Does South Korea still need US troops?

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 $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.