Korea: The Complications of U.S. Force Restructuring
Apr 11, 2003

Stratfor Intelligence


South Korea and the United States have begun discussing the "realignment" of U.S. forces in Korea, with talks set to last until October. Given the complicated nature of the issue, the talks will cause strains between Washington and Seoul and within each nation. At stake is more than the question of providing a deterrent force to prevent North Korean adventurism, but the very shape of Northeast Asian security and political relations.


South Korean and U.S. officials met April 8 and 9 for the first in a planned series of discussions on the realignment of U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK). The "Future of the ROK-U.S. Alliance Policy Initiative" meeting, convened at South Korea's Ministry of Defense in Seoul, was led by Assistant Defense Minister for Policy Lt. Gen. Cha Young Koo and U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia and the Pacific Richard Lawless. Among other things, the two sides agreed to move the U.S. Yongsan Garrison out of downtown Seoul as soon as possible and to strengthen the defense role of South Korea's armed forces.

Despite the public agreements, the talks have been anything but smooth, since they ultimately will redefine the 50-year alliance between South Korea and the United States. The talks undoubtedly will strain ties between and within the two nations as they seek to balance nationalism, political priorities and defense necessities. In the end, it is more than the disposition of U.S. forces that is being decided, but the very shape of the Northeast Asian political and security spheres.

Talk of reorganizing the USFK has been going on for years, particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union, which brought about the end of the Cold War. The size and composition of U.S. forces in both Korea and Japan was justified to a large degree by the Cold War imperative of having a forward base of operations in the Pacific theater -- keeping troops on the Soviet back doorstep, so to speak. The USFK also served the dual purpose of discouraging another North Korean invasion of the South and being ready should hostilities between the two Koreas actually erupt.

But growing Korean nationalism and the June 2000 inter-Korean summit accelerated calls from within South Korea to reshape the USFK, while in Washington there were discussions on reshaping much of the U.S. military to more effectively cope with changing global security imperatives -- something made all the more pressing by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in Washington and New York. The "Future of the ROK-U.S. Alliance Policy Initiative" talks are now seeking to make these changes a reality.

Within South Korea, there are many seemingly contradictory thoughts concerning U.S. forces. The USFK presence is seen as both deterring North Korea from striking out at South Korea and as interfering with the inter-Korean peace and reconciliation process.

The presence of the Yongsan base in Seoul gives an impression of an occupying foreign force in the capital -- something intensified by the agreement for U.S. forces to take command of South Korean forces in wartime. But the presence of U.S. forces in the capital and to the north, near the DMZ, also reassures the financial community that the United States is truly committed to preserving South Korea's security, thus negating much of the economic impact of having a heavily armed North Korea training its artillery on Seoul.

From the U.S. point of view, the forces deployed on the peninsula serve not only as a deterrent for North Korea, but also provide a frontline deterrent for China. At the same time, with the end of the Cold war, the 36,000 troops there are effectively held hostage -- since they are structured in such a way that they cannot leave Korea for other regional or global contingencies. With Washington seeking to establish a new force structure in Asia -- one that no longer relies on massive pre-positioned forces but rather on highly mobile and flexible forces with access to facilities in several different countries on short notice -- the USFK, and even the forces in Japan, are becoming an anomaly.

Both sides agree there is a need to redefine the U.S.-South Korean alliance and the structure of U.S. forces in Korea, but an agreement on just what that reshaping will look like is not easily achieved.

The key issues for South Korea include the Yongsan base in Seoul, the U.S. command of South Korean troops during a time of war, South Korean defense capabilities and continued U.S. commitment to the nation's defense.

Seoul supports the movement of the Yongsan base out of the capital, since this would both free up valuable land and remove the political impression of the USFK as an occupying force -- something that grates on Korean sensibilities. And Washington already has agreed to move the base as soon as feasible, most likely to Osan. U.S. soldiers will no doubt feel a sense of relief leaving the outdated command at Yongsan, one of the least desired posts for U.S. servicemen.

More complicated, however, is Washington's plan to withdraw all U.S. forces to south of the Han River. The USFK currently has several bases north of the river, making up the so-called "tripwire," a phrase disliked by the U.S. military. From a South Korean perspective, these forces guarantee U.S. support should hostilities break out with North Korea, since American troops would be among the first to take fire. Their withdrawal south of the Han would take them out of range of much of North Korea's frontline artillery, preserving a greater number of U.S. forces for a counterstrike into North Korea if a war breaks out.

But South Korean politicians also are concerned that if U.S. forces pull back, Washington would have a freer hand in dealings with Pyongyang -- allowing it to gamble with the lives of South Koreans should the U.S. negotiation strategy or pressure tactics go bad. Complicating matters, however, is an underlying hope that if U.S. forces did pull back from the front lines, South Korea might be able to negotiate a similar pullback of North Korean forces, reducing the tensions along the border and paving the way for further reconciliation efforts.

Perhaps the most difficult of issues, however, will be the restructuring of the Combined Forces Command (CFC), which gives operational control of the South Korean military to the commanding U.S. general in time of war. Washington has maintained this structure to ensure coordinated control in the event of another Korean War, but also to prevent South Korea from launching its own attack on North Korea. But Seoul increasingly views this structure a violation of its own sovereignty and a hindrance to the development of a truly independent South Korean state.

Neither side sees much room for compromise on this issue at this time. Washington can keep strong influence and control over Seoul's North Korea policy as long as Washington holds the command elements of the South Korean armed forces -- control that Washington views as a positive but which is seen in an increasingly dim light by Seoul. Further, some political and military planners in both Seoul and Washington see the CFC as a deterrent for North Korea, in that Pyongyang knows that any skirmish -- even with only a few South Korean troops -- could quickly escalate into a full war with the United States. By retaining the CFC structure, North Korea cannot pick away at the unity of the alliance.

But beyond the political and security debates in Korea, the reshaping of the USFK could profoundly affect the regional balance of power. The United States has little intention of reducing its air assets in South Korea, but it does want to free these up for broader regional duty. And the ground forces, smaller in number but increasingly mobile, could retain their deterrent and early reaction capabilities while also proving useful for deployments elsewhere in Asia. Meanwhile, any shift in the USFK structure likely will trigger a clamor in Japan for a reassessment of U.S. forces there as well.

Washington and Seoul have set an October deadline to prepare a draft plan for the realignment of the USFK, making the next six months a critical time for relations between the two nations and for the new South Korean government, which must preserve the nation's security and shape the future of relations with the United States while protecting its own interests and pride.

Whatever decisions emerge from the talks, the effects will be felt far beyond the Korean peninsula.