Is South Korea ready to defend itself without US?

I just got done reading a Cato Institute study by Doug Bandow recommending a US military withdrawal from South Korea. Since the Cato Institute almost invariably recommends an isolationist military policy, I read its studies skeptically, but this one appeared pretty convincing to me.

Basically it says that South Korea has a 700,000 man military service, far better trained and equipped than the North’s, and in all likelihood capable of repulsing any attack from the North. Since South Korea’s economy is about 40 times bigger than the North’s, it can more than afford to replace the US presence (which only amounts to 37,000 troops). If South Korea isn’t already able to defend itself, it darn well ought to be able to in the near future. It also emphasizes the friction between our soldiers and the South Korean populace (I suspect it overstates this somewhat; Korea and America both have xenophobic yahoos, but they don’t necessarily represent the whole population).

Still, if South Korea can take care of itself, I think it should take care of itself. What with Afghanistan, Iraq, KFOR and God knows what else coming, I think America could use those 37,000 troops elsewhere.

The only thing that concerns me about withdrawing American troops from South Korea is that it might be interpreted by the North as a reward for breaking the Non-Proliferation Treaty and developing nuclear weapons. Maybe America should work out a guarantee that a North Korean nuclear attack on the South will be met by an American nuclear counterstrike against the North as a precondition to our withdrawal. Otherwise, the South Koreans would have little choice but to abandon the Non-Proliferation Treaty themselves in order to build a nuclear deterrent against the North.

South Korea can do a very good job of defending itself; the primary US commitment in the event of a war would be in airpower, most of the ground forces would be South Korean. Despite the size and equipment of the South Korean military, North Korea is a serious danger to the South for several reasons. The North Korean army is slightly larger, numbering ~1,000,000, it is forward deployed to be able to attack with little or no warning, and Seoul is within artillery range of the DMZ, raising the specter of a mass conventional or chemical attack on the city. From here

The South Koreans are better equipped, though North Korea does have far more artillery. Superiority in training isn’t as clear cut though, from the same source:

I actually look it the other way around – all those troops currently tied down in Iraq could be far better used as a reserve should they be needed in Korea, which to me at least is a bigger threat than Iraq ever was, both conventionally and potentially with nuclear weapons proliferation.

Certainly North Korea could do terrible damage to the South, with its artillery poised within range of Seoul. That is true regardless of whether America stays or goes. To my mind, the question is whether the South can resist a conventional attack successfully without American help.

The Cato Institute study I mentioned says

Your report may be correct that the North Koreans are trying to train more than they did, but I see no reason to douby the DIA’s conclusion that South Korean training remains superior.

Traditional military maxims say that, other factors being equal, the attacker needs about a 3-1 numerical edge to win. North Korea has about a 1.45 to 1 edge. America has demonstrated in Iraq (twice) that a 3 to 1 edge is not necessary if your training and technology are substantially superior. But it does not seem that North Korea has any advantage over the south in training or equipment.

I see your point about North Korea being a bigger threat than Iraq, inasmuch as we know North Korea is developing, and probably already has, nuclear weapons, while Iraq did not. Still, I don’t see how America’s going to avoid being tied down in Iraq for quite some time, as withdrawing now would almost certainly turn Iraq into a haven for terrorists targeting America, regardless of the hotly debated issue of whether Iraq was already such a haven before America invaded. I still think we should give serious thought to cutting nonessential military commitments to concentrate on the unavoidable tasks like reconstructing Iraq. If South Korea can defend itself, I would argue that it is a nonessential commitment.

I think the point of the American presence is more of a tripwire force than an actual number of troops that can seriously alter a war between the North and the South.

If the North came pouring over the border and killed 20,000 American troops in the process that would almost certainly spur the US into action against North Korea. If that force wasn’t there then it may be possible the US would just sit on the sidelines and bluster.

Removing the American troops would almost certainly embolden the North…whether it’d be enough to attack is anyone’s guess…that regime is nuts.

So, if we say that the reason the US forces are there is to act as a tripwire, and that most of our assistance will be airpower and communications, could any other Asian nation help out? I’m mostly looking at Japan here (any previous animosity aside; I’m thinking geopolitics here), which I suppose could use the JSDF if they find a way to get around the consititutional problems. I doubt China would get involved either way, except maybe at the UNSC. For that matter, could there be another technically UN force to go in there again and push the North Koreans out, like there was during the Korean War?

Judging from what I’ve read, I’d say “yes”. But I don’t see how anyone couldn’t agree to the following: If SK is not capable of defending itself, let’s get a plan in place to make sure that it can do so in “x” years. You can define “x” however you like, but I’d be happy with anything less than 10. As far as I can tell, “x” currently equals infinity.

I go for the tripwire scenario… the US soldiers are a way of guaranteeing US involvement. Certainly US Airpower and high tech are of more value militarily than those ground troops.

Now… the North is crazy enough to do some anything. While the US keeps giving them what they want they will remain quiet.

Exactly. The US presence ensures that there won’t even be any quibbling about US intervention in a future war – it would be involved from the get go. For that matter, the war has never technically ended; all that is in place is an armistice, peace has never been signed.

Danimal: My personal feeling is that South Korean training is likely superior to that of the North, and that its command and control is probably better as well, but there is only one way to truly put it to the test. Underestimating the North as crippled and decrepit is something that I’ve heard here before, but I’d caution against it. It may not be technologically up to date, but its government continues to espouse militaristic rhetoric and has conducted military actions against the South over the past decades. Among them are digging tunnels under the DMZ, infiltration of commandos by mini-subs, an assassination attempt against the South Korean president, the axe murders of American personnel in the DMZ, and the attack on and capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968. There’s an account on some of them here. I didn’t intend to imply that the US should leave Iraq, apologies if that’s how it came across. Now that were there, it has to be dealt with, but I’d rather we never went there in the first place. Regarding the 3-1 superiority rule of thumb needed for a successful advance, it requires massing a 3-1 superiority at the point of decision, not necessarily in overall figures along the entire line. 9-1 is sometimes the preferred superiority needed to ensure a successful advance against heavy fortifications, which describes the DMZ pretty well. The effect of surprise can be a force multiplier, reducing the need for such large superiority in raw numbers. This is something that the North might be able to pull off with its forward deployment, its large commando forces, and the possibility of forces appearing in the rear of South Korean and US forces through the use of tunnels. Some of those discovered have been quite large, capable of passing military vehicles through them.

Regarding Japanese involvement in a future Korean conflict, while it is within the realms of possibility, it can’t be relied upon at least due to Japanese public opinion and constitutional problems. It would almost assuredly allow US airpower to be used from its soil if the war was indisputably started by the North, however.

I ask this of those more knowledgeable about the NK situation than I am:

NK has or could at some point have nukes. In order to keep SK from developing nukes, does the US need to keep some advanced military technology* on the ground in SK that we don’t want to give (or even sell) to SK, necessitating the presence of a certain amount of US troops in SK as well? I’m wondering if this might be a counter-argument to my “x years to get out” scenario.

*Before someone else chimes in with this, could it even be… 1920s style death rays.?:slight_smile:

I can’t imagine South Korea developing nuclear weapons of its own as long as it is under the US nuclear umbrella. To defend against the conventional threat, what is needed is a minimal force assuring US commitment from the first shot in the fighting. The current ground force component in Korea isn’t very large, consisting of the 2nd Infantry Division. I suppose it could be reduced to a ceremonial battalion or removed altogether, but the minimum needed are bases in the South, the personnel to run them, and the assured commitment that US forces would begin flowing into Korea immediately in the event of hostilities. A particularly vital part of the US commitment is the ability to rapidly shift a lot of airpower into bases in the region, which could blunt a successful North Korean offensive. South Korea can’t afford a large, modern air force of the size that the US possesses, and the US possession of one isn’t tied specifically to Korea. I don’t think it’d be wise to get out of Korea as long as the only thing in place is an armistice. I don’t foresee much possibility of this happening until North Korea collapses under the weight of its own government, though.

In addition to factors already mentioned its worth pointing out that North Korea is both unable to feed itself and suffers from chronic fuel shortages which make it extremely vulnerable in any conflict.

asterion said:

The Korean populace would never tolerate Japanese troops. A vocal minority currently protests against American troops; there would be massive civil unrest if Japan sent troops. (I expect many, if not most, South Koreans would prefer to live under North Korean communist rule rather than have Japanese troops anywhere on the Korean peninsula.)

Would troops from another Asian nation work well for the defense of South Korea? Most other Asian militaries are not as large or well trained as the ROK’s. Probably the only reasonable choices are Australia and China. Australian troops would be viewed similarly to American: definitely a viable option. China (with troops to spare) would definitely stabilize the border. But I think Koreans (both South and North) would not view Chinese interference as much better than Japanese.

BTW, would anyone care to comment on China’s recent, rather large deployment of troops to their North Korea border?


Election year fast approaching in the US…Bush popularity slipping…Axis of Evil country…Wag The Dog… :wink:

Actually I have no clue and this is the first I’ve heard of it so if anyone else knows I’d be interested in hearing more about it as well.

BBC news story

I guess it was almost a month ago now. To summarize: the border “police” have been replaced by border “army” troops. And supposedly an additional 150,000 “combat” troops have been sent close to the border too. I use quotes because I’m not sure what the difference between each type of unit actually is in China.

What message is China trying to send, and to who? Or is this only the results of some inscrutable internal politics?

Over 300,000 North Korean refugees are already in China. China wants to prevent another flood of them. Whether there is a war or not, more and more North Koreans are going to flee.

my dumb question:

Any idea of the result of a vote were taken in SK as to tossing out the US? Maybe they’re sick of the US and want to take care of things themshelves?

In one of David Hackworth’s books, (I believe it was “Steel my Soldier’s Hearts”, but will have to double check), he described going back to Korea in the mid-90s and speaking with some of the S. Korean military.
According to this book, in preparation for just such an attack from the north, they have been building as much as possible within artillery range of the north. (possibly Seoul, but again, I have to go double check) The idea being that they know the north will pound that site, and they might as well, to impede the north’s progress through that area with rubble and big ass holes.

He’s pretty strident about getting our forces out of there as well.
He was on the ground in Korea for several years and has a lot of very good insight to what we were doing there, and how things might go if we had to go back in.

his coloumns/archives

I recommend “Steel My Soldier’s Hearts” and “About Face” for some good first hand accounts of how it was the last time we were there in force.

The Asia Times Online had a series of articles on the deployment of Chinese troops to the North Korean border. In this article one of the border guards even admits why 100 000 soldiers were sent to the border, and it definitely wasn’t just about refugees:

In a later article from the series, ATol outlines China’s strategy and shares their analysis of it:

The reason for the refugee subterfuge involves political embarrasment:

Better to pretend those troops are there to stop refugees.

Is there any chance of China going in there and doing the dirty work? From what it sounds like, the Yalu River border is relatively remote and unprotected compared to the DMZ (hell, the Israel/Syria border is unprotected compared to the DMZ). North Korea is clearly in China’s circle of influence, as evidenced by the recent multilateral negotiations.

Kim Jong Il is clearly insane and (hopefully nearly) nuclear. Wouldn’t it behoove China to take out such an unstable party, especially considering the internal domestic risk of having loose nukes in the area? Add to this that China may be a little itchy when it comes to territorial expansionism – they have seized Tibet and parts of Kashmir in recent memory and there is increased talk about their influence in Eastern Siberia.

Is this ludicrous? I know only what I read about in the US press. How would the US respond to this? It would seem that in any circumstance without US presence or action would lead to China’s circle of influence expanding against the US circle.

Also, can anyone fill me in on the details about the proposed relocation of US troops in South Korea (also, don’t they want to be spelled Corea?) I read something about relocating the 37,000 troops away from the border and backing them up with heavy duty (read nuclear) airpower in Diego Garcia. That way, if the North Koreans were to cross the border and unloose their artillery on the DMZ and Seoul, forget tripwire, the US forces could actually do some damage.

This may be one of those situations where the US is doing this not only out of treaty and historical precedence, but they have a dog in the fight. The fight for Korea is not only about North Korea, but about containing China and about supporting democracies, increasing the US circle of influence, and all that other neoconservative stuff that this administration wants us to buy. While South Korea may be perfectly able to defend itself, maybe the US doesn’t care and wants to stay there to help out so they can share the spoils.

If China took care of business and put in a more moderate Communist regime the US would do nothing substantive to prevent it. There wouldn’t be a peep in the UN and Bush might even praise it provided the Chinese behaved themselves during the occupation.