Reductions for Peace: Realigning U.S. Policy in South Korea (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Ethan Kessler, Spring 2021 Marcellus Policy Fellow

The United States currently stations over 28,000 troops in South Korea (ROK) to help guard it against attacks from North Korea (DPRK). These troops are a legacy of a different time. The ROK has become wealthier and more powerful since 1953 when it came under the protection of the United States. Now, the ROK can surely defend itself from the DPRK without a foreign troop presence, a development that should drive a rethink in U.S. policy.

If the shift of power on the Korean Peninsula makes a rethink of U.S. policy possible, then the risk of war with the DPRK makes such a rethink prudent. The United States can pursue its interests in Korea more wisely by implementing a “reductions-for-peace” approach that gradually reduces U.S. forces in South Korea to zero, with a timeline determined by military considerations and in consultation with Seoul. This approach would be more likely than current U.S. policy toward the DPRK to extract meaningful steps from Pyongyang toward improved relations with the ROK and/or the United States, lowering the risk of war. U.S. troop reductions should be accompanied by dropping the longtime U.S. insistence on full denuclearization of the DPRK and by attempts to reverse attendant United Nations sanctions on the DPRK.

The reductions-for-peace approach is feasible because the ROK does not need U.S. forces or extended deterrence for its safety, making U.S. troop withdrawal consonant with U.S. interests in a safe and secure ROK. It holds a chance for furthering U.S. interests because U.S. forces pose a threat to the DPRK; removing them can induce the DPRK to take meaningful steps toward peace, which would lessen the risk of a war that could harm U.S. interests. The reductions-for-peace approach would mark a stark departure from traditional U.S. policy toward Korea, but such a departure is necessary to better align U.S. foreign policy interests and practice.