The Effects of Korean Unification on the US Military Presence in Northeast Asia

Article excerpt

"The greatest and most fundamental future challenge to the US in the Asia-Pacific region may simply be to maintain a presence." (1)

The Korean peninsula remains one of the last bastions of the Cold War. The United States has forward deployed approximately 91,500 personnel to the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan, in part to deter North Korean aggression or to provide the initial military response if deterrence fails.(2) However, ongoing diplomatic negotiations between the ROK and North Korea show the potential for a peaceful reconciliation and eventual reunification of the two nations. While a unified Korea is not a certainty, a political settlement on unification may be reached by 2015. (3) Korean unification would be a catalyst for a major revision of the security architecture in Northeast Asia, involving not only Korea and the United States, but also Japan, China, and Russia. (4) One of the principal US concerns is that the perceived regional stability would lead to a call for the withdrawal of US forces based in Northeast Asia. The groundwork needs to be laid now for maintaining a continued US presence after unification in order to fu lfill our national interests. (5)

The focus of this article is on the impact of Korean reunification on the future US military presence in Northeast Asia. The size of US forces in the region should be based on a number of factors, including our national interests, geography, emerging threats, regional powers, the appropriate command and control structure, and the capabilities the individual services provide in attaining our military objectives.

The United States has a vital interest in a secure and stable Northeast Asia. Between 1950 and 1953, over 26,000 Americans gave their lives in defense of the ROK and our national interests. (6) In the 50 years since the Korean War, our national interests in the region have grown. The United States has security alliances with Japan and the ROK and enormous trade and economic interests in Northeast Asia. The US economy depends on access to these markets. Japan ranks as the world's second largest economy, China as the third largest, and the ROK as the 11th. (7) The United States conducts a third of its total trade in the East Asia-Pacific region. (8)

The region not only has strong economies, but strong militaries. China, Russia, and North Korea currently compose three of the five largest militaries there, while Japan has the most modern military force in Asia. (9) China's and the two Koreas' historic distrust of Japan has been placated over the years by the US military presence in the region, thus enhancing regional stability. As part of the bilateral US military alliances with the Republic of Korea and Japan, the United States has provided air and maritime power projection capabilities for those two nations that might appear provocative if either had developed them on their own. If the United States withdrew from the region and a power vacuum ensued, the instability between nations with combined strong economies and militaries could lead to an arms race having detrimental effects on regional stability and the global economy.

Without the North Korean threat, however, the US force presence will have to adjust to meet the new security environment. Forces designed to face a specific threat will need to be reshaped to face regional contingencies. Taiwan, to the south, may still be an area of regional tension, but such transnational threats as terrorism, piracy, drug trafficking, and infectious diseases will be the most likely security concerns. (10) Transnational threats will pose a greater problem unless Asian nations move forward with a multilateral agenda, rather than the bilateral or unilateral approaches commonly used now.

The US presence will have to be transformed into one that is smaller, is more expeditionary, has the flexibility to deal with numerous types of small-scale contingencies, deters other nations from seeking regional hegemony, and is capable of operating in a complex multinational and interagency environment. …