Burying their heads in the sand
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The idiom “ostrich syndrome” derives from the popular myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when they sense danger, thinking they will be safer that way. That is exactly how I see the Moon Jae-in administration on the controversial issue of American troop reductions.
The Ministry of National Defense found itself in hot water late last month when the Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon presented the White House with options to reduce U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula in March. The ministry scrambled to explain to local media that the reduction issue has “never” been discussed between the allies. It sounds like a brazen denial of the possibility of a pullout. Really? If this were a bilateral issue requiring back-to-back negotiations between Seoul and Washington, perhaps I could buy the explanation. History, however, tells a different story.
There were three times Washington reduced troops on the peninsula: during the administrations of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. All had been unilaterally decided by the United States, without a glimpse of South Korea in sight. It is delusional for Seoul to believe that Washington would not withdraw troops as the issue was not brought up between the two countries lately.
There have been several other signs in recent weeks that the Trump administration is considering a troop reduction in the South. On July 29, the Pentagon announced it would cut the number of American troops in Germany by a third. On July 21, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a webinar that the American military “will continue to look at the adjustments at every command we have and every theater to make sure we are optimizing our forces,” adding that it was especially eyeing “more rotational forces.” That could imply the Trump administration’s desires to relocate U.S. Forces in South Korea to other regions. During the session, Esper also said he “issued no orders to withdraw forces from the Korean Peninsula,” but that does not rule out the possibility of a reduction.
A July 17 report from the Strategic Studies Institute, which is affiliated with the U.S. Army War College, suggests that a U.S. troop reduction may only be a matter of time. The report, which was authored by 15 military experts and active-duty officers over two years, offers a feasible scenario: while the “hyper-competition” between the United States and China intensifies, a military threat from North Korea would decrease. The United States has greater military strength for now, but because China is quickly narrowing the gap in technology, it will soon catch up with the United States on the military front as well, the report predicted. On the other hand, North Korea will gradually see its conventional military strength weaken as its economy falters. Therefore, it would be best for the U.S. military to relocate its forces from Northeast Asia to other regions closer to the South China Sea and Guam, said the report.
I would not be surprised if Washington announces a scaling-down of troops in South Korea tomorrow. But the Moon administration is sitting on its hands. During his parliamentary confirmation hearing last month, Unification Minister Lee In-young said that the government “holds no views” about the issue of reducing or withdrawing American forces — a stark contrast to the former Park Geun-hye administration.
American troops will have to be reduced — and eventually withdrawn — from South Korea one day. But how and when that occurs is a completely different issue. As the very lives of South Koreans are at stake, Washington must use a full withdrawal of U.S. forces as an effective card to pressure North Korea to take action for complete denuclearization, not as a tool for Trump’s reelection. The Moon administration must prevent this potential tragedy from unfolding.