Should We Stay or Should We Go? The American Military’s Role in a Post-Unification Korea

What should the United States do if the Koreas were unified relatively peacefully? Should the military forces remain on the Korean Peninsula post-unification? Would our presence there help to stabilize the region? Or would we be better off by freeing up the 30,000 or so soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines stationed in Korea and easing the costs of their presence there?

My argument is that the United States military must remain on the Korean Peninsula as a means of stabilizing the region. This is true from both a Liberal and Realist perspective. As East Asian economies continue to grow in global importance, its centrality to global strategy and peace — and American interestes — will also grow. The American military presence, if constrained by certain agreements and mutual understandings with East Asian states, would be seen as a means of maintaining stability in East Asia.

Today, South Korea is the world’s 15th largest economy with a GDP of $1.15 trillion in 2012. Its two neighbors, China and Japan, are the second ($8.23 trillion) and third ($5.96 trillion) largest economies respectively (World Bank, 2013). The Port of Busan is the 5th busiest container port in the world (World Shipping, 2013).

These numbers suggest that the commercial shipping lanes in the South and East China seas are the most important shipping lanes on the globe today.

A list of the fifty busiest container shipping ports is dominated by the South and East China Seas. China alone has thirteen ports on this list, with eight of those in the top twenty ranking. Three other ports are Japanese, one is Korean, and nine other Asian ports make the list. Twenty-six of the world’s fifty busiest ports are on the South and East China seas (World Shipping Council, 2013). In 2010, the United States, Japan, and South Korea were China’s first, second, and fourth largest trading partners (USCBC, 2013).* These numbers suggest that the commercial shipping lanes in the South and East China Seas are the most important shipping lanes on the globe today. Any conflict in the region that disturbed the free flow of shipping on those seas would ignite a global conflict. These oceans could be the catalyst for a world war.

These oceans could be the catalyst for a world war.

Surrounded to the north and west by mountains, deserts, and under developed economies, China must look to the South and East China Seas as its gateway to exports and the vital geopolitical center of its economy.

East Asia in general, and China particularly, should be analyzed as sea powers. In The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, Mahan (1890) argues that the importance of seaborne trade to a nation will drive it to develop sea power. A merchant marine service and navy require ports for maintenance and supply. Another important observation that Mahan makes is that the United States’ geographic distance from important shipping lanes like the East and South China Seas make it heavily dependent on foreign ports for the maintenance of its fleets (Mahan, 1890). Both China and the United States must adhere to these principles for the maintenance of their power. In the East and South China Seas, China has the advantage of home ports in the region that it can use to maintain its fleets. The United States is reliant on allied ports for the maintenance of its sea power in the region and must be able to count on access to the ports of Korea and Japan in the East China Sea.

The “virtuous triangle” of democratic peace, economic integration, and international organizations is not fully met.

In East Asia, Liberal democratic peace is tenuous at best. The fact that China remains a communist, centralized government with growing ambitions in the region undercuts the foundations for Liberal peace between states in the region (Ray, 1998 and Howe, 2005). And the difficulties between the democratic governments of Korea and Japan highlight the practical challenges of the Liberal peace theory itself (Rozman, Lee, 2006). Chinese efforts to co-opt ASEAN and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for their own ends weakens the legitimacy of those organizations as multinational forums and reduces the ability of those organizations to promote peace in the region (Robinson, 2013; Dacus, 2013; and Simon, 2013). Economic integration is a key, but weak factor in maintaining stability in the region (Solingen, 2007 and Howe, 2005). The “virtuous triangle” of democratic peace, economic integration, and international organizations is not fully met.

Consequently, a realist approach must be taken to guarantee peace in the region. This means that a balance of power must be obtained in the region that will compel China to engage peacefully with its neighbors. This does not mean the abandonment of international organizations as a consensus builders or as a means of peacefully resolving disputes in the region. Instead, it means that military and economic power balances must be created that will compel states in the region to use those organizations as an alternative to military conflict (Christensen, 2006).

Realist balance of power politics and military deployment is necessary, because a Liberal peace between China, Korea, and Japan is not possible at present. But this approach must be mitigated with constant and intensive engagement that will build systemic and interpersonal relationships between China and the United States. The difficulty here is that the dual policy creates an environment of security mistrust.

To minimize that security mistrust the United States should place the military in the center of its strategy. The military will be active, naturally, in the containment strategy. It must also be made central to the engagement strategy. This would happen through regular military exercises, coalition operations with the American and Chinese militaries in non-defense actions like humanitarian relief operations or anti-piracy operations, or even formal treaties that outline how and where the American and Chinese militaries will cooperate with each other (Priest, 2004).

The purpose of this military engagement is to add legitimacy to the ideal of international cooperation. The trust-building that occurs through the building of professional contacts supports the building of a common framework to address international contingencies. Through this cooperation a culture of acceptable international behavior will be built that will strengthen regional cooperation and trust.

The trust-building that occurs through the building of professional contacts supports the building of a common framework to address international contingencies.

The ties of the American military to the Korean peninsula would require such cooperation between the United States and China. An understanding between the two powers would be required to ease Chinese strategic concerns over that presence. The Chinese have already indicated that they are willing to accept an American military presence on the Korean peninsula if it is constrained to specifics. The 38th parallel is the chief specific that is indicated (Chung, 2009). This specific requirement is also consistent with Korean concerns about constraining the American military presence to specific areas and minimizing the impact of the American presence on the Korean economy and culture. It is possible that Korea, China, and the United States will find a compromise position on the Peninsula that does not incite strategic fears, but instead facilitate the maintenance of the status quo in the region. And the maintenance of the status quo seems to be in most of the region’s strategic aims.

Ultimately the continued American military presence on the Korean Peninsula is necessary for the maintenance of a continued American military presence in East Asia. And in an East Asia that is not conductive to the creation of a Liberal peace in the near term, even with a Korean unification, the U.S. will have to maintain a military presence to preserve a balance of power to build trust in the long term. This balance of power continues to drive aggressive states in the region to utilize international organizations to achieve and maintain peace in the region. The American military presence and balance of power is created through allied states that have defense treaties with the United States and are willing to provide aerial and maritime ports to support that military presence. The United States military will need to remain on the Korean Peninsula after Korean unification is achieved.

Kurt Degerlund is an active duty Air Force officer who writes on leadership, airpower, and international relations. You can follow Kurt Degerlund on Twitter at @kjdegs. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S.Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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otes and References:

*These numbers represent only the trade in goods and do not include other sources of capital flows like foreign direct investment, finance, etc.

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