SEOUL – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ditched a planned visit to South Korea this week, prioritizing instead a meeting with ministers of the evolving “Quad” security alliance in Japan.

As the US strategizes its approach to China across a vast geopolitical chessboard, the wide-ranging Indo-Pacific alliance may appear more forward-looking than the old-fashioned and ostensibly restricted role of US troops in South Korea, namely deterring an invasion from neighboring North Korea. 

During US President Donald Trump’s administration, a cloud has been hovering over an alliance “blood forged” during the Korean War and formalized after hostilities ceased in 1953.

Trump’s policy position has been that US allies have enjoyed a free ride at America’s expense. Last year, the US reportedly raised the annual cost-sharing burden to be paid by Seoul for its hosting of GIs from just under US$1 billion in 2019 to $4.8 billion this year.

Negotiations on the issue have been bogged down since 2019. But the cost issue begs a loaded question: Is the presence of US troops on Korean soil purely to the advantage of South Korea? Or does it offer economic and geopolitical and benefits to the US, too?

Historically, there is no question that the arrangement worked massively in Seoul’s favor, for reasons of both security and economics. Indeed, South Korea has developed and prospered under America’s aegis, transforming from a rural backwater to an industrial powerhouse.

The economic and security pluses of the alliance have not changed for Seoul. But currently and looking forward the US military presence in Korea looks increasingly tilted more to Washington’s advantage than Seoul’s.

With North Korea posing a direct nuclear threat to the mainland US, American GIs are no longer simply defending South Korea: They provide a forward line of defense that stretches back far across the Pacific to their own homeland.

And as China looms ever larger in US strategic thinking, an American presence in a string of big bases massed down South Korea’s strategic Yellow Sea coast supplies the Pentagon with its forward-most operating bases against Beijing.

South Korea has already taken dollar and diplomatic hits as a result of US military and economic measures against China. Peering ahead, the hits could get more severe. The South Korea-US defense treaty is a mutual one and its provisions are not limited to the peninsula. 

Defending ‘Freedom’s Frontier’

After Korean War combat halted in 1953, Seoul and Washington entered a defense partnership that synched written commitment with physical muscle: Respectively, a mutual defense treaty and the presence of US Forces Korea, or USFK, on South Korean soil.

The alliance has served its desired deterrent effect. While there have been multiple North Korean attacks, ranging from commando raids to aircraft shootdowns to naval clashes to artillery exchanges, none have escalated into all-out warfare. Certainly, North Korea has never dared to repeat its catastrophic 1950 invasion of South Korea. 

With the North Korean threat front of mind, the South Korean military built its size, assets and competence under US guidance. However, it has also deployed overseas. Seoul dispatched the largest number of foreign troops after Washington in support of Saigon during the Vietnam War, and also sent contingents of troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan, though they did not engage in combat.

Today, the country deploys a powerful force of just under 600,000 personnel, armed with such sophisticated weapons as F-35 stealth jets and amphibious landing ships.

Korea and US troops in a joint exercise in South Korea. Photo: AFP

USFK – largely comprised of the US 8th Army and the 7th Air Force – meanwhile, has been consistently shrinking in size. This has mirrored the trend in the US military overall, as professionals replaced conscripts and technological advances obviated manpower.

However, USFK has also been a victim of other US commitments: A brigade of infantry was pulled out of Korea and sent to Iraq in 2004. To this day, that has left the biggest US ground combat unit in South Korea, the 2nd Infantry Division, a skeleton of just one brigade instead of the normal three. Although units continue to rotate into and out of Korea, USFK is currently 28,500 strong, an all-time low.

With US troop cuts having been announced for the Middle East and Germany, there are fears that if Trump wins a second term there could be troop drawdowns in South Korea, too. That issue vexes military pundits in both Washington and Seoul, who argue against any kind of unilateralism.

“Is 28,500 the right number for USFK, or can we go to 20,000 or 10,000?” asked Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general. “It is very difficult to answer, to get that number right, there needs to be a lot of discussion.”

However, the benefits of the alliance for South Korea go beyond the strategic. Historically, the US security umbrella has been a massive economic boon for the nation.

GI, don’t go home

The US-led West won the Cold War not by military, but by economic means. Similarly, in the Cold War microcosm of the Korean peninsula, North Korea’s economy was gutted by its overweight deployment of national resources to its military, dooming its people to poverty.

Conversely, South Korea partnered with the US and boomed. The first tranches of capital that kick-started South Korea’s “economic miracle” in 1965 came from two sources: Japanese colonial-era reparations – delivered in a package with a bilateral relations treaty brokered by Washington – and US payment for South Korean troops fighting in Vietnam. 

Prudent investment of that capital in infrastructure and corporates – combined with US technological assistance, investment and most-favored trade status – led to national prosperity and the birth of a middle class.

That class, after years of student demonstrations, rose in “people power” protests in 1987, overthrowing the military governments that had ruled in Seoul since the 1960s.

Moreover, in terms of savings on military spending, it is impossible to estimate the tonnage in gold that the Korean exchequer has saved over the decades, thanks to its alliance with the world’s most powerful military.

“If South Korea had no US alliance, it is hard to imagine them being the country they are now,” said Rob York, program director for regional affairs at the Pacific Forum. “Just having the US there as a safety net – how much it has saved South Korea since 1954, I cannot calculate.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observes a missile test. There are fears that Pyongyang may return to provocations after the upcoming US election. Photo: AFP/KCTV

Today, with Pyongyang a de facto atomic power, Washington’s nuclear umbrella obviates the need for Seoul to go nuclear, a process that would incur massive economic and diplomatic costs.

“Without the US alliance, the only thing that would give me peace of mind would be South Korean nuclear weapons,” said Chun, the retired general.

In recent years, Seoul has been steadily cutting both the length of its unpopular term of conscription and also the manpower of its military as its demographics dwindle. Absent US support, Seoul’s armed forces would almost certainly have to man up, given that they are outnumbered approximately two-to one by Pyongyang’s 1.1 million-strong force.

And there are less-obvious economic benefits. It has long been understood within the US business community in Seoul that American security guarantees have been both an insurance policy and a confidence boost.

These issues underwrite South Korean stock values and sovereign credit ratings, and provide a comfort factor when it comes to foreign direct investment by US and Western companies.  

“There is a ‘Korea Discount’ on South Korea stocks,” said the Pacific-Forum’s York, referring to a price downgrade that is widely ascribed to the North Korea threat. York notes that the discount, despite the risks that periodically rise on the peninsula, remains steady and this “is definitely contingent on support from the US.” 

“China is South Korea’s largest trading partner with around 25% of total export volume, compared to about 13% for the US,” said James Kim, chairman of AMCHAM Korea, a business lobby group. “That does not undermine the fact that the US-Korea relationship is not just commercial, but also military and cultural. Having these solid relationships are important, including for credit ratings.”

Washington also provides wider regional security to Seoul. Like Poland and Ukraine in Europe, Korea has, for centuries – indeed, millennia – bestrode dangerous geopolitical and cultural fault lines. Despite its significant mid-power status today, it remains a small player in a region where bigger, more powerful kingdoms, nations, empires and spheres of influence – notably China, Japan, Russia and the US – have historically collided.

So, not only does Washington keep Seoul secure against a dangerous Pyongyang, an expansive Beijing and a potentially expansive Russia, it also ensures that peace is kept between Seoul and Tokyo, despite ever-simmering historical and territorial disputes.

This could explain the popularity of the American troop presence. Though there were massive protests in 2002 after two Korean schoolgirls were killed in a road accident with US troops, according to James Kim of the Asan Institute (no relation to AMCHAM ‘s James Kim). Public polls find that support for US forces in South Korea has fluctuated between 60% and 90% over the last decade.

These issues all justify Trump’s demands for more money to keep US troops put in South Korea. Yet geostrategic shifts suggest that Korean soil will provide US troops with more advantages than vice versa in the future.

These factors present South Korea with both costs and risks.

‘America First’

The threat parameters on the peninsula have expanded in recent years. From 1953, USFK was postured to deter a North Korean attack on South Korea, but the game changed in November 2017.

That month, North Korea successfully tested intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, technologies that gave it a long-range delivery system for the nuclear arms it has developed through a series of atomic tests of ever-increasing yields since 2006.

During a period of high tensions between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-in explicitly stated his determination to avoid war on the peninsula. But with Washington the senior partner in the alliance, and naturally prioritizing its own security, it is questionable how much influence South Korea has over American decisions.

US President Donald Trump meets US troops and their families stationed in South Korea in Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek on June 30, 2019. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP

In early 2018, US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham notoriously said a war with North Korean might be “worth it” for US strategic gain, despite the potential loss of millions of South Korea lives. Other senior US officials have echoed the controversial view.

“I have heard [former US defense secretary] James Mattis and his people during his tenure say in the strongest possible terms their absolute resolve to completely annihilate and destroy any threat by the North,” said Alex Neill, a security consultant based in Singapore who was formerly a senior fellow with the International Institute of Strategic Studies, or IISS.

“They have been quite explicit about using their nuclear deterrent there, and I think that says it all,” Neill said. “That is about defending the US mainland and other territories as much as about defending South Korea.”

Neill added that US resolve on the matter was a “joined-up message” that he said he had heard “on several occasions … and South Koreans were in the room.”

Quite where this leaves Seoul in the decision-making loop is unclear.

“US military brass in Korea are treated like rock stars, with a huge amount of reverence,” Neill said. Noting that the current and previous US ambassadors to Seoul were both ex-naval officers, he said that the defense relationship “sometimes eclipses” foreign affairs and trade.

Buying American

Significantly South Korea is also a huge customer of US arms firms. Seoul’s military is bulking up on arms purchases in advance of taking over wartime operational control of its own forces from the US, a process in which the agenda is largely set by the US with an as-yet non-determined date for its completion.  

This demands a big war chest. In 2020, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the International Institute of Strategic Studies both found that South Korea was the world’s 10th largest spender on its military. SIPRI put Seoul’s 2020 defense expenditure at $43.9 billion, or 2.7% of GDP, while IISS estimates it at $39.8 billion.

This contrasts with SIPRI’s estimate for Japan of $47.6 billion, or 0.9% of GDP, and IISS estimate of $48.6 billion.

“Korea’s military has mimicked the US in so many ways,” said Neill. “Korea’s military is almost a mirror image of the US military – in doctrine, in cultural stuff – so much so that defense industrial investments from other than the US can pose challenges.”

South Korean Air Force troops load a J-DAM guided bomb onto a US-made F-15K jet fighter during a military exercise. Photo: AFP/Republic of Korea Air Force

The alliance, and the related issue of “inter-operability”, has cast raised certain criticism among international arms dealers.

In 2002, Seoul chose Boeing’s F15 over the Rafale, built by France’s Dassault, in a fighter contract worth almost $4 billion.

That sparked a lawsuit from Dassault, which charged that its product had outperformed Boeing’s in the South Korean trials, but that “…the Korean Ministry of Defense has once more made its choice solely for [South Korea]-US political considerations. 

Boeing called Seoul’s decision at the time, “very gratifying.” The US military contractor likely feels the same way about Seoul’s current plans to purchase 60 Boeing-made F-35 stealth fighters at a reported cost of $9.7 billion. But even with such lucrative deals, questions remain over which side benefits more from an alliance that is showing signs of strain.

In Part 2 of this series Asia Times will examine USFK’s basing and the Seoul-Washington security alliance in terms of America’s expanding anti-China strategy – and the dollar costs and strategic risks this present for South Korea.