According to an NBC News report, the US President Donald Trump tried pulling out all American troops from Korea, leaving the peninsula stripped of US military presence for the first time since the end of the World War 2. Only the heated opposition from his own chief of staff John Kelly stopped him.
Whether such a decision would have an impact or how deep that impact would have been remains debatable, but the current state of affairs between North Korea and the United States seems to be finally moving in the right direction, after months of exchanging accusations and insults in the midst of Pyongyang’s nuclear tests that invoke a new round of international sanctions against the country already deeply isolated from the rest of the world. Kim Jong Un seems to be far more open to negotiations with both Seoul and Washington, which he demonstrated last week when he became the first North Korean president to visit South Korea in the Demilitarized Zone, where he met his Southern counterpart Moon Jae-in. The meeting was conducted in a friendly atmosphere, with both leaders smiling and exchanging jokes and was ended with a joint Panmunjom Declaration.
One of the things most experts noted in this declaration was that for the first time the North didn’t insist on American troops leaving the peninsula as a condition for peace. Traditionally, this was the first thing Pyongyang mentioned in the past and to leave it out signifies a major political shift. Despite this, it would be hard to justify heavy American presence if two sides agree on a peace treaty which would replace the armistice which ended the Korean War in 1953.
“There would be voices raised with the question: why are the U.S. troops still here if we have a peace regime in North Korea?” said Christopher Green, a senior researcher at the International Crisis Group. The point becomes especially important considering President Trump has stated that South Korea shouldn’t get “a free ride” in the form of American troops defending its border.
If and when the troops withdraw stateside, it will create additional problems for Pentagon. First of all, how many of those returning from Korea will remain in active service. Secondly, the carrier group present near the peninsula will suddenly find itself without a mission. Finally, President Obama initiated a “Pivot to Asia” strategy, which Donald Trump changed into “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, but the essence remains the same, creating an alliance in the region aimed at curtailing Chinese might and influence. US troops and bases in South Korea are to play a vital role in any such endeavor, and a significant reduction would throw a serious monkey wrench into both Pentagon and State Department’s plans for South Asia.
The last Us president who tried to bring back home troops from Korea was Jimmy Carter, who campaigned on a promise to return combat elements of the 2nd Infantry division back to the States. The entire proposition failed miserably, due to a staunch opposition of almost everybody involved, including the Pentagon, Congress, South Korea and even members of Karter’s own staff. Not only was such a reduction deemed dangerous, but Karter proposed doing it without even trying to secure any concessions from North Korea, China, or USSR. It also didn’t sit right with American allies in South Korea, who felt that such a major downsize for American fighting power would seriously reduce their ability to repulse a possible invasion from the North, not to mention it would embolden Pyongyang. But the final nail in President Carter’s plan was a discovery that North Korea has deployed far more troops and tanks to the border than previously thought.
President trump may find himself in a similar predicament. If a formal peace agreement is signed, the current United Nations command will be disbanded. Who will then command American troops in Korea? Will they be subordinated to the Korean High Command, meaning that a US four-star general would take orders from Koreans? Or would Koreans be under American command on their own soil?
There are many unanswered questions regarding the United States troops in Korea, but one thing is certain. Whether they stay or leave, the situation is bound to get far more complicated before it can resolve itself.