Foreign Policy

Bring the Troops Home from Korea

Despite Kim Jong Un's bluster, his regime is only a threat to the U.S. to the extent that we've put ourselves in harm's way.

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"Welcome to This Week—on the edge!"– ABC's George Stephanopolous practically lunged through my TV screen Sunday morning.

He cut to a clip of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warning of a "real and clear danger" from North Korea, and returned with "is their puzzling young leader spoiling for war? Can President Obama do anything to stop him?"

Then I picked up the Washington Post Outlook section and read "South Korea has already won." Max Fisher reports that amid the hermit kingdom's threat to launch a "do-or-die final battle" with the U.S. and South Korea, young South Koreans are more concerned with reality shows, pop girl groups, and "bourgeois lifestyle commentary," including a "month-old debate on regional differences on how to eat sweet and sour pork."

What gives? Is North Korea a threat or not? It's easy to get confused. But despite Kim Jong Un's bluster, the regime is only a threat to the U.S. to the extent that we've put ourselves in harm's way.

After six decades of U.S. forces serving as a "tripwire" designed to deter the DPRK, it's past time to start bringing our 28,500 troops home.

Two weeks ago, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea published photos of its pudgy young dictator approving a "U.S. Mainland Strike Plan" whose targets included Washington, D.C., San Diego, and, bizarrely, Austin, Texas.

"Thanks, Kim Jong Un, for helping to keep Austin weird," said the editor of the Austin Business Journal. We "need to treat it as a very real threat," insisted Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Easy, cowboy. Victor Cha, holder of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, explains that the "No-Dong missile system" (really) "can reach U.S. troops in Korea and Japan" but "the DPRK does not currently possess a deployed missile system that can reach the United States."

Nor does the regime have miniaturized nukes required to arm its missiles.

On Fox News last week, John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador turned professional uber-hawk, told Greta Van Susteren, "the solution lies in eliminating the regime, which we could try and do through reunifying the peninsula." After his role in the Iraq debacle, Bolton should really try to think these things through.

In a recent article in the Journal of International Security, "The Collapse of North Korea," two defense analysts estimate that 260,000 to 400,000 ground force personnel would be needed—based on "optimistic assumptions."

They write "even in the relatively benign scenario that we describe, the requirements for stabilizing a collapsed North Korea would outpace the combined U.S. troop commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan."

Let's try not to be around for that.

I don't begrudge South Korean youth their sense of normalcy, except to the extent that its underwritten by American soldiers and the U.S. taxpayer. The Republic of Korea's military is slated to shrink below the level needed to deal even with a "rosy scenario" regime collapse, and despite its crazy neighbor to the north, South Korea spends a smaller portion of its gross domestic product on defense than we do (2.6 percent to our 4.7).

The good news is, as my colleague Doug Bandow explains, "the Republic of Korea has 40 times the GDP and twice the population of the North"—it has "both the means and incentive to handle the DPRK"—if we'll only take them off the dole.

The joint U.S.-ROK approach toward the DPRK's erratic behavior has been described as "strategic patience." Given the costs of confrontation, that's a sound strategy. But we can be just as patient from home.

This article originally appeared in The Washington Examiner.

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  1. the “No-Dong missile system” (really) “can reach U.S. troops in Korea and Japan” but “the DPRK does not currently possess a deployed missile system that can reach the United States.”

    So what they’re saying is the No-Dong is impotent…

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  2. “South Korea has already won.” Max Fisher reports that amid the hermit kingdom’s threat to launch a “do-or-die final battle” with the U.S. and South Korea, young South Koreans are more concerned with reality shows, pop girl groups, and “bourgeois lifestyle commentary,” including a “month-old debate on regional differences on how to eat sweet and sour pork.”

    This is just a guess, but I’m thinking all of this is done at the expense of the 28,500 American troops.

    No-Dong missile system

    Best. name. ever.

    On Fox News last week, John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador turned professional uber-hawk, told Greta Van Susteren, “the solution lies in eliminating the regime, which we could try and do through reunifying the peninsula.”

    Wow! Shocking!

    1. “Unfortunately, these parents and these poor children, these innocent ones, will now be in a country where there are no laws, there is no redress, and that has been a refuge for fugitives and wanted criminals for many years,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R- Florida, told CNN.

      What. the. fuck? I had no idea that Cuba was an anarchist paradise.

  3. North Korea goes kablooey and they’ll lash out at the south and at Japan. Then China gets all pissed, and they get involved, and soon you have a massive mess in the western pacific and stock markets crash and everything goes to shit.

    You want that in exchange for bringing home an Army division and a few air wings?

    1. Don’t breathe too hard you guys, or the whole house of cards will fall over.

    2. In North Korea is really insane enough to do that, they’ll do it whether or not 30,000 Americans are in the peninsula

    3. Yes, I think people here forget that unless you bring something to the table, you won’t have much clout in any decisions made.

      If the North Korean regime began to topple, and China sent in troops to act as “peacekeepers” but the South viewed that as an invasion by China and had their forces move northwards…

      We’d like to have say in that decision. Remove all the troops = less say so.

      It still might be worth it, because frankly that’s a hard decision to make, and maybe it better to leave those decisions to the locals, so they can’t blame us.

      Hmmm, I argued myself out of my own argument!

      1. “We’d like to have say in that decision”

        Who is we?

        1. The United States.

          1. Who do you think commands those South Korean troops? South Koreans? No. It’s USA.

          2. You mean the United States government.

      2. None of our business.

  4. The collapse of North Korea is inevitable. Either from internal strife or war. I think it’s one of only a few places where I believe we should have troops. It is an evil place. One of the last bastions of total oppression. If fighting that isn’t worth fighting for, I don’t know what is.

    1. Freedom for North Korea is worth fighting for. Thing is, it’s not America’s fight.

    2. Also, once the collapse happens, and the world sees into the death camps, mass starvation, and mass suffering, the world will look around and say ‘How did we let this happen?’ I think fighting the Kims is the party there is one of the only good fights in my lifetime. (Fighting through international pressure, awareness, etc, not combat, unless attacked.)

      1. Not the job of the US government

        1. The reason we have troops in South Korea is because the US government left South Korea off a map of where we would defend in the first place. This is why the North Koreans decided to attack in the first place.

          But right now, the South doesn’t need our help, true.

          1. If there is not a legitimate security threat to the American people, the US government has no business intervening. Even if North Korea were able to conquer the South (which they can’t today), how exactly is the US at risk? I could see why we may need to intervene if say, Canada or Mexico were invaded by an aggressive country, but South Korea?

            1. The global economy means Korea is a vital enough interest. Korea is not Syria.

              We also currently have treaty obligations to Korea. You would need to remove that obligation before you could withdraw and claim “no business intervening.”

              Then South Korea would build their own nuclear weapons. You would have nuclear armed sides with only, say one minute, of warning to use or lose their nukes. Does that sound good to you? This is why the US convinced Taiwan and ROK to stop their nuclear programs in the 80’s.

              Personally, I would love a world where we were like Canada and could just ignore everything. We are not quite there yet, though.

              Regarding “threats” its is all debatable. If Canada was invaded by France would that even be a threat? We have nukes after all.

              1. “The global economy means Korea is a vital enough interest.”

                I didn’t say vital interest. I said security threat. The only legitimate function of government is to protect its citizens. It has no right to take my money because they deem something to be in the “vital interest” of the entire country.

              2. “We also currently have treaty obligations to Korea. You would need to remove that obligation before you could withdraw and claim “no business intervening.””

                Treaty obligations do not supersede the immoral act of forcibly taxing the populace that is necessary to fulfill those obligations. But they should be removed.

                “Then South Korea would build their own nuclear weapons. You would have nuclear armed sides with only, say one minute, of warning to use or lose their nukes. Does that sound good to you? This is why the US convinced Taiwan and ROK to stop their nuclear programs in the 80’s.”

                The USG has no right to be world policeman at the expense of the citizens of the country. I don’t know how much more clear I can be

          2. Harun| 4.9.13 @ 1:01PM |#
            “The reason we have troops in South Korea is because the US government left South Korea off a map of where we would defend in the first place.”

            Sorry, Truman’s dead, man.

            1. left…past tense of leave.

      2. Once the collapse happens, the Chinese move forces into the North and set up a more reasonable puppet Communist regime.

        Or would they be okay with a neighboring communist party being deposed by the people?

        1. The amount of trade China does with South Korea, Japan and the US is massive. I think the Chinese would be more amenable than most believe to regime change in NK.

          1. You must consider that maintaining power is more important than money for the Communist party.

            They are correct to be scared of these situations. Last time I was in China, the woman at the bank helping me kept asking me for America to help topple their government “like Libya.”

            So, China would want a regime change, but maybe not one where the statues come falling down, and people spit on the communist flag, etc. Maybe a technocratic, reforming communist regime change.

            I supposed allowing the South to simply take over would be the next best thing, but again, how does that play on TV in China. (They new report these things.)

        2. “Once the collapse happens”?

          It hasn’t already? Starvation, concentration camps, etc… How much farther could it collapse? If they broke into tribes and started hunting with spears, it would be a step up.

    3. PowerBottom, I fully support your decision to go to North Korea and fight.

      Or did you mean to send other people to fight them in your stead?

      1. I am retired – but subject to call up for at least 4 more years….hmmm.

      2. Just so you know, I was a Marine from 2002 to 2006, and took part in the A

        1. American invasion of Iraq, which I considered then and now to be a mistake. I honored my contract, but did not reenlist. Trust me when I say I fully understand the absolute shit and horror that accompanies war, and wouldn’t wish it, even on the NORKs. However, we should resist in all forms and commit to combat only if we or our allies are attacked.

          1. I have no allies.

    4. PowerBottom| 4.9.13 @ 12:17PM |#
      …”I think it’s one of only a few places where I believe we should have troops.”…
      Goody for you. You pay for ’em.

    5. How do you feel about all the US troops in Kuwait and Bahrain etc, protecting monarchies and emirates just as oppressive in their way as the North Koreans?

    6. There’s no “internal strife” in North Korea. NK is THE surveillance state, in which there are supposed to be government planted agents in every town. I heard South Korean missionaries claims that there’s a plant for every 3,4 families in NK.

      Also, North Koreans are effectively brainwashed. They’re also forced to witness execution of alleged traitors in the town square. Nothing like the Arab Spring will occur in NK for a long time.

      Kim can’t strike us from the air. He can only touch us from the inside. We should be more afraid of a NK agent masquerading as a SK American committing an act of terror (like Kim Hyun Hui). And even if something like that happens, the Americans’ appetite for war is at an all time low.

      We’re getting hacked all the time, and the proposed immigration policy will make infiltration that much easier, whether you like it or not.

  5. “in harm’s way”

    OMFG I am so sick of hearing that phrase! What the hell is wrong with the word “danger”? Its a perfectly good word. All these people who made fun of Bubba’s misspeaking, but for some reason that one got stuck in the media’s and politicians’ vocabularies.
    “Danger”, people, the word is “danger”.

    1. also “peril” and “risk”

  6. Oh shit, it’s Hans Brix

  7. Does anyone think the little fatso is crazy enough to set off their own nuke in some part of NK then trying to blame it on America?

  8. Sure we are not in danger, as long as you don’t live in Hawaii, Alaska or Guam. Does Healy really think the NORKS would refrain from sending a missile over just because we took our troops home?

    1. Exactly. I think if the regime was in danger of collapse, we could see a spiteful final spasm attack. I think he’d actually nuke Japan though. Closer. Ex-imperialist power. No nukes to strike back.

      I also think the US under Obama would vacillate to nuke North Korea if it were undergoing a regime collapse.

      The more you think of plausible scenarios, the more its scares you.

      1. I actually agree with Healy that we should pull out of Korea. But he is kidding himself if he thinks that is going to make them any less of a danger to us.

        1. I go back and forth on pull out myself. The South doesn’t really need us, but the tripwire concept probably does deter the North. And there is also a “skin in the game” factor with South Korea, who is under our nuclear shield and who we stopped from building nukes of their own in the 80’s.

          If we had no troops there, South Korea might suspect the nuclear shield would not be used if they were attacked…after all, no American dead soldiers on TV.

      2. Harun| 4.9.13 @ 12:58PM |#
        “The more you think of plausible scenarios, the more its scares you.”

        Yeah, well, YOU pay for the monsters under your bed.

    2. Can the Norks even reach any of those places?

      1. Yes they can. And maybe farther. No one is quite sure.

        1. Really John? Your proof/source for this? From what I’ve read they could probably hit Guam, and maybe the edge of Alaska. It’s certainly not a given they could hit Anchorage or Hawaii, like you’re making it out to be. And that’s assuming it doesn’t blow up before it reaches its maximum distance or destination

          1. A threat that does not have 100% possibility of success is still a threat.

            Remember, no one thought that the Japanese could launch an attack on Pearl Harbor either. (Too far away from base, and hard to sneak in)

            I agree that the Nork missiles probably are not a big deal. We also now have missile interceptors.

            1. Harun| 4.9.13 @ 2:33PM |#
              ” Athreat that does not have 100% possibility of success is still a threat.”

              To those who either are easily threatened or profit by such threats.

      2. Another reason for them to target Japan. Japan has so many large dense cities that even a fairly large miss will hit a populate area.

        1. Harun| 4.9.13 @ 1:13PM |#
          “Another reason for them to target Japan. Japan has so many large dense cities that even a fairly large miss will hit a populate area.”
          A very good reason for Japan to spend what it takes to defend itself.

          1. Sure, if you believe that adding more countries with nuclear arms within minutes of each other via ICBM is worth it. Or do we keep the nuclear shield part of all these treaties we would be dumping. I guess that could work.

            Personally, I also think we should sell or lease some carrier groups to Japan – we would save money and they would still be in use by a decent ally.

            1. Harun| 4.9.13 @ 2:26PM |#
              “Sure, if you believe that adding more countries with nuclear arms within minutes of each other via ICBM is worth it..”
              Uh, you smug hypotheticals are getting tired.

    3. If he is going to do it no matter what, bring the troops home and save the money.

      Better to ask your dad to check under your bed for a NORK.

  9. Removing our troops from SK would just signal to NK that we won’t get involved if they attack the south. Which is a stupid signal to send, because it isn’t true. In other words, it makes an actual military confrontation even more likely, one that we will almost certainly be involved in, therefore putting even more American soldiers in danger.

    There are arguments to be made for reducing our troops stationed overseas, but doing it because they’re “in harm’s way” is not a very good one.

    1. Removing our troops would also send a signal to South Korea that our commitment might not always be there. The South was building their own nukes in the 80’s. Would they worry that without our troops there that our nuclear shield promises were not quite as strong, and thus persuade them to build their own nukes?

    2. “Removing our troops from SK would just signal to NK that we won’t get involved if they attack the south. Which is a stupid signal to send, because it isn’t true.”

      It should be. We’re talking about a hypothetical here. The USG isn’t going to bring home the troops from Korea, but if we’re talking about an alternate universe where they did, I don’t see why we can’t make one more assumption that isn’t actually going to happen

  10. Not if, but when the Norks collapse, it’ll be the US that will pay to fix the thing. Not South Korea, Not China, Not Japan. Not Russia. The United States.

    1. I think the South will pay. They are no longer poor.

  11. 1. The U.S. Army presence in Korea is pretty symbolic already. We only have a single brigade there at present (the rest of the 2nd Infantry Division is now based in WA). It would of course be quickly augmented by the 3rd Marine Division then U.S. based troops if war broke out.

    Air support and a naval blockade would be the real American contributions in the opening days of a 2nd Korean War.

    2. I will wager that South Korea begins a nuclear program in earnest the day after the U.S. leaves.

    1. …”It would of course be quickly augmented by the 3rd Marine Division then U.S. based troops if war broke out.”…
      It’d be much better if it were not there and Japan, SoK and ROC had troops there. You know, the people who are actually threatened.

      1. Sure, Japanese troops rushing into Korea to defend it….snort. Not EVER going to happen.

        ROC? Snort. Why would they care? They are not threatened. They probably would get all the South Korean orders if war broke out.

        1. Harun| 4.9.13 @ 2:30PM |#
          “Sure, Japanese troops rushing into Korea to defend it….snort. Not EVER going to happen.”

          In which case, let’s make it clear the US isn’t going to send troops, either.
          I’m tired of paying the defense budgets of those who won’t
          BRING THE TROOPS HOME NOW.

          1. I agree with you here, but if the USA wants to leave behind a peninsula that is at peace and not threatening the region with instability, then simply bringing back the troops is not enough. Some extra diplomacy will be necessary. ie brokering a formal termination to the war between north and south.

            I want to caution you against the foolish “collapse is inevitable” nonsense that seems to comfort so many in these parts. Collapse was not inevitable for Saddam until he was forced out at gunpoint. It certainly wasn’t the sanctions. I don’t see the North being all that different.

            1. Cuba is another nation that still hasn’t collapsed but should have.

            2. mtrueman| 4.9.13 @ 3:19PM |#
              “I agree with you here, but if the USA wants to…”

              I live in the USA and I don’t ‘want to’ anything about Korea other than let them deal with their own problems.

              1. Like it or not, the US is still bound by the armistice agreement it signed at the the end of the war. It’s also bound by a myriad of agreements with the South including the recently signed free trade agreement. The US is and always has been up to its neck in “their own problems.”

  12. “South Korea spends a smaller portion of its gross domestic product on defense than we do (2.6 percent to our 4.7).”

    Somehow I missed this part! Its just like Taiwan. They spend a pittance too. Yeah, we should probably pull out. Free riding is not cool.

    1. You think that USA should only station troops in countries that match the USA in defense spending? There’s not another nation on earth that meets those standards.

      Even North Korea is trying to reduce spending on military.

      1. We should only station troops in the United States. No where else is our responsibility or business.

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  14. Please don’t let NK invade SK yet. I have to buy my South Korean 27-inch monitor first. Then, you can do whatever you want 😛

  15. North Korea not a threat? They keep repeatedly saying that they are willing and want to nuke America, with claims that they have mini-nukes and such. They probably don’t have sufficient tech, but maybe they do, and either way, they could give it to a plant in USA to detonate.

    Again, I reiterate, a country with nukes is making direct threats to the US.

    And you guys say we’re supposed to act like there’s no danger whatsoever? Please.

    And you guys wonder why no one trusts you on foreign policy.

    1. EdwinNJ| 4.9.13 @ 10:13PM |#
      …’a country with nukes (and no way to deliver them) is making direct threats to the US.’
      Fixed

      “And you guys say we’re supposed to act like there’s no danger whatsoever? Please.”
      Yes. You want to go fight them? Help yourself.

  16. It’s hard to see our strategic interest here. We keep divisions in South Korea so that South Korea and Japan don’t have to pay for their own defense, and so China can yank us around with their proxy.

    How about we butt out and let Japan and South Korea go nuclear, and let China deal with both of them and the Psyhco cartoon totalitarian dystopia on their border?

    I’m all for ridding the world of totalitarianism, but it seems like we do it in a way that just encourages other nations to make all problems our problems, and add on a few more just for fun. This should be a big problem for China, but somehow we maneuver ourselves to a position where China routinely exacerbates the problem to our detriment.

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