Leaving South Korea?


A proposal recently signed in Washington indicates America is trying to cut its losses globally, say some experts. In October, defense secretaries for the United States and South Korea met to seal an agreement “to pass more military responsibility to South Korea in the event of war” (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 23, 2006). The change, scheduled to take place between 2009 and 2012, will give South Korea wartime control of its military—something the U.S. has had since the Korean War.

The war between North Korea and South Korea never officially ended. The two sides signed an armistice, but the 38th parallel, dividing the two Koreas, has remained the most heavily guarded border on the planet.

Many, especially in South Korea, view America’s ceding control of the wartime armed forces to South Korea as a sign of an impending American pullout, thus leaving the tiny democratic nation to stand on its own against hostile enemies. “As soon as the control is passed,” said a retired Korean naval officer, “the U.S. will leave.”

South Korea has reason to be worried. With America’s armed forces diffused to the farthest reaches of the globe and the level of troop commitment required in Iraq so high, the U.S. military is losing the ability to respond to other crises. It has reason to want out of South Korea. “For the U.S., a speedy transition [of power to South Korea] will more quickly allow it to send personnel associated with Korean war planning and logistics to other places,” wrote the Wall Street Journal.

Whereas America wants to rescind wartime control as soon as possible, the South Koreans are happy to put any American withdrawal as far into the future as they can. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, said South Korea “has the ability to assume responsibility for wartime operational control roughly in the time frame of 2009,” while South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang Ung is looking to 2012 as being the best year. The deal is not popular with the Korean public either. Just days after signing the deal, Yoon offered his resignation.

That the powerful U.S. would want to pull out of South Korea when many South Koreans have no desire to direct their wartime operations is a sign that the American superpower is overstretched.