US presence in South Korea: deterrence and reassurance


The United States’ recent withdrawal from Afghanistan has pushed another geopolitical issue up the agenda – the Korean peninsula. Why have there been US troops in South Korea for the past seventy years? Will they remain there, or are we likely to see another withdrawal of troops?

The most well-known reason for US presence is to deter North Korean aggression. In the second half of the twentieth century, after the Korean War concluded in practice (albeit not on paper), the presence of US troops deterred North Korea from launching another land invasion of South Korea. This deterrence has taken on a new dimension since the North acquired nuclear weapons. As such, South Korea relies on the US’ ‘nuclear umbrella’ of protection. Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argued that the US presence is there to achieve a “stable equilibrium” on the Korean peninsula.

Questions have been raised regarding this argument for US presence. A land invasion of the South appears unlikely, given that the South Korean army is far more advanced than that of the North, and would likely crush any invasion, with or without the assistance of the US. Furthermore, Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato institute think tank, argues that it does not appear that Kim Jong-Un is keen to embark on a war that would, in all likelihood, be entirely self-destructive. As such, the risk of North Korea initiating a self-defeating nuclear attack seems redundant. That said, the North Korean deterrence argument remains policymaking orthodoxy.

The dynamic between the US and South Korea looks unlikely to substantially change anytime soon

A second reason for the US presence is that China has proved itself to be a sometimes hostile player towards South Korea. In 2017, China pursued an economic boycott of the nation after South Korea allowed the deployment of a US anti-missile system. China has also engaged in various diplomatic disputes, as well as choosing to fly jets into South Korea’s air defence identification zone. A US presence in South Korea serves to reassure South Korea against any Chinese threats, as well as other US allies in the region, such as Japan, without forcing South Korea to explicitly criticise the behaviour of its largest trading partner.

So, what is the trajectory of the relationship under President Biden? It looks far more stable than under former President Trump, who had demanded that South Korea pay exponentially more towards cost-sharing for the 28,500 US troops currently stationed in the country, and chose to call off joint exercises held every year since 1961, deeming them too provocative and expensive. By contrast, Biden quickly accepted a 13% increase in contributions- far less than what was demanded by his predecessor.

The North Korean deterrence argument remains policymaking orthodoxy

However, there remain some points of contention. For example, under current conditions, the US would assume control of certain aspects of the South Korean military if war broke out. However, South Korean progressives demand greater autonomy from the US in this regard. In the early 2000s, President Roh Moo-hyun began building the capacity to take back control of South Korea’s forces from the US. President Moon has continued this approach by increasing defence spending each year. He wishes to complete this transfer of control by the end of his term. However, the US has appeared reluctant to concede to this, instead arguing for a ‘conditions-based’ approach.

Despite this slight tension, the dynamic between the US and South Korea looks unlikely to substantially change anytime soon. South Korea and the US have a long history of cooperation. South Korea was involved in the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars. Although support for US presence and the broader relationship ebbs and flows over time, opinion polls in both the US and South Korea currently suggest broad public support for US troop presence in the country. Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently made clear that the US has “no intention of drawing down forces” from South Korea, a recognition of the questions being asked in light of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

Image: Trump White House Archived via Flickr

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