restricted access Ambivalent Occupation: U.S. Armed Forces in Korea, 1953 to the Present
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Ambivalent Occupation U.S. Armed Forces in Korea, 1953 to the Present William Stueck In his annual report to Congress in March 2008, General B. B. Bell, the American commander in Korea, noted that the U.S. alliance with the Republic of Korea (ROK) continued to serve “its original purpose of deterrence against north Korea .” He added, however, that it was “in our best interest to cultivate and expand the Alliance into one that more fully serves our two nations by contributing to a broader strategy for the promotion and enhancement of regional security.”1 This chapter traces the American view of the purposes of the alliance from the Korean War to the present with special emphasis on the size, nature, and positioning of U.S. forces in Korea, perceptions of North Korean and Chinese intentions and strength, and conditions within the United States and the ROK. Numerous interconnecting themes emerge from the analysis that follows. Although the security of the ROK has persistently held primacy among U.S. goals, Washington has striven to reduce the cost of its commitment to South Korea and at some points has done so in dramatic fashion. Congress has played an integral role in this process. The legislative branch became especially assertive with the cold war’s end, the increased disparity in economic strength between the two Koreas, and the regularization of relations between the ROK and China. Yet the rise of the nuclear issue in relation to North Korea countered Congress’s preoccupation with a “peace dividend” during the early 1990s. The nuclear issue, in turn, dramatized not only the ongoing threat to South Korea but the possibility of nuclear proliferation in the region with its potential for destabilization. Official ROK attitudes have consistently favored maintaining substantial forward -deployed U.S. forces in South Korea but have shifted over time on their relationship to the ROK military and the South Korean government and people. The democratization of the ROK as the cold war scaled down added considerable complexity to the alliance relationship that continues to require sophisticated management on both sides. Democratic politics in Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines 13 Wampler text.indb 13 3/27/12 1:42 PM 14 trilateralism and beyond complicated the military presence of the United States in other parts of the region as well, and these complications impacted U.S. perceptions of its mission in Korea. During the George W. Bush administration, the United States moved toward integrating American forces in Korea into a larger plan of regional security, which was motivated as much by growing concerns over the power and intentions of China as by increased fears of terrorism in the aftermath of 11 September 2001. Among other things the U.S. move entailed a retreat from the forward deployment of military forces in South Korea. That planned retreat joined with differences over the proper approach to North Korea to create considerable stress on the U.S.-ROK alliance. Despite those strains, which peaked during the administrations of Bush and ROK president Roh Moo Hyun, the governments made considerable progress toward adapting the relationship to the changing realities of the early twenty-first century. Although some difficult issues remain, that progress is likely to continue over the next several years, and with less public acrimony under the current leadership on both sides. U.S. Forces in Korea, Truman through Johnson In June 1950 the United States intervened to repulse the North Korean attack on South Korea to deter “aggression” elsewhere and reassure U.S. allies of American reliability. The containment of North Korea and then China from 1950 to 1953 more or less accomplished those purposes, but Washington held no illusions that the military effort during those years alone would ensure their achievement in the future. North Korea and China were perceived as aggressive powers intent on destroying the ROK whenever the opportunity arose. The need for U.S. forces in Korea was a given, therefore, and establishment of a military alliance with South Korea was readily accepted when ROK president Syngman Rhee insisted on it as a condition for accepting (if not signing) an armistice. Nonetheless, looking forward from 1953, the size and nature of U.S. forces in Korea was under almost constant examination. Korea was not a strategically vital country, and the United States had many and growing commitments elsewhere. Thus, between July 1953 and the end of 1955, the United States reduced its forces in Korea from over 300,000 to just...