The author is an international, diplomatic and security news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
If a declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War is made, North Korea will certainly demand the withdrawal of U.S. Forces from South Korea. If an end-of-war declaration — not a mere statement — is made by the two Koreas and the United States, the grounds for U.S. forces to stay in South Korea are lost, Pyongyang will claim. For North Korea, which strongly believes its “motherland liberation war” failed due to the U.S. intervention, an official declaration to end the war offers a precious opportunity to demand the pullout of U.S. Forces from the Korean Peninsula. The Moon Jae-in administration says such a declaration will only help denuclearize North Korea. But what Pyongyang wants from the declaration is nothing but a U.S. pullout.
A former general who later served as a high-ranking official in a conservative government told me an interesting anecdote. “While we were conducting a joint military exercise with the U.S. forces, our radio did not function well. I told an American commander about the problem by accident and he promised to bring better communication equipment from Hawaii. A few days later, the equipment arrived,” he said. Given the intense negotiation over defense cost-sharing between the allies today, that could be a story of the good old days. The defense cost calculation got even sharper particularly after the Trump administration.
And yet, the reason why we cannot talk about the withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) did not change. That’s because the structure which brought in the U.S. forces in the beginning has not changed all. In fact, many liberals in South Korea attack the conservatives for blindly adhering to the U.S. protection and kowtowing to American influence. But the opposite is true. We underscore the significance of the UFSK because it is the most realistic — and efficient — way to defend South Korea from North Korean threats.
The culprit to bringing in the U.S. forces was North Korea. If the North Korea hadn’t invaded South Korea 71 years ago, American forces would have no reason to be here. Even after the North failed to communize the South by force through the Korean War, it attempted to attack the Blue House on January 21, 1968, dispatched armed guerilla forces to Uljin and Samcheok on the east coast the same year, hijacked a Korean Air passenger plane in 1969, committed a fatal terror attack on a South Korean government delegation in Myanmar in 1983, conducted a mid-air bombing of a Korean Air flight in 1987 and shelled the Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. That all fueled anti-North Korean sentiment among South Koreans.
The need for USFK grew even bigger after North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. As conventional weapons cannot match nuclear weapons, only nuclear weapons can counter the enemy’s nukes. There are three ways to do that. First, you remove the enemy’s nuclear capability. Second, you too acquire nuclear capability. Third, if the two options are not available, you take advantage of an ally’s nuclear capability. Under the current circumstances, South Korea can use the third option — relying on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. But once the USFK pulls out with North Korea’s nuclear capability remaining intact, holes can appear in the umbrella.
For instance, if North Korea initiates a skirmish in the West Sea — and if South Korea cannot retaliate against the provocation after affirming tangible signs of the country preparing to launch a warhead-tipped Scud missile — we will experience a country we have never seen. Preventing such a nightmarish scenario is the role of USFK as a trip wire, as North Korea must think over the possibility of a Trident ballistic missile being fired from an Ohio-class nuclear-powered U.S. submarine in the East Sea or the West Pacific toward Pyongyang or Wonsan before firing its Scud missile carrying a warhead.
Diplomatic and security policy should be determined based on national interests, not the good vs. evil standard or grand cause. The progressive Roh Moo-hyun administration, which ardently championed justice, also accepted George W. Bush’s administration’s demand for the dispatch of our troops to Iraq to protect our national interests. President Roh accommodated U.S. demand to help safeguard our national security even though the Iraq War was unjustified from the start. Nevertheless, America did not bring back the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment — a real combat force in the 2nd Infantry Division stationed in South Korea — after the Iraq War.
A declaration to end the Korean War is aimed at establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. But if the declaration is reached, North Korea will first demand the withdrawal of USFK. For the U.S. forces to pull out, it must be conditioned on North Korea’s denuclearization and abandonment of its goal to communize South Korea. If concerned parties rush an end-of-war declaration without ensuring the North’s denuclearization, the declaration could serve a powerful excuse for the withdrawal of USFK.