Sensible Plan for South Korea

Even those who admire U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rarely consider his diplomatic skills among his strongest suits. Capable of being charming and engaging in person, he tends to come across less well when sniping at allies across oceans over the chief foreign policy issues of the day. As such, it was surprising when the Bush administration let him run its study on overseas military basing almost single-handedly, without the significant involvement of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s State Department or the National Security Council. Not only was Rumsfeld’s Pentagon naturally in charge of the military aspects of the review, it was also given a dominant voice in its broader strategic aspects and diplomatic implementation.

This strange decision led to some big problems with a few key allies in the aftermath of the debate about whether to go to war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein last winter. Since Rumsfeld’s review reportedly proposed cutting forces in Germany and radically reshaping the U.S. presence in South Korea—two countries that opposed U.S. policy on Iraq and had problems with the Bush administration more broadly—few believed it any coincidence that Rumsfeld singled out these countries for major changes. The plan looked to many like punishment, pure and simple.

In South Korea in particular, it also looked like preparation for a possible application of Bush’s preemption doctrine. The basic idea was to reposition American forces further south on the Peninsula—where, some noted, they would not be within easy range of North Korean artillery that might be used to retaliate for any U.S. preemptive attack on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Moreover, the policy was made by a man who did not make his first trip to Seoul during his tenure as secretary of defense until November 2003, and who has been widely suspected of harboring a preference for a much more aggressive approach toward North Korea than his own president has adopted.

That said, the perception that Rumsfeld’s basing review is designed to punish Seoul is almost certainly wrong. His proposed plan for relocating U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula is sound and should be implemented.

The 37,000 American troops in Korea are stationed in many different places, but their main strength can be thought of as being concentrated in five main locations. First is the military headquarters in Seoul. Two air force bases, in Kunsan and Osan, are both located south of Seoul and provide the initial tactical jet and support aircraft capabilities for any war. Finally, two main concentrations of army forces are on the Peninsula, one centered largely around Camp Humphries south of Seoul and the other in and around Camps Casey and Red Cloud north of Seoul near the demilitarized zone. As best one can tell from the public discussion, Rumsfeld’s plan would affect the first and last of these concentrations. He would move the main American military headquarters out of Seoul, and would relocate those U.S. forces up near the DMZ to points south of the capital.

Both of these ideas are eminently logical. Moving American headquarters out of Seoul, one of the densest cities in East Asia with overcrowding and terrible traffic and sky-high property prices, is overdue. South Koreans should be given back their much-needed land, the sooner the better. Rumsfeld is often excoriated for his mistreatment of allies, but on this issue at least he deserves the year’s philanthropy award for thoughtfulness toward others.

Focusing on military issues, South Korea’s army could fend off an attempted invasion by North Korea largely on its own today, with the support of American and South Korean air power. Should North Korea attempt such an attack, however, Washington and Seoul would surely not be content just to fight back to the DMZ; they would seek to solve the problem, and end the carnage, with a campaign designed to coerce Pyongyang’s unconditional surrender and the reunification of the Peninsula.

To do that, they would need to execute a counteroffensive, which would be best organized and begun well outside of artillery range of North Korean guns. Hence the desirability of having those U.S. forces that would help form the nucleus for the counteroffensive operation stationed south of Seoul before any war began.

The allies have the luxury of such a policy today. In years past only a large U.S. troop presence and the deterrent value of U.S. nuclear weapons could forestall another North Korean invasion. But in recent decades, South Korea’s economy and then its armed forces have caught up with those of the North. Today its military is still smaller than North Korea’s by about 40 percent, but its budget is about 3 to 4 times larger and its equipment and training are far more sophisticated.

Excellent allied reconnaissance capabilities would spot any attack very early on; fortified defenses would offer protection against artillery and even chemical weapons; air power would be of extreme benefit to the United States and South Korea as well. Any North Korean invasion attempt would thus resemble, in all likelihood, an offensive on the western front in World War I much more than a successful blitzkrieg in World War II.

To be sure, Rumsfeld’s plan would also move American forces out of harm’s way if the Bush administration wanted to apply its preemption doctrine to Northeast Asia. But with tens of thousands of American civilians in Seoul, and a strong ally squarely in North Korean cross-hairs, it is implausible that the Bush administration would see the redeployment of 15,000 or so military personnel as a means of giving the U.S. impunity to carry out such a strike.

This is the right plan. It may have the wrong messenger. But thankfully, Rumsfeld has just gone to the region. Thankfully as well, word on the street is that the Bush administration is also now giving the State Department a greater role in this debate. Those two developments, and some further attentiveness to regional allies, could finally make this policy the overall strategic and diplomatic success that on the merits it should be.