Misunderstandings About the Relocation of U.S. Bases in Korea

Kongdan Oh
Kongdan Oh Former Brookings Expert, Asian Specialist - Institute for Defense Analysis

June 21, 2003

According to an old Chinese saying, fish smell after three days, and house guests are unwelcome after three days. The US-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty was signed on October 1, 1953. For the last fifty years, the US Forces in Korea have been welcomed as guardians of peace on the Korean peninsula, although the presence of thousands of foreign soldiers living among Koreans has also caused a measure of conflict and ill will. Have these troops outlived their welcome?

On this the fiftieth anniversary of the US-ROK security alliance, the US defense department has announced that the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, positioned along the DMZ, will be moved south to the other side of Seoul, and a consolidation of operations throughout Korea will result in the closing of a number of U.S. bases throughout Korea. Many of those Koreans who had been vociferously demanding the complete withdrawal of US forces from Korea have now made an about face and are claiming that this relocation from the DMZ is Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s way of punishing Koreans for their ingratitude.

It is time to correct some misunderstandings. As an employee of Washington’s Institute for Defense Analyses, a not-for-profit, private organization, I am neither a US government official nor a spokesperson for the Department of Defense. However, as part of my job, I follow Korean security issues, and being close to the nation’s policy making center, I think I have a clearer understanding of these issues than do many people who live outside of Washington. I want to share my understanding with Koreans.

One erroneous idea Koreans should rid themselves of is that their anti-American sentiments and activism brought about this relocation policy. My suggestion: Don’t take this personally; this is business—a very serious business. Of course Americans don’t enjoy being the target of anti-American demonstrations. However, as a military and economic superpower that has taken on global responsibilities, the US has become used to anti-American sentiment as a normal human reaction to superior power. Even though anti-Americanism in Korea angers many Americans, the US is not naive enough to make an important policy decision on the basis of the mercurial opinions of a segment of the Korean population, even a large segment. The US decision was made in light of the national interests—as they are understood in Washington—of both the US and our important ally, Korea. The announcement of the relocation decision may indeed be faulted for its inopportune timing, but not for its substance. As you know, according to the old Korean saying, if a pear drops from the tree when a blackbird flies overhead, the blackbird is blamed.

A second wrong idea held by some Koreans is that the transfer of the 2nd Infantry Division away from the DMZ is in preparation for a US surgical strike on North Korea, the idea being to get these soldiers out of harm’s way in case the North Koreans counterattack across the DMZ. This is a clever idea, but it is contradicted by other information. The US is criticized for sending its troops abroad to fight in other countries, surely a demonstration that the US military has confidence in its fighting ability. Besides, North Korean artillery can hit Seoul, including the US embassy, American businesses, and the thousands of American citizens living in Seoul. Are we leaving these targets undefended? The fact is, with its evolving long-distance maneuverability and firepower, the US is confident that it can deter North Korea without standing on the DMZ.

A third idea that should be dispelled is that the relocation signals a decline in the US will to protect Korea. Some Koreans believe that first the US will reduce its presence, and then ditch the Koreans for good. Now, if you were to ask me, “do most Americans genuinely respect and love Korea,” I must honestly answer, “perhaps not” or even “probably not,” but they don’t spend much time thinking about Korea. In fact, most Americans are quite ignorant of Korea, certainly more ignorant than most Koreans are about Americans. Among policy makers, the North Korean nuclear threat has been receiving considerable thought; apart from that, however, Korea is not one of the major world powers that the United States must keep its eye on. But more to the point, respect and love are not the determining issues in bilateral security relations, which instead are based largely on Realpolitik. The US recognizes the geopolitical value of the Korean peninsula, and one of America’s primary interests is to support and propagate throughout the world the democratic and market values that Koreans have so strongly embraced. It is these geopolitical considerations and shared values that are important for the US national interest. In short, the US has good reason to nurture a long-lasting, mutually advantageous relationship with Korea, not desert Korea.

US force relocations and reductions in Korea are an evitable part of a much broader transformation of the American military posture, a transformation made necessary by changes in the international environment and improvements in military technology. The US has been closely examining the impact of this transformation for some time, although many Koreans—and for that matter, many Americans outside of Washington—are not aware of the military changes taking place. Nonetheless, the changes are real, and they are deep.

What Koreans need to do is formulate new strategies to adapt themselves to these inevitable adjustments in US military policy, rather than to react to them emotionally. The US military knows it must change to meet new challenges in the 21st century. The US Army has to become more mobile and flexible, and US Special Forces need to be expanded to cope with unconventional military threats. The roles of the Air Force and Navy must also change. To compliment these changes, the Korean military must continue to improve its command, control, computer, and intelligence (C4I) capabilities, and strengthen its technical capabilities. If Korea responds to the US military transformation with its own transformation, Korea will strengthen its defense posture, promote its national interests, and gain greater respect from the US and its regional neighbors.