Despite the continuing threat posed by the unpredictable, malevolent and largely incompetent leadership in The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), a regime probably armed with nuclear weapons, I am among those Americans who increasingly wonder if it's really necessary for the
U. S. to have so many troops stationed in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Japan. Among my concerns is how much these deployments are in fact costing us taxpayers. My fear when everything is totaled is it's in the billions, even if the Koreans and Japanese were covering some of the expenses.
As a reminder to my younger readers who may not be familiar with the background, Japan occupied and controlled Korea beginning in 1905, annexing the country five years later. With the defeat of Japan in World War II in 1945, the United Nations developed plans for a trusteeship administration by the Soviet Union and the U. S. However, the plan was soon abandoned and in 1948 new governments were established with a democratic and capitalistic South Korea and a communist dictatorship in North Korea. In June 1950 North Korean forces invaded the south. The U. N., led by U. S.forces, supported South Korea. China, supported by air support from the Soviet Union, backed North Korea. The U. S. had 480,000 troops employed in the Korean War and we suffered nearly 37,000 casualties. Finally, in July 1953 the war ended with the signing of an armistice agreement.
Under the U. S. - South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty signed in 1953, the U. S. agreed to help South Korea defend itself against external aggression. In support of this commitment the U. S. has maintained military personnel in Korea, principally the Army's Second Infantry Division and several Air Force squadrons. The U. S. at present has approximately 29,000 troops in Korea, mostly from the Army and Air Force. South Korea has about 660,000 active troops, the 6th largest force in the world, and 4.5 million in their reserve units. North Korea reportedly has 1.2 million active troops, the 4th largest in the world, plus a reserve force of an estimated 3.5 million members. A positive factor is that agreements are in place to gradually reduce U. S. troop strength, move our forces to bases more south of the border, and transfer operational command to the South Koreans.
Japan's post-war constitution, after their defeat in World War II, still on paper prohibits Japan from maintaining military forces and to conduct any war for settling international disputes. However, Japan can, and does have a potentially potent Self-Defense Force set up in 1954 with an estimated 250,000 members consisting of ground, maritime and air units. The stated purpose of this Force is to preserve peace, public order and Japan's independence and safety, sort of a combined national guard and national police, but solely for domestic missions.
The U. S. has roughly 36,000 troops stationed in Japan under a Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security signed in 1960, plus 5,500 civilians employed by the Department of Defense. Most of these are Marines and Air Force personnel. Under the Treaty the U. S. is obliged to defend Japan in close cooperation with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. The U. S. Air Force has about 150 fighter planes based on two large air bases, one, the Misawa Air Base, is in the far north of the country, and the other, Kadena Air Base, on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, between Japan and Taiwan.
After having all these U. S. troops stationed in Korea since 1953 and in Japan since 1945, isn't it time to seriously considering whether this is still really necessary, and at a very minimum consider reducing the number substantially and limiting ourselves largely to advisory troops as needed? Clearly this should not happen without careful consultation with the government and military leaders of these two countries. It is also prudent to try to put in place a satisfactory agreement with the other two regional powers, China and Russia, to keep North Korea in check, and have the advance backing of the entire U. N. Security Council. Admittedly this would represent another big challenge for President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a time when their plates are already quite full. But it would be fine if this plan was not activated for a year or two.
Rationale for seriously considering accelerating the reduction, if not elimination, of our military forces in Korea and Japan:
1. They both have sizable diversified and technology advanced economies with their own substantial, in the case of Korea, and potential, armed forces in the case of Japan. After all these decades of training and cooperating with the U. S. troops, they should be able to take care of their own defense.
2. To the extent they are not yet prepared to do this on their own, the U. S. can agree to remain stationed there under an overall agreement with reduced forces for 3-5 more years, focusing on training and logistical support.
3. North Korea is the main threat and it seems to me that China can be convinced to keep them in check, since surely they would be very pleased to have the U. S. move towards terminating our military presence in the region. Consistent with this, one of China's key strategic objectives appears to be doing what it can to preserve peace and stability in the area.
4. Furthermore, recognizing the historical political and social tensions between South Korea and Japan, these countries should have a strong strategic interest in working together to keep North Korea from becoming much more of a threat. There are already significant economic ties between the two countries. Again, there is no doubt that China's peaceful supporting role is critical.
5. The U. S. is currently overextended abroad and has a lot of hard work to do in reducing our national debt and eliminating large budget deficits. With these issues and our substantial domestic investment needs, we can't afford to continue our overseas military force levels and the related civilian employees. We need to cut our costs and we need those jobs more here!
6. With U. S support, and given the stakes involved, I'm sure it's feasible for Japan to amend their constitution as needed to allow the country to develop their Self-Defence Force into a more traditional and potent military, at least over a 5-7 year period.
My guess is that quite a few people will consider my views on this subject very risky and radical. However, at least it ought to stimulate some discussion and debate, and that would be a good thing. In an ideal world a positive catalyst for pursuing my recommendations would be new reformist leadership in North Korea which could recognize what they likely could negotiate in terms of aid and assistance from South Korea, Japan and the U. S. in return for changing their course on nuclear weapons and their frequent aggressive and provocative behavior. But we shouldn't expect that will happen, at least not in the near term.