Korea collapses and is absorbed by China

If South Korea continues to be as ill-prepared for a North Korean collapse as it was during the Noh Moo-hyun administration, then we can expect such a collapse to be followed by Chinese troops entering North Korea. It will be described as a peacekeeping, stabilization force, and it will be. Behind the scenes, however, the Chinese will be supporting whichever faction is friendliest to their interests, setting up North Korea to become, over the long run, a vassal state or even a Chinese province.

North Korea collapses and is absorbed by South Korea

Seeing as how China seems to be prepared for a North Korean collapse, South Korea would have to be at least as well-prepared to pull this off.  In addition to having troop ready to enter the north as peacekeeping/stabilization forces, they would have to somehow, probably through a diplomatic appeal to the international community, persuade the Chinese not to enter, which they probably want to.  Unfortunately, the example of Tibet proves that the Chinese will go where they want and do what they want, and not care what the rest of the world thinks.

North Korea collapses and is absorbed by both China and South Korea

Here is a scenario that no one, as far as I know, is seriously considering. In the same way that Korea was divided in two, so too might North Korea, with China and South Korea then each absorbing one part of the former North Korea. The complete reunification of Germany was made possible by the fact that the force that was holding it back, the Soviet Union, collapsed. Things aren’t so simple in North Korea. The force that is, more than any other, holding back reunification is Kim Jong-il, because that would be the end of his rule. His successor, whether it is his son, or his son’s regent, or the leader of a military coup, would be in the same position. Remember what Milton’s Satan said, “Tis better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

In this scenario, both China and South Korea are well-prepared for a North Korean collapse (or both are poorly prepared). Pyongyang’s centralized control has weakened significantly, and North Korea has essentially turned into many fiefdoms, each ruled by a local lord, an official who has managed to amass personal power and wealth, while ostensibly swearing allegiance to whichever Kim (or Jang or Oh) is in charge.  After North Korea collapses, both Chinese and South Korean peacekeeping/stabilization troops enter.  Each will race to get as far as they can until they meet or almost-meet somewhere in the middle.  Hopefully, this doesn’t inadvertently lead to a shootout.  Then, like Korea itself, North Korea becomes divided.  Since it would be easier for China to justify to the international community the takeover of only part of North Korea, this might actually be the more attractive option to the Chinese, as they retain the buffer zone that they want, and partially pacify the South Koreans with partial reunification.  If China fragments (see below), then that could set the stage for complete reunification later on.

China rises and becomes belligerent

China’s economic and military power continues to grow, and it continues its goal of re-absorbing all territories that it historically claims, be it through peaceful means (Hong Kong and Macau) or conquest (Tibet). It sets its sights on Taiwan. If America refused to abandon its ally, then there could be friction between the superpower and the rising regional power. To be fair, though, China has not historically been aggressive, the notable exception being its near-obsession with securing all territory that it feels belong to it historically.

China fragments

In this scenario, the central government of Beijing increasingly loses the ability to make the wealthy, industrialized coastal regions support, financially, the impoverished heartland. The coastal regions are well-connected to the industrialized countries that they sell to (e.g. Europe and the U.S.). They can no more sell to the rest of China than they could sell to sub-Saharan Africa, and thus try to break free of Beijing’s control.

Russia becomes resurgent and belligerent

The Soviet Union was, for all intents and purposes, a Russian empire, and its borders extended Russia’s borders further west than ever before or since. Since the collapse of the USSR, there has been a great reversal. With Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Kazakhstan independent, Russia’s western borders have retreated dramatically. Russia is rich in oil and gas, commodities that Europe is hungry for. Rich and weak is a bad combination, so it will rebuild its military using the wealth that it has gained from nationalizing its natural resources. It will also seek to regain the important buffer zones that gave it the depth that it used to defeat both Napoleon and Hitler –Belarus, Ukraine, and, if it can manage it, Poland.

In the event that friction with America ensues, Russia will, as it did during the Cold War, fund any anti-American regimes. Should North Korea somehow have avoided collapse and absorption by this point, then it will become the recipient of everything that it needs (oil, new military equipment, money, and food), becoming once again a very real threat to South Korea.

Russia collapses

Nationalizing its natural resources (at the expense of industrialization) to fund the development of its military is a strategy that serves Russia well in the short term, but in the long term, turns out to be short-sighted and leads to another collapse.

With the collapse of Russia, its territories become tempting to its neighbors. China, even if it has avoided fragmentation at this point, cannot take advantage of the situation because of natural geographic features.

Japan needs resources

Japan has always been very resource-poor, which is why it attacked the U.S. in World War II. It still doesn’t have any, and now is facing the additional problems of a low birthrate and an aging population. They could solve the problem by increasing immigration, but they are loathe to do so. Even when they imported ethnic Japanese from Brazil, things didn’t work out as well as they had hoped. They’re now trying to solve the problem with robots (as are the South Koreans), but human workers can still do things that robots can’t.

If China fragments or if Russia collapses, Japan will probably take the opportunities to gain the kind of resources that they need (e.g. gas from Russia or workers from China). Japan will need to safeguard these resources with shipping lanes made secure by a strong navy. America won’t like that. Ruling the world’s oceans with a navy that’s larger than the rest of the world’s navies put together is what enabled America to box in and eventually force the collapse of the mostly landlocked Soviet Union. America does not want anybody, not even a friendly nation such as Japan, to develop a significant navy. Japan will want to secure its sea lanes to the resources that it desperately needs, and will possibly even want to be acknowledged as East Asia’s regional hegemon. If America responds by denying Japan what it wants (as it did during World War II), it could lead to friction between the two, possibly even to war (as it did in World War II). Right now, the Japanese are pacifists, but this is the land of the samurai and of the kamikaze. They have a history, and we can’t expect that they will remain Hello Kitties forever. So, in this case, it would be to America’s advantage to strengthen Korea as a possible counterbalance to Japan.


  1. Nice article. It’s clear you put in a lot of informed thought into it. The “divided North Korea” scenario is one I haven’t thought about very much. I think it would lead to guerrilla warfare in the former DPRK that could be a dangerous destabilizer.

    Anyway, the bring-em-home crowd tends to be people with three things in common: they recognize that South Korea is prosperous and there is peace in Northeast Asia; they fail to see that the US presence is the clear-and-necessary factor in this prolonged period of stability, prosperity, and peace; and they have no imagination for what could likely go wrong in the future.

    I would add that some of them don’t care if things go wrong here, and they typically lack an understanding of how the US would get pulled into it anyway, with the much-touted “savings” all for naught.

    I should note that people like GI Korea at ROK Drop and Joshua Stanton at One Free Korea seem to be making a distinction between pulling out all forces and just pulling out the “troops on the ground” in the form of Army units. I think they envision a significant Air Force presence as being sufficiently necessary to support the alliance and keep other forces at bay. To me, the USAF presence in Osan and Kunsan, as well as the navy facilities at Chinhae, are the bare minimum needed.

    I think the best answer to these criticisms is for (a) South Korea to work to keep its force strong and (b) use some of those forces to help out the US forces in other regions, like the anti-piracy efforts. The ROK owes its existence to US assistance, and that alone is enough for the ROK to become the UK of Asia in the US’s nobler efforts around the world.

    Comment by kushibo — April 24, 2010 @ 6:51 pm

    • The “divided North Korea” scenario is one I haven’t thought about very much. I think it would lead to guerrilla warfare in the former DPRK that could be a dangerous destabilizer.

      It could conceivably lead to terrorists –sorry, insurgents –no wait, freedom fighters– based in South Korea, denounced by the government, but secretly supported by individuals (perhaps a little similar to what exists among Kurds in Turkey).

      Comment by extrakorea — April 26, 2010 @ 12:47 am

      • Guerrilla warfare, with some of it spilling over into population centers in the South, is something I fear in many of the post-DPRK collapse scenarios if they involve China at all.

        Comment by kushibo — April 26, 2010 @ 4:02 am

  2. As I have wrote consistently, I have never supported removing USFK. I have supported removing 2ID and replacing it with units that rotate to the peninsula to train with the ROK Army. The US Marines have been doing this for decades which gives them greater flexibility on how to deploy their forces. Air, naval, RSOI, and other support assets need to stay in place.

    Comment by GI Korea — April 25, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

    • Whooops! How could I have forgotten to link to your post on the topic? OK, it’s now fixed.

      By the way, I didn’t mean to say that you support removing USFK, only that you and your commenters had discussed the subject.

      Comment by extrakorea — April 26, 2010 @ 12:40 am

    • Thanks for explaining that, GI Korea. I think it’s necessary to take the relatively stable presence on the ground and turn it into something useful and practical for US forces in the region, and I think your suggestion about rotating units training with the ROK Army is a good example of that (and, as usual, I have great respect for your insight into how the military works). And a South Korean government that is confident that the US isn’t going anywhere might be more amenable to that idea, instead of it being worried that the US Army won’t be here when they’re needed.

      Comment by kushibo — April 26, 2010 @ 3:59 am

  3. The US could go bankrupt and be unable to sustain the number of forces overseas to include not only Korea, but Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

    Or, Ron Paul gets elected president.

    Comment by wendy — April 26, 2010 @ 5:51 am

  4. […] Here are some various scenarios for the future of US forces in Korea. […]

    Pingback by ROK Drop Weekly Linklets – April 24, 2010 | ROK Drop — April 26, 2010 @ 10:07 am

  5. Except you did not include the other possibilities that are more likely than either China or Russia collapsing:

    1) US economic collapse
    2) Japanese economic collapse

    Could it be your arrogance to even accept these possibilities as possible…

    Comment by Tom — April 26, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    • Why do you say “arrogance”? I simply don’t think that it’s likely. If you disagree, you’re free to take it up with George Friedman.

      Comment by extrakorea — April 29, 2010 @ 12:46 am

  6. Korea has an antiquated army and has reduced it’s ROK Army enlistments to two years. Other branches have also reduced enlistment periods.

    Korea obviously is taking the US military presence for granted. The US units in Korea are still considered tripwires. Why should the US spend more and more money and send it’s citizens into harms way when Koreans aren’t willing to do so?

    It’s been almost 57 years, how long does the US have to keep babysitting Korea. Enough is enough.

    The gyopos who call Korea Motherland can come defend it in the event of war, but I have a feeling that ain’t gonna happen.

    Don’t expect me to “understand” them when it comes to this. If Koreans aren’t willing to spend the money and put in the time to defend their own country, they should not expect Americans or any other foreigners to do the same.

    Comment by JohnT — April 26, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    • I don’t expect you to understand, JohnT, because you clearly don’t want to. When you couch things like two years of compulsory military service for nearly all males as “aren’t willing to … put in the time to defend their own country,” then you clearly can’t understand things.

      When you take one of the highest portions of GDP spent on the military of any of the US’s allies, including Taiwan which is threatened by China, and say that “the Koreans aren’t willing to spend the money… to defend their own country,” then you clearly don’t get it.

      Comment by kushibo — May 18, 2010 @ 12:10 am

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