[Column] US troop withdrawal from Korea could be the Acheson Line all over

Posted on : 2024-05-16 17:00 KST Modified on : 2024-05-16 17:00 KST
A withdrawal of US troops from Korea would be an erasure of the “collateral” that guarantees Washington’s defense of Seoul
President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) sings “American Pie” at a state dinner hosted in his honor at the White House in April 2023, as US President Joe Biden cheers him on. (Yonhap) 
President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) sings “American Pie” at a state dinner hosted in his honor at the White House in April 2023, as US President Joe Biden cheers him on. (Yonhap) 

By Gil Yun-hyung, editorial writer 

Even now, just thinking about that time makes me think I’m going to jolt out of bed in the middle of the night.  

On May 5, 2006, villagers gathered in the fields of Daechuri and Doduri surrounding Pyeongtaek, where the expansion of Camp Humphreys was set to take place, banding together to protest the base’s construction. The government dispatched 11,500 police officers from 110 squadrons and over 2,800 troops from two battalions of the Capital Corps’ 700th Commando Regiment.  

The first clash between local farmers and residents and government troops and police occurred at the main gate to the US base, which was in front of the main entrance of the now-defunct Daechuri Elementary School. The ferocity of government forces sent the local farmers, workers and students retreating into the elementary school, where they held out for several hours before being dragged out in a bloody, chaotic struggle. That is how the Korean government secured the land that now hosts the largest US overseas military base, Camp Humphreys.  

I was so shocked by the incident that for a while, I couldn’t even look in Pyeongtaek’s direction. As time passed, however, I was forced to face the grave realities of the security situation involving the Korean Peninsula and East Asia. In the face of these realities, my perspective gradually changed. When considering South Korea’s national security, and the importance of the deterrence provided by the US military in this role, the “costs” of stationing US troops on South Korean soil are unavoidable and necessary. This change of heart caused me to lose many friends I’d made during the Pyeongtaek resistance days.  

So, what is the deterrence offered by US Forces Korea? In a book of interviews by Japanese journalist Tsuyoshi Sunohara, “Japan-US alliance vs. China-North Korea” (2010), Joseph Nye Jr., a professor emeritus at Harvard University, offers an interesting answer. Nye served as the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs under the Bill Clinton administration. He argued that when it comes to US extended deterrence, the best guarantee of the US’ ability to protect Japan in a nuclear event isn’t nuclear weapons but the presence of US troops in Japan.  

The truth is, one country claiming that it is willing to absorb a nuclear attack in order to protect another country is not believable from a simple common-sense perspective. It’s asking us to believe an obvious lie. On this note, let me share an anecdote.  

At the Paris summit on June 2, 1961, French President Charles de Gaulle asked US President John F. Kennedy if the US would protect France in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. A young Kennedy gave the textbook answer of “Yes.” Having lived through World War II and the Nazi occupation, de Gaulle asked which targets the US would attack in the event of a Soviet offensive. He pressed even further to see if Kennedy was willing to say the US would sacrifice Washington and New York to save Paris. Naturally, Kennedy could not answer such a question, which was an admission that there was no reason to prevent France from obtaining nuclear weapons.  

On that note, would the US be willing to sacrifice Washington and New York to save Seoul? Naturally, the diplomatic answer is “Yes.” In the Washington Declaration adopted on April 26, 2023, the White House stated, “President Biden highlighted the US commitment to extend deterrence to the ROK is backed by the full range of US capabilities, including nuclear.” 

Anybody who believes this lie in full is a fool, but South Korea has failed to question US leaders as de Gaulle pressed Kennedy in Paris. That’s because Seoul has “collateral” in the form of US troops stationed on its soil. When it comes down to it, in the event of an attack on South Korean soil, the only practical reason for Washington to act defensively and offensively is not the fate of Korea but that of its soldiers stationed at Camp Humphreys.  

The same goes for an attack on Japan. It will be the fate of US soldiers and their families stationed at the American bases in Yokosuka and Okinawa that will determine whether or not Washington acts. If a Chinese or North Korean nuclear strike wipes out tens of thousands of Americans, then Washington will surely live up to its promise of a “swift, overwhelming and decisive response.” In that respect, the 28,500 US troops at Camp Humphreys are a form of collateral that guarantees the defense of Korea — collateral of blood.  

As the US presidential election approaches, Trump is already hinting at the potential for a pullout of US troops. But this goes beyond simply asking Korea to cough up more in defense costs. People like Elbridge Colby are questioning the necessity of the US-South Korea alliance itself.  

While it’s unlikely that this position will gain ground in the majority of Washington, who knows what will happen? A withdrawal of US troops from Korea would be an erasure of the “collateral” that guarantees Washington’s defense of Seoul. It would be a rehash of the Acheson Line that excluded Korea from the US military umbrella but included Japan. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol should lose sleep at the very thought.  

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr

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