Despite North Korea being appropriately named as a charter member of the Axis of Evil, scant attention has been given to affairs on the Korean Peninsula of late. Considering that we are fighting two active low intensity wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that makes sense. But it helps to remind that the interconnectivity that we like to speak of in regard to the 21st century world applies even more so to international terrorist organizations. The North Korean link to al Qaeda and to various dictatorships exists and poses a serious threat.
North Korea brags about its nuclear weapons development program, has peddled missiles to miscreants including Iraq and Iran, and has continually intimidated neighboring Japan and South Korea threatening to turn them into ‘a sea of fire.’ So why has Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld announced that a brigade of infantryman from the 2nd Infantry Division stationed in South Korea will be redeployed to Iraq?
At first glance it appears to be a potentially destabilizing move. After all, US forces have been positioned in South Korea since an armistice was reached to halt the bloody Korean War in July 1953. At various times since then the US has moved or spoken of moving troops. In 1971 President Richard Nixon moved the 7th Infantry Division out of Korea, casing its colors and reassigning troops to units fighting in Vietnam. That was done without consultation with our Korean allies, and it caused severe rumbles of discomfort.
Five years later in fall 1976, newly elected President Jimmy Carter vowed to pull all remaining US ground forces out of South Korea. At that time the rumble became an earthquake. Our South Korean and regional allies wondered if America was abandoning Asia. Since we had deserted our South Vietnamese allies only a few months prior, in April 1975, allowing that country to fall to the tender mercies of invading communist armies, the South Koreans fretted that their turn might be next.
After Carter was finally dissuaded from the pullout which could well have inadvertently given the green light for a new invasion, it had become something of an article of strategic military faith that US troop levels would be fixed and sacrosanct. So why do we suppose that at this particular time reinforcements for Iraq would come from South Korean-based units? Why not from Germany, the Balkans or US-based units?
There may be more afoot with this action than simply satisfying a need in Iraq. For months now the Department of Defense has indicated that tactical conditions dictated redeployment of US troops inside of South Korea. As anticipated, some questioned the wisdom of moving the fighting elements of the 2nd Infantry Division south of the Han River, back to a line well south of Seoul. Would we forgo the critical deterrence characteristic of a forward-deployed unit?
The answer was provided personally by Rumsfeld when he spoke of vulnerability. Presently forward-deployed troops are under the guns, literally, of a North Korean army heavy in artillery, armor and short range missiles that is positioned to attack. In his estimation the location of the 2nd ID would result in an unacceptably heavy casualty level should the North Koreans launch a surprise attack. Despite potentially heavy losses, the Secretary thought, little would be gained. Therefore, he said, it made good sense to move them to a position where they could act as a ‘fire brigade,’ able to react to an attacking enemy by riposting at his most vulnerable point.
While acceptable in principle to many South Koreans, any change in the status quo always generates a sense of discomfort and unease. Korea could have been the origin of the expression ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Nevertheless, even most thoughtful Koreans had to admit that the logic of the redeployment was sound. But suddenly there is this new wrinkle: the possibility of moving US combat troops out of South Korea, something that has not been seriously discussed for almost 30 years.
From a purely military standpoint the departure of a single brigade - about 3,800 soldiers - from South Korea should not materially change the situation. After all the South Korean army is made up of almost 600,000 troops plus a solid reserve force. Even though the North Koreans threaten with more than a million-man army, the South has markedly better weapons systems, logistics and infrastructure support. Though it would be rough sledding with terrible losses, the South would win.
The only way the North could win would be through use of nuclear weapons and that victory would be Pyrrhic. Even former President Bill Clinton said that use of nuclear weapons would guarantee the utter destruction of North Korea. We have every confidence to believe that the Bush Administration would be tougher. So can there more to this proposal than what we see on the surface?
In fact, the possible move of a combat brigade out of South Korea carries a blunt message. Its last two presidents - Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun - have been increasingly accommodating to North Korean with a so-called Sunshine Policy that appeases and mollifies every North Korean complaint. These two administrations have simultaneously cultivated and exploited anti-US sentiment to their advantage. They have tried to position themselves as if the conflict is between the US and North Korea and that they are bystanders or mediators. Such a disingenuous attitude becomes especially infuriating when the cynical, opportunistic reasons for it come to the surface.
Ongoing investigations allege that Kim Dae Jung and his government were abysmally corrupt, covertly funneling as much as $1.5 billion to the North Koreans in order to bribe them to peace talks. The talks were instrumental in Kim’s being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It has been a huge scandal marked by mysterious deaths of high level principals on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone including one of the leading industrial magnates in the South Korea. The continued ineptitude under Roh has made the entire affair a sorry spectacle indeed.
Even if the US eventually decides to leave the brigade in South Korea and ship troops to Iraq from elsewhere, the requisite discussions with our South Korean allies will be an appropriate forum for us to express our discontent. America needs to put a strong marker down with the South Korean government that while we do not expect or require adulation, neither will we tolerate our presence in defense of their country to be exploited or taken for granted.
It could well be that the Bush Administration has grown weary of being castigated and impugned by successive South Korean governments using anti-American rhetoric to score points with a left-leaning audience at home and abroad. The US may no longer accept a policy that restricts our options. The decision - or perhaps the proposal is more accurate at this point - to remove US soldiers from South Korea may be a first strong signal that the dynamics of change are at work in the Northeast Asia region.