This week, North Korea fired on South Korea near their shared maritime border. This incident occurred in the middle of Foal Eagle, a joint U.S-South Korea military exercise.
In order to defend South Korea, thousands of U.S troops have been based in the South since the end of the Korean War. For many years, North Korea was militarily superior to South Korea due to military support from the Soviet Union and China. However, the fall of the Soviet Union and China’s recent desire to distance itself from North Korea has allowed South Korea’s military to jump ahead. In light of these events, it is no longer necessary for the United States to keep soldiers on the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea is far superior to North Korea in terms of technology. Most of North Korea’s weaponry is over 30 years old and inoperable due to lack of maintenance. In contrast, most of South Korea’s arms are either modern American weapons or on par with such weapons.
In economic considerations, South Korea is also light-years ahead of North Korea. South Korea has forty times the GDP and three times the defense budget of its Northern counterpart. South Korea also has a massive industrial capacity and $94 billion dollars in foreign currency reserves with which to sustain a war. To quote Thucydides, war is a matter not so much of arms as of money.
North Korea does not have the money to purchase the material necessary for war, nor do they have the industry to make such material themselves. Although North Korea has a large stockpile of weapons, equipment, and supplies, the efficacy of this stockpile is increasingly limited as time goes on. North Korea’s fuel and ammunition reserves can only last 100 days of sustained combat. If the war turns into a battle of attrition, the North is bound to lose.
North Korean’s military, the KPA, looks impressive on paper, but it is a hollow shell. North Korea’s military rarely trains due to lack of food and fuel. Many North Korean soldiers suffer from malnutrition and starvation, as evidenced by refugees reporting soldiers stealing food at gunpoint.
Sure, North Korea has a million-man army, but recall that Iraq also had a million-man army during the Gulf War. Unlike North Korea, Iraq’s military had plenty of fuel and combat experience from the Iran-Iraq War and it was still slaughtered by modern weaponry.
North Korea’s only advantage is numbers. North Korea has a million active duty soldiers and nearly 9 million reserve troops, making for a total force of 10 million. South Korea has 639,000 active troops and nearly 3 million in reserve (3.5 million troops in total).
However, North Korea would not be able to deploy all of its forces if it invaded the South. Large numbers of troops must be kept along the coast to defend against an amphibious invasion (during the Korean War, UN forces were able to turn the tide by landing behind enemy lines at Inchon). Even more troops would also have to remain in North Korea to guard against internal rebellions and coups.
Furthermore, South Korea has twice the population of North Korea, and could easily outnumber the KPA by drafting more people. South Korea has 12.5 million people fit for military service, far more than the North.
South Korea also has a terrain advantage. Korea is very mountainous, heavily favoring defensive positions. Mountains force attackers to channel their forces into narrow passes that can be easily bottlenecked by a defender (e.g. Thermopylae). There are only three North-South attack routes in Korea, all of which are heavily fortified.
The Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea is the most heavily fortified border in the world. The DMZ has more land mines, electric fences, barbed wire, and anti-tank obstacles than anywhere else on the planet. It would take KPA engineers days, if not weeks, to clear these defenses all whilst under heavy fire. By the time the North Koreans penetrated the DMZ, they would be immediately hit by South Korean armored counter attacks.
Thus, South Korea is more than capable of defending itself. The only way North Korea could defeat South Korea is by using nuclear weapons. However, doing so would invite instant retaliation from the United States. The U.S military presence in South Korea has little effect on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. What would the Second Infantry Division do in a nuclear war? Shoot at the nukes with their rifles[KM1] ?
ICBMs, submarines, and strategic bombers allow the United States to obliterate North Korea without any bases in the South. Thus, South Korea would remain under the U.S nuclear umbrella long after the event of a troop withdrawal.
Even if South Korea couldn’t hold back North Korea on its own, the United States could still defend the South without bases in the South. Strategic bombers can attack North Korea from the continental United States. Smaller aircraft can be deployed from aircraft carriers or bases in Japan. Furthermore, the U.S military can rapidly redeploy troops to Korea due to its strategic transport capabilities and the large ports and airfields in South Korea.
Withdrawing troops from Korea would benefit the United States in several ways. First, it would save money. USFK costs about $15 billion a year, of which the South Koreans pay half. The United States could better spend this money elsewhere; more strategic transport capabilities, modernizing more important bases, domestic programs, etc.
Similarly, South Korea could spend the money on its own military. The troops withdrawn could be used to fill gaps in other units. Furthermore, US troops bring $5 billion a year in economic activity to Korea, and withdrawing those troops could bring some of that money back home.
Finally, a U.S troop withdrawal would encourage China to cease support of North Korea. China has reluctantly backed the Kim regime because they fear that U.S troops would be on China’s border if North Korea collapsed. Imagine what the United States would do if Mexico were split between North and South, and thousands of Chinese soldiers were in South Mexico. By removing troops from South Korea, the United States would encourage China to dump North Korea, depriving Kim Jong Un of his only major ally.
[KM1]Edit for readability? Took out parentheses