US Troops in Korea: From History’s Vantage Point

Photo By: Staff Sgt. Steven Schneider

Robert Carlin recently observed that despite Pyongyang’s historical demands for the removal of US forces as a condition for peace, it might not want to see US forces rapidly depart. Consistent with this, there was no direct mention of US forces in the Panmunjom Declaration following the Inter-Korean Summit, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in has stated Kim Jong Un would not insist on their withdrawal. Pyongyang understands as well as anyone that the US presence is embedded within a larger geopolitical and strategic architecture.

Yet it is unclear whether or not US President Trump understands this. This matters because while Trump may be inclined to remove or at least draw down US troops, history demonstrates even a determined president cannot so easily disentangle American forces from the highly militarized peninsula. The most salient example is President Jimmy Carter, whose abortive troop withdrawal policy remains relevant today.

Upon entering office in January 1977, Carter quickly moved to implement his campaign promise to remove all US ground combat forces from South Korea. However, by July of 1979 his troop withdrawal policy had come to naught.[1]

Opposition from various quarters forced Carter to include a massive compensatory military aid package to Seoul as part of the plan and to structure the withdrawal into three phases, with the largest combat elements back-loaded into its final phase. As it happened, congressional obstruction, as well as controversy surrounding the so-called Koreagate influence-buying scandal, delayed passage of the military aid legislation, forcing Carter to draw-out the initial phase.[2] Then, in the winter of 1978-79, new intelligence revealed North Korea’s order of battle was larger and more heavily armored than previously thought. For opponents of Carter’s plan within his administration, the new intelligence was the evidence they needed to terminate a policy they never supported.

To the point, Morton Abramowitz, then deputy assistant secretary for international security affairs in the Department of Defense, remarked that from early on in the process: “we began a rear guard action—delay it, water it down, mitigate the decision as much as possible.”[3] Richard Holbrooke, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said that even if “the bean counting had gone the other way,” meaning the intelligence on North Korea had been less worrisome, “we still would have found a reason to suspend the withdrawal.”[4]

Many throughout the US foreign policy establishment, within Congress, and among regional allies felt similarly and resisted the policy. And there are direct parallels to today.

In terms of its introduction, Carter’s policy was problematic for several reasons. First, many disagreed with a pre-set timetable for withdrawal. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) insisted on a four-to five-year timetable, which Carter thought was too slow. Many held that conditions instead of a pre-set timeline should determine the implementation process. Of course, as things currently stand, there is no official plan for withdrawing troops, but it is not hard to imagine Trump impetuously ordering troop removals or draw downs by a certain date, expecting his advisors and allies alike to simply follow his announced (or tweeted) policy line.

Second, Carter’s policy was precipitous as Seoul still needed time to compete its defense modernization in order to competently deter and, if need be, fight North Korea without the immediate presence of US combat forces. General John Vessey Jr., then four-star commander in chief of the USFK who was deeply skeptical of the plan, remarked: “President Carter’s decision is based on a vision of the future, a Korea four or five years from now in which United States ground troops won’t be required. That’s not the situation now.”[5]

Today, Seoul’s defense and war-fighting capabilities are far more advanced than in the late 1970s. Nevertheless, Seoul remains dependent on the US nuclear umbrella as the ultimate deterrent against North Korean attack. Additionally, Seoul depends on crucial US intelligence and early warning capabilities, even for its ostensibly independent Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system. Also, over the last 20 years, the US-ROK alliance has become progressively more interoperable and combined operations more tightly bound. Upgrading such capabilities and reconfiguring combined operations will take time and extensive training.

Third, Carter did not attempt to gain any trade-off from Pyongyang or its Chinese and Soviet allies. For opponents of the plan, he was putting the cart before the horse by removing an enormous bargaining chip without leveraging it for some sort of peace settlement or non-aggression pact. Carter did push last-minute tripartite US-South Korea-North Korea talks just before his June 1979 summit with South Korean President Park Chung-hee. However, the withdrawal was effectively dead, his own advisors viewed it as a “lousy idea” and “gimmicky,” and Pyongyang itself would not meet Seoul on equal terms.

In a sense, the present situation is different in that talks are already underway. Nonetheless, Trump faces similar issues as no actual agreements have been reached beyond jointly stated goals of peace and denuclearization. Yet, according to the New York Times, Trump already appears to be asking the bureaucracy to consider reductions before meeting Kim. Earlier, Trump’s former Senior White House advisor, Steve Bannon, was also apparently open to withdrawal. This follows an NBC News report last Monday that in February, Trump yelled at Chief of Staff, John Kelley, about removing troops. Such moves betray an astonishing lack of awareness regarding the effect such precipitous signaling has on one’s negotiating position.

Fourth, ever the so-called outsider, Carter did not properly consult with interested parties before announcing the policy. In fact, within days of his inauguration, Carter instructed the bureaucracy to study how to implement the withdrawal, not whether or not it should be done. Many in the policymaking community, not to mention allies in Seoul and Tokyo, were caught completely by surprise.

Again, we do not know for sure what President Trump has instructed advisors to do. In fact, National Security Advisor, John Bolton, called the NYT report “utter nonsense.” Still, Trump is far more of an outsider and neophyte than Carter ever was, and his administration repeatedly demonstrates official statements should be taken with some skepticism. For its part, Seoul denies such plans exist and President Moon says USFK would remain even if a peace treaty were achieved. Although, President Moon’s special advisor, Moon Chung-in, has openly questioned a continued US presence, but was recently forced to walk back those comments. That said, Trump has shown outright disdain for allies, so it is hardly a stretch to imagine him not properly consulting them.

Fifth, Carter failed to provide a clear rationale for the policy. When pressed, his administration offered several reasons: the US troop presence was never meant to be permanent; withdrawal was the natural evolution of the security relationship; and Seoul’s impressive economic growth had increased its ability to defend itself.

Trump himself is on record criticizing Seoul for free riding on American protection and arguing it needs to defend itself. However, utilizing such an argument right now (which, of course, ignores the fact that Seoul covers half of US basing costs already, including 90 percent of the cost for constructing Camp Humphreys) betrays a stunning lack of awareness of how it might affect ongoing inter-Korean and US-North Korea talks.

Importantly, despite Carter’s seemingly ex-post facto rationales, opposition persisted. Indeed, many opposed the withdrawal per se, no matter how well or poorly introduced. For them, the withdrawal posed several significant risks both on the bilateral and regional level. Again, the same risks are operative today.

Bilaterally, under Carter, reducing the American presence was seen to lower deterrence and thus increase the chance of North Korean adventurism or war.[6] More importantly, the withdrawal would diminish US influence over South Korea’s defense policy, including Seoul’s pursuit of its own nuclear capability. Just before Carter, the Ford Administration had shut down Seoul’s secret nuclear program. With news of Carter’s plans, local US commanders and South Korean officials warned the ROK might again develop its own nukes.[7]

In recent years, an increasing number of voices in Seoul have called for the development of an independent nuclear deterrent. While in direct response to Pyongyang’s own program and still not a mainstream view, any perceived or real drawdown in the US commitment would surely increase the appeal. Although Trump blithely states he thinks Seoul (and Tokyo) should have its own nukes, the overwhelming majority of the US government disagrees.

Also under Carter, there was apprehension the withdrawal would lead to contradictions in the alliance command structure. In 1978, the bilateral ROK-US Combined Forces Command (CFC) was established, which, among other things, was a cooperative means for dealing with Carter’s policy. Some were concerned the new arrangement would lead Seoul to take back operational control (OPCON) of its military and result in a mismatch between a US general overseeing the armistice while commanding a much reduced US presence, which would lack any actual ground combat component. Since there was no plan to abrogate the US-ROK alliance and some US forces would remain, the US would remain treaty bound to a situation over which it maintained less command and less control.[8]

Any withdrawal or reduction under Trump would raise similar issues. Naturally, the ROK would assume greater command responsibilities, including full wartime OPCON. Seoul has pursued this for over a decade, and President Moon has publicly affirmed as much. The rub is that unless the alliance is entirely abrogated, Trump will have to accept and sell to Congress and the American people leaving US forces under South Korean OPCON. A unified, combined military command would be required to preserve basic military preparedness. How would Trump’s America first bluster jive with the optics of a US general serving as the deputy of a Korean? The short answer: it wouldn’t.

Regionally, opponents of Carter’s plan saw the local US presence as rooted within and underpinning a broader US hegemonic structure, which they were reticent to see undone. Most immediate, was the negative consequence for the security of Japan. Many felt the withdrawal would force Japan to pursue rapid militarization and thus spur a regional arms race and instability.[9]

Today, such concerns are heightened. Tokyo’s military capabilities are more advanced, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his supporters have weakened aspects of Japan’s vaulted peace constitution, making further militarization easier than before. Obviously, Tokyo’s rearmament would hasten Beijing’s own well-documented military aims and spending. Again, Trump’s impetuous remarks about Japan having nuclear weapons simply add further instability to the mix.

Beyond Japan, Korea was a key node within the larger US General Military Force Structure in the Western Pacific. Added to purely military considerations, was the more intangible political and psychological value of the US presence. Removing US forces from Korea, it was believed, would undermine allies’ perception of the credibility of US commitment. In the late 1970s, at a time of increased Soviet Far Eastern deployments and as the last remaining Asian mainland deployment after the Vietnam withdrawal, both the military and psychological importance of US forces in Korea had only increased. The reaction in Tokyo and Seoul to the potential withdrawal was resounding opposition, which united otherwise intense political foes.[10]

Nowadays, the US presence within South Korea, including the largest overseas American military base in the world, US Army Garrison Humphreys, is considered the linchpin of the Trump Administration’s so-called “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy,” with the proverbial rising China in sight. At a time of growing Chinese strength and assertiveness in the region, alongside Trump’s willingness to pull out of TPP while simultaneously badger allies on trade issues, murmurs of troop removals has already unnerved Seoul and Tokyo. It is telling that Pyongyang appears more aware of the interconnectedness of the local US presence with wider considerations than Trump is.

While Trump is unaware of this, others are not. Consequently, he will face roadblocks similar to those Carter encountered in the 1970s. US combat forces have been stationed on South Korean sovereign territory for all but one year of its existence (the year the Korean War broke out). No matter how things proceed in the coming months, undoing such a deeply rooted presence is not easy and will have serious geopolitical and strategic consequences in the region.


  1. [1]

    For the most accessible if relatively brief account of Carter’s withdrawal policy see, Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (Basic Books: New York, 2001), 84-108.

  2. [2]

    Terrence Smith, “Carter Cuts Total of U.S. Troops To Leave South Korea This Year,” The New York Times, April 22, 1978.

  3. [3]

    Ambassador Morton I. Abramowitz, interview by Thomas Stern, 2011, retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mfdipbib001675/.

  4. [4]

    Joe Wood, “Persuading a President: Jimmy Carter and American Troops in Korea,” National Security Archives, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB431/docs/intell_ebb_002.PDF.

  5. [5]

    Bernard Weinraub, “US Commander Says Seoul Needs Big Arms Buildup,” The New York Times, August 3, 1977.

  6. [6]

    Bernard Weinraub, “Issue and Debate: The Korea Withdrawal: Some Officers Are Nervous and Congress Wants to Have a Say,” The New York Times, May 30, 1977; see also, Weinraub, “Ousted General Says Most US Officials in Korea Fear Removal of Ground Troops Will Lead to War,” The New York Times, May 26, 1977.

  7. [7]

    “Official Hints South Korea Might Build Bomb,” The New York Times, July 1, 1977.

  8. [8]

    Hubert H. Humphrey and John Glenn. US Congress. Senate. Committee on Foreign Relations. US Troop Withdrawal from the Republic of Korea : A Report to the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate. Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1978, 35-42.

  9. [9]

    Humphrey and Glenn, 13-15.; see also, Bernard Weinraub, “Japan Ponders Its Own Defenses As US Prepares Korea Pullout,” The New York Times, August 1, 1977.

  10. [10]

    Andrew H. Malcolm, “Carter’s Proposal for Withdrawal From South Korea Is Uniting Political Foes There in Rising Concern,” The New York Times, January 16, 1977.


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