Paving the Way for Peace: U.S. Restraint on the Korean Peninsula (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Daniel Baxter, Fall 2020 Marcellus Policy Fellow

The United States’s military presence in South Korea has outlasted its historical mission and strategic purpose. In the 70 years since the beginning of the Korean War, South Korea has transformed itself from one of the poorest countries on Earth to a $1.5 trillion economic powerhouse. South Korea is a stable democracy where civilian politicians are in control of a professional, technologically advanced military. At this point, policymakers should declare the US mission in South Korea a success and withdraw.

Current US obligations such as the US-South Korea Combined Forces Command are an outdated legacy of the mid-20th century. The South’s massive, technologically advanced economy is more than fifty times larger than North Korea’s economy. The North’s military is more of a deterrent against an invasion than a force with serious offensive capabilities. The US-South Korea alliance’s combined efforts would be the most effective if negotiations with Pyongyang primarily involve bilateral, Inter-Korean negotiations and the US facilitates and enables Seoul’s diplomatic efforts. US efforts to achieve a massive, grand bargain have not made progress towards denuclearization, but South Korean efforts to reduce tensions have achieved concrete progress like the destruction of landmines and guard posts in the De-Militarized Zone.

Total denuclearization and reunification are extremely unlikely in the short to medium term. However, US support for South Korean diplomacy can achieve a lasting reduction of tensions, marked by a formal end to the Korean War. Increased communication between the two Koreas reduces the possibility of a crisis escalating to another hot conflict. In this security environment diplomatic efforts can eliminate the North’s ability to produce additional nuclear warheads through the destruction of the Yongbyon enrichment facility, and pave the way for a denuclearized, peaceful Korean Peninsula.