Despite assurances from senior American and South Korean military leaders that all is well, an undercurrent of unresolved disputes threatens to sour the alliance between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea (ROK).

The state of affairs has evidently become so touchy that the Pacific Command and U.S. Army Pacific, both of which have headquarters in Honolulu, and U.S. Forces Korea, based in Seoul, have declined to discuss it, even if not for attribution. Korean diplomats, however, have willingly talked about their government’s stance.

The key issue is the reduction or withdrawal of American armed forces from the peninsula where they have been stationed since the end of World War II 67 years ago. The U.S., particularly the Army, has for at least ten years sought to reduce deployments to Korea, for two reasons:

  • South Korean forces, backed by a surging economy, are fully capable of defending their own country against a conventional North Korean attack. The U.S. has explicitly guaranteed that its “nuclear umbrella” over South Korea will remain in place.
  • The U.S. cannot afford to have troops tied down in Korea when they may be needed elsewhere. That has become especially true recently as the armed forces have been confronted with plans to reduce the forces and the budgets allocated to them.

General James Thurman, commander of U.S. forces in Korea, said in recent testimony before a Congressional committee that North Korean forces have been in “relative decline” compared with ROK and U.S. forces since the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty years ago.

The former Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Dennis Blair, a retired admiral and onetime head of the Pacific Command, testified two years ago that North Korean “capabilities are limited by an aging weapons inventory, low production of military combat systems, deteriorating physical condition of soldiers, reduced training, and increasing diversion of the military to infrastructure support.”

“Inflexible leadership, corruption, low morale, obsolescent weapons, a weak logistical system, and problems with command and control,” he said, further erode North Korean readiness. Blair said the gap between North and South Korean power had become “overwhelmingly great” and “prospects for reversal” remote.

Blair’s successor as DNI, James Clapper, gave similar testimony last year. This year, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the respected research organization in London, came to the same conclusion.

Thus, the Pentagon has gradually cut the deployment of troops to Korea to less than 25,000 from the 28,500 that was pledged as a floor several years ago. About 18,000 are in two Army combat brigades, the rest in Air Force and logistic units.

The Defense Department has sought to hide that reduction from the ROK government. Quarterly reports account for the whereabouts every American soldier, sailor, marine, and airman, from the 36,708 stationed in Japan to the three on duty in Mongolia as of Jan. 1, 2012. The figure for South Korea, however, is “not available.”

Moreover, the mission of U.S. forces in Korea has been revised. While those troops are available to help defend the ROK, they have also been charged with preparing for expeditions outside of the peninsula. U.S. forces are being consolidated into bases close to ports and airfields so they can be launched into contingencies elsewhere.

South Korean officials have objected vigorously to the U.S. plans as they have sought to cement the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s security. Keeping American soldiers in Korea costs the ROK less than providing its own forces; the ROK spends 2.6 percent of its national wealth on defense, compared with 4.7 percent in the U.S.

Senior ROK officers were scheduled to take over full command of South Korean forces from the U.S. this year. But President Lee Myung Bak persuaded President Obama in 2010 to postpone that turnover until the end of 2015.

Now, Korean diplomats said, the ROK has proposed a “compromise” in which the Combined Forces Command in Seoul, scheduled to be disbanded, be kept intact. A Korean general would be in command with an American general as his deputy, reversing the present arrangement.

The diplomats also said the ROK had proposed that the two U.S. combat brigades in Korea be assigned to the ROK Army and come under Korean command. Rarely has the U.S. ever agreed to American soldiers fall directly under foreign control.

The Koreans argued that “the U.S. needs allies more than ever today because of all your economic troubles and the coming cuts in defense budgets.” They rejected suggestions that objecting to U.S. plans was not the way to go about it.

About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth