Republicans and defense experts are warning that President Donald Trump’s idea of pulling American troops from South Korea would undermine stability across Asia and weaken the U.S. against China.
One GOP senator, Alaska’s Dan Sullivan, is pushing legislative language touting the importance of the U.S. military presence in deterring North Korean aggression — in contrast to Trump’s repeated calls for withdrawing American forces someday. And other Republicans have sounded that theme since Tuesday’s summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, where the president expressed a desire to eventually “bring our soldiers back home.”
“There’s a reason we’ve had a U.S. presence there, and it’s always served its purpose,” Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), a former Air Force B-1 bomber pilot, said in an interview Wednesday. Stewart said U.S. forces should leave only if something happens to ease the threat from Pyongyang, such as a future peace that unifies the two Koreas.
“I don’t think we necessarily need to have troops there 100 years from now under certain circumstances,” Stewart said. “But those circumstances need to be very tightly defined, and we’re a ways away from that.”
The defense authorization bill being considered by the Senate includes language championed by Sullivan that says the American troop presence in South Korea “continues to play a critical role in safeguarding the peaceful and stable rules-based international order that benefits all countries.”
Trump spoke about withdrawing from South Korea as a presidential candidate, citing the cost to U.S. taxpayers of maintaining the tens of thousands of troops who have remained there since the Korean War ended 65 years ago. But at the summit on Tuesday, he acknowledged that "that’s not part of the equation right now. At some point, I hope it will be, but not right now.”
Even so, security and defense analysts say Trump may be drastically underestimating the importance of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea: Withdrawing them could could lead Japan to question why it continues to host more than 50,000 American troops — especially when those troops repeatedly get into trouble for actions including drunken driving and sexual assault. And a loss of the American presence in Japan could force the U.S. out of the region entirely, Brookings Institution fellow Ryan Hass said.
“The fear is if we were going to draw down our presence [in Korea], the only place we would still have permanent troops in northeast Asia is Japan,” said Hass, who previously served as the director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia on former President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. “I can imagine a situation where Japanese voters start asking, ‘Why are we the only suckers in Asia stuck with American troops?’”
The fear: Withdrawing from the region entirely would diminish U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific, leaving a vacuum for China to fill. Having U.S. troops in South Korea also demonstrates a clear commitment to American alliances and provides a forward presence to deter aggression.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last week ruled out the idea of pulling out of South Korea anytime soon, saying on June 3: “We’re not going anywhere. It’s not even a subject of the discussions.”
But on Monday, Mattis told reporters that he wasn’t sure whether a possible future troop reduction would even be on the table in Singapore. "I don’t believe it is,” he said. When asked whether he would know if the topic was on the agenda, Mattis said, “Yes, I sure would.”
Trump’s words in Singapore raised doubts about Mattis’ previous reassurances, as did the president’s pledge to end U.S. military “war games” in the peninsula.
After the summit, several Republican lawmakers publicly broke with Trump on the future of the U.S. presence in South Korea.
“As far as moving troops off the Korean Peninsula, I think we need to stay there,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) told Time magazine. "We don’t just withdraw our troops."
“The one thing that I would violently disagree with is removing our troops,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on NBC. “That would destabilize Asia. That’s what China wants. That doesn’t make the world more peaceful, it makes it more dangerous.”
On the other hand, a successful effort by Trump to normalize relations with North Korea could create a new set of problems with China if American troops remain on the peninsula.
“If through some miraculous process, we’re able to achieve rapid near-term denuclearization, it will have the unintended effect of opening up a broader set of challenges," Hass said. "If we keep a presence there, the Chinese will complain alliances are pointed against them."
But Hass added that he found a “reluctant tolerance” to continued U.S. presence in South Korea during a recent trip to Beijing.
It’s unclear if U.S. military officials in the region knew ahead of time that Trump would talk about bringing American forces home at some point in the future. But some experts speculated that the military was caught off guard by the remarks.
“By not discussing his remarks beforehand with allies, by not discussing with the military command concerned, Trump is also raising the risk of post-summit fallout with the very adversary he’s been courting,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper of the Center for a New American Security.
Despite the broad criticism of Trump’s remarks, some experts argue that rethinking the U.S. troop presence in South Korea is a smart step. Michael Auslin, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, said the mindset of an alliance serving as a “open-ended blank check" from the United States is beginning to change.
“Historically, alliances do not last for 60, 70 years,” he said during a media roundtable this week in Stanford, Calif. "They don’t. They’re temporary, they’re designed to deal with a specific problem and then they break apart."
David Kang, the director of the University of Southern California’s Korean Studies Institute, pointed to past U.S. drawdowns as evidence that the current troop presence is not necessarily some magic number.
“We’ve been able to draw down tens of thousands of troops without weakening South Korea,” Kang said. “We shouldn’t say, ‘They’re there, therefore they must stay there forever.’ It’s a question we have to ask. … An alliance can be very strong without U.S. troops there.”
At 28,500, the U.S. presence in South Korea is the smallest it has been since before the Korean War. And in recent years, the main combat unit there has rotated in from stateside, rather than living in South Korea permanently as U.S. brigades and divisions did for decades and some support units still do.
U.S. troop levels have gradually fallen from a peak of about 325,000 troops on the peninsula during the Korean War. During heightened tensions in the Demilitarized Zone in the late 1960s, the U.S. had more than 65,000 troops in South Korea. The number then hovered around 40,000 troops for decades after former President Richard Nixon cut troop levels in 1971, then dropped to between 30,000 and 40,000 in the 1990s, when the George H.W. Bush administration also removed American nuclear weapons from South Korea.
In recent decades, the main U.S. ground combat formation on the peninsula has been the 2nd Infantry Division. But that unit’s presence dropped to a single ground combat brigade of tanks and armored vehicles plus aviation and support units when the George W. Bush administration cut the troop count to a little under 30,000 in the mid-2000s, when the Army needed some Korea-based troops to fight in Iraq.
The Korea-based armored brigade deactivated in 2015 as the Army shrank and moved to a rotational model for its presence in Korea and Europe. Currently, a brigade from the Georgia-based 3rd Infantry Division is deployed to the peninsula.