Stopping the Security Spiral: The Importance of U.S. Disengagement in South Korea (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Hunter Slingbaum, Fall 2022 Marcellus Policy Fellow

As of 2021, the United States had roughly 28,500 troops actively deployed in South Korea and 55,000 troops in Japan, both nations that have seen significant economic success and relative military peace over the last several decades. Unlike Japan, however, South Korea has a nuclear adversary and rival on its northern border, the primary reason the United States has claimed its presence in the country to be necessary to maintain global peace and pursue national interests. At the same time, South Korea is also notably one of the most militarily robust of U.S. allies, boasting a force more than sufficient to defend itself from its neighbor to the north.

Despite the claims that the U.S. presence acts as a vital stabilizing force in the Korean Peninsula, recent months have contradicted this assumption to a worrying degree. Especially since the election of President Yoon Suk-yeol in South Korea back in May of 2022, both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) have been playing their part in an ever-increasing security spiral—with the U.S. serving unconditionally as the South’s military partner. While Yoon calls on the United States to ramp up commitments to defending the region, it could not be more critical a time for Washington to reduce its military presence in the country, commit to diplomatic efforts to deescalate tensions, and end the decades-long excessive U.S. military presence in East Asia.

While it may have been reasonable one or two years prior to argue for a more gradual and mild approach to East Asia disengagement, the current climate necessitates immediate and significant action. The peaceful path forward for the United States is to commit to a “disengagement-for-diplomacy” approach in the Korean Peninsula, aiding in the facilitation of diplomatic talks between the ROK and DPRK while simultaneously reducing the U.S. troop presence and commitments in the South. The United States could then move into a more gradual disengagement approach, such as “reductions-for-peace,” to eventually reduce the troop presence to zero.

This immediate disengagement approach is not only feasible but necessary, as the ROK has more than enough military strength to keep the country secure under typical circumstances, and U.S. troops are a significant motivating factor in the DPRK’s military buildup. With the United States out of the equation militarily, the South will feel less emboldened to take aggressive action and the North will have fewer incentives to continue its path of escalation. Disengagement-for-diplomacy has the potential to be the push both nations need to come to the negotiating table and forge a peaceful path forward.