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Leaving Korea By: Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, September 21, 2004


For most of its history China has lived under the threat of foreign invasion. Mongol, Manchu, Japanese and Russian forces tested Chinese defenses and sometimes overran them. Attacking China via the Korean peninsula is an old story. Japanese armies marched northward from Pusan many times. To be fair, roads run in both directions: following the Mongol conquest Chinese/Mongol armies used Korea as a jumping-off point for abortive invasions of Japan. Nevertheless, Korea was traversed by foreign armies so frequently that Koreans developed a sensitivity to outsiders bordering on paranoia. A favorite proverb describes Korea as 'a shrimp among whales.' When the whales of China, Japan and Russia collide, the hapless Korean shrimp are crushed. The 20th century saw a new player added, the U.S.: a potential invader to China, another 'whale' to Korea.

Geopolitical circumstances made the U.S. a primary player in Cold War Asia. Original occupation forces in Japan altered their mission to deter Soviet aggression. Later, Korea-based American units prevented a resumption of North Korean or Chinese military intervention against South Korea, then struggling for survival. For decades U.S. forces were positioned tripwire-close to the Demilitarized Zone. Protected by the U.S. security umbrella South Korea bootstrapped itself from an agriculturally based economic basket case to a healthy, manufacturing-based technological giant. Concomitantly, it transitioned politically through a series of authoritarian military leaders into a full-blown, democratic state.

South Korea's coming out party was the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Since then South Korea has had several free elections each marked by peaceful transition of power. Political parties have moved from opposition to control and back. The military establishment supports the constitution, not the leader. Democracy has taken firm root. South Korea's diplomatic successes mirror its political and economic development. It has established cordial bi-lateral relations with former enemies like the former Soviet Union and China and has even invested heavily in them.

The Seoul Olympics also marked the critical crossover point when North Korea fell well below South Korea in the military balance. Subsequently the disparity has grown. While North Korea is still exceedingly dangerous - it maintains a 1.2 million man army despite starving its people - it can no longer realistically expect to defeat the South in a conventional war. Instead its desperate leader, Kim Jong Il, threatens Seoul with Weapons of Mass Destruction - nuclear, chemical and biological. Responding to the threat the South Korean military improved training and equipment, and transformed itself into one of the most professional forces in the region. It is fully capable of defending the nation.

Times have changed in Northeast Asia; adjustments are necessary. Fixing large numbers of U.S. ground forces alongside the DMZ no longer makes good strategic or tactical sense. If a deterrent is necessary, then a smaller number will serve the purpose. Relocating combat units from the DMZ increases flexibility, converting them from 'speed bumps' as the troops of the 2nd Infantry Division call themselves, into an important reaction force capable of influencing the land battle. Military analyst Ralph Peters noted correctly that America can make the greatest contribution to a future war through massive air and naval support of South Korean ground forces.

It is a measure of increasing confidence that the South Koreans are comfortable discussing these redeployment issues. Twenty-six years ago the Carter administration threatened a troop pullout, causing Seoul grievous consternation and concern. The Koreans were right to worry. In the late 1970s North Korea might have interpreted a capricious U.S. pullout as a green light to launch an aggressive war. But no such illusions exist in Pyongyang today. Kim Jong Il is back on his heels strategically. After decades of ruining his country's economy and abusing its populace Kim is reduced to making hysterical threats. He fears for his future. Photos of Saddam Hussein pulled whining from a hole did more to intimidate the North Korean dictator than any UN Security Council resolution could ever do. There is no likelihood that U.S. redeployment will be misinterpreted by North Korea.

A further advantage to U.S. troop redeployment is that China is averse to having foreign troops stationed on its borders regardless of the justification. Ancient fears die hard. In past times of strained diplomatic relationships China might have interpreted removal of U.S. ground forces as a display of weakness. Having come to an economically profitable bi-lateral relationship with Seoul in the past decade and a half, Beijing is quite satisfied that it can do business with a unified, free Korea. Limited reduction of American military presence sends a signal that U.S. forces are willing to leave entirely when the North Korean threat is eliminated.

Contrary to hyperbolic, politically motivated predictions of disaster, a well-conceived, balanced redeployment of US forces indicates recognition of new strategic realities. It is a quiet announcement that once the most egregious dictator and human rights violator in Northeast Asia is removed the U.S. is prepared to transfer security responsibility back to regional nations. America's troop redeployment may encourage China to work with other consortium partners to contain North Korea and ultimately force regime change. Redeployment is an overdue, confident step that recognizes an end of the Cold War. It acknowledges both the realities of evolving multilateral relationships and higher priority strategic threats in fighting the War on Terror.

Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu has been an Army Green Beret lieutenant colonel, as well as a writer, popular speaker, business executive and farmer. His most recent book is Separated at Birth, about North and South Korea. He returned recently from an embed with soldiers in Iraq and has launched a web site called Support American Soldiers to assist traveling soldiers.


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