Time to Withdraw from Korea

July/​August 1996 • Policy Report

In his new Cato book, Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World, Cato senior fellow and syndicatedcolumnist Doug Bandow presents a comprehensive review of the history of U.S. military involvement in South Korea andargues that it is time to recognize that South Korea is capable of defending itself and bring American troops home.

Bandow contends that military activism abroad may have been justified at one time to contain the hegemonic threat posed bythe Soviet Union and its clients. However, with the Cold War behind us, there is no longer any need for U.S. tripwires aroundthe world. Such a tripwire is especially inappropriate on the Korean peninsula. “In 1953 the ROK was awreck — impoverished, war ravaged, and ruled by an unloved autocrat whose belligerence had helped plunge his country into adisastrous war. Without an American security guarantee, South Korea would not have long survived. But four‐​plus decadeslater the South is prosperous and democratic while its adversary is ruled by an autocrat who lacks both charisma andinternational friends. North Korea talks of avoiding absorption by Seoul, not of conquest.”

Washington’s military commitment to South Korea has outlived its usefulness. While South Koreans undoubtedly appreciatethe protection, there is no compelling reason for the forward deployment of U.S. troops and the corresponding risk toAmerican lives. South Koreans “will probably still want the United States to be prepared to fight to the last American forthem,” Bandow writes, “but their wishes should not matter. Washington should risk the lives and wealth of its citizens onlywhen something fundamental is at stake for their own political community. U.S. soldiers’ lives are not gambit pawns to besacrificed in some global chess game.”

Bandow builds his case by carefully examining the history of the U.S. involvement in South Korea and its relation to America’schanging international role. He notes that the United States “emerged from World War II as the leader of the ‘free world’ andthe only power strong enough to contain a seemingly aggressive and threatening Soviet Union. Between 1950 and 1953America essentially adopted as its responsibility the defense of the entire globe.” South Korea was merely one front in therivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.

When the worldwide Soviet threat disintegrated, any need for a strong U.S. presence in South Korea went with it. However,instead of gradually disengaging itself, the United States has pursued a strategy of expanded involvement under the pretext ofmaintaining regional stability. Bandow examines the various justifications for continued involvement and concludes that the“chimera of stability is likely to lead Washington to risk thousands of lives day in and day out, and to spend tens of billions ofdollars year after year, in hopes of preventing events that are not only purely speculative but also tangential to U.S. security.”

In the book’s final chapter, “A New Foreign Policy for a Changed World,” Bandow eloquently makes the case that it is time toreturn to the American tradition of individual liberty at home and nonintervention abroad.