The History

The presence of the United States military base in South Korea has prevented reunification between North and South Korea for years due to North Korea’s animosity towards the United States. Following the Korean War, which technically has not officially ended, North and South Korea split from one unified country into two. The North became communist-controlled while the South remained democratic. Meanwhile, the United States invaded and set up a military base in South Korea to aid the country in keeping its land from China and the Soviet Union (Park 535).

Due to this military presence, South and North Korea likely not be able to reunite without the approval of the United States as the United States will always find ways to hinder reunification if it potentially disadvantages South Korea or the United States in any way (Presidential 193).

Some South Koreans do wish for a peaceful relationship with North Korea. However, the desired diplomatic relationship is hard to foster due to the United States military presence. While North Korea may have the capability to carry out an attack on the South, some scholars argue they have no motivation to use offensive weapons against their fellow Koreans. Therefore, the importance of a strong United States military force in the region is disputed by South Koreans (Sheen 98).

The correlation is clear. North Korea does not like the United States because it feels a large threat from the United States military (Park 543). North Koreans view nearly all United States military action, including building defensive systems, as a direct threat to their security. North Korea has built numerous weapons in response to the perceived US threat (Sheen 99). North Korea consistently rejected the United States’ diplomatic attempts at resolving tensions which only further exacerbated the unstable relationship (Cox).

North Koreans also believe the United States harms South Korea by acting as their puppet-masters, manipulating South Korea in every move (Hodge). North Korea, therefore, is reluctant negotiate with the United States as they do not want to be seen as negotiating with the country they have deemed manipulative. North Korea also attempts to teach in their school system that the United States hurts South Korea, in terms of poverty and starvation, and they describe North Korea as a paradise compared to the rest of the world (Choi 109).

In reality, no single country is to blame for the status quo situation. A compilation of multiple complex scenarios has caused the dynamic that exists now. For example, in 1990, North Korea did not hold its agreements to freeze its nuclear program. Meanwhile, the United States also halted efforts to foster normalization of relations with the North. Both of these actions led to the rocky, almost non-existent, relationship now in place today (Cirincione).

South Korean Opinions

South Korea feels it has little influence in its relationship with the United States and longs for a more balanced relationship, especially regarding the military. South Korea is correct in their assumption that United States actions taken in the region reflect back on South Korea. Those who do advocate for reunification want it to be natural and peaceful, avoiding the hard power tactics the United States seems to favor. Any pre-emptive attack by the South would hamper the potential for future reunification (Sheen 99).

Some members of younger generations in South Korea have taken distaste for the United States’ military presence to an extreme, arguing it does not even ensure their own security anymore (Sheen 100). However, a majority of South Koreans still believe the United States military is key to their overall security and protecting them against North Korea (Sheen 97). Many South Koreans recognize if any form of collapse were to occur, the whole region would downfall as well (Choi 108).

Cost of Reunification

Many scholars worry that even if the United States removed its troops from the region, reunification may not be feasible because of economic differences between the North and the South. The only path to ensuring long-term stability in the region includes dramatic changes in the political structures of the North and South as well as North Korea terminating its nuclear program (Hachigian). Even with these changes, reunification has the potential to harm South Korea due to factors like refugees and the associated economic burden (Bennett).

Some compare Korean reunification to that of East and West Germany, but the reunification of North and South Korea will be even more difficult. Before German reunification, the two sides had substantially more contact and interaction than North and South Korea do now. The current economic status of North Korea is also worse than that of East Germany immediately before its reunification. This is especially true when examining the health of the citizens, as well as poverty and starvation levels (Bennett).

The monetary cost of Korean unification would also cost even more than the trillion dollars the German reunification cost. South Korea would have to rely on other countries, like the United States, for billions of dollars in aid (Bennett).

Additionally, no other country intervened in German reunification the way that China may feel compelled to as they will attempt to prevent North Korean refugees from flooding into their country (Bennett). A refugee crisis would be likely as current North Korean citizens would wish to flee to a more stable location, like China. Refugees have the potential to harm not only China’s economy but also affect China’s ability to effectively manage their own citizens (Hachigian).

Finally, another challenge to Korean reunification is the orderly maintenance of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Uncontrolled nuclear weapons could readily fall into the hands of terrorist organizations posing an enormous threat to the global community (Bennett).

Benefits of United States Military Presence in South Korea

This argument is not entirely one-sided, as there are also some benefits to having a United States military base located in South Korea. First, United States benefits from the increased soft power and opportunities for diplomacy in the region it has gained. Second, without the presence of the United States military, all of North Korea’s current weapon production would transition to being entirely offensive and preventing attempts expansion in the region. Lastly, the military base also gives the United States an opportunity to fine-tune its military in an active war condition, where conflict can spark at any moment. (Sheen 97) Due to these benefits, the United States has been unwilling to remove their military from the region (BBC 18).

At best, these military bases provide a short-term solution. The United States presence in South Korea cannot cause substantial changes in the North Korean government with is key to long-term stability (Hachigian).

Overall, the United States should not feel obligated to continue its defense commitment to their region. This military presence only increases the likelihood the United States gets drawn into a large-scale conflict and diminishes our resources. The South Korean-United States alliance may be in jeopardy if the United States were to withdraw from the region. However, this alliance was created over fifty years ago and it currently prevents both countries from effectively protecting their own interests. Throughout all those years, South Korea has been one of the United States’ most dangerous military commitments. No other place in the world is the United States more likely to be involved in conflict than they are in South Korea right now (Bandow “Alliance” 1). The United States must carefully navigate their course of action, as there are many other reasons to sustain strong relations with South Korea.

Threat of Conflict

If the United States were to withdraw from Korea, a conflict would likely occur. Scenarios for this war include an attack from the North on the South because they would no longer worry about the United States’ superior military. A similar threat is China, as they may attempt to dominate Korea and invade without the balancing presence of the United States.

The North Korean attack is the less likely of the two scenarios. If the North did not have the United States to fear anymore, they are much more likely to stop their production of extremely dangerous weapons. There is a strong argument to be made that North Korea acts like it is a bigger threat than it actually is in an attempt to gain international attention. Also, North Korea has such large problems to worry about, like starvation and poverty within their own country, that the risk of involving themselves in a conflict with South Korea is low (Bandow “Withdraw”).

Due to the location of South Korea, it would be difficult, though not impossible to effectively get troops on the ground post-leaving. Although a war would be tragic, most scholars conclude it would likely never spill up to the United States being involved due to the strength of other militaries in the region. However, in a dire situation, the South Korean military is capable of defending themselves long enough for the United States to discern the best plan for getting troops back in Korea (Park 543). South Korea is also likely to win a dispute between it and the North, if one were to occur, even without support from the United States military. Alone, South Korea ranks amongst the top ten militaries in the world (O’Hanlon).

Potential Course of Action

Achieving a peaceful Korean peninsula is a complicated goal to achieve. However, the United States to removing its immediate military presence in South Korea, but still retaining a defense commitment, which dissuades other countries from invading, is an effective start to navigating this dilemma. Curtailing United States commitment to the region would not wreck its relationship with South Korea; all it does is allow for a potential restart within the alliance. Future cooperation with South Korea does not require the high-level commitment to the region the United States has today. Simultaneously, the United States should develop a plan with surrounding countries, including Japan, China, and South Korea themselves, regarding the action that should be taken in the face of a North Korean collapse so that everyone is prepared. (Bennett).


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