By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, May 18 (Yonhap) -- Brisk diplomacy to denuclearize North Korea and build a lasting peace on the divided peninsula is raising a consequential question: What role, if any, will U.S. troops in the South play after the Koreas bury the hatchet?
The U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), a key guarantor of security for the South, has resurfaced as a subject for political and academic debate, since the Koreas agreed at their summit late last month to seek a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.
Few doubt that the 28,500-strong USFK has deterred North Korean aggression and served as a stabilizer in the broader Northeast Asian security context since the conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
But voices have been rising that a permanent peace arrangement between the two Koreas or between the U.S. and North could raise the need to scale back USFK or reshape its role, mission and modus operandi.
A political dispute was reignited earlier this month by President Moon Jae-in's security advisor, Moon Chung-in, who argued in a contribution to U.S. magazine Foreign Affairs that it will become "difficult" to justify the U.S. troop presence here after a peace treaty is signed.
The president quickly stepped in to scotch the rising talk of a possible U.S. troop pullout, saying USFK has "nothing to do" with a peace treaty given that it is a matter concerning the Seoul-Washington alliance.
The talk was further fueled by a New York Times report that U.S. President Donald Trump had ordered the Pentagon to review a USFK drawdown. Trump later said that the troop issue is "not on the table," while his security advisor, John Bolton, called the report "utter nonsense."
Much ink has been spilled trying to explore possible roles that the USFK may undertake after the armistice is replaced by a peace treaty or after the two Koreas are reunified.
Some say the USFK should stay in the South -- possibly as a neutral entity -- to oversee the envisioned peace regime in Korea. Others argue it could play a role in balancing against major powers of the region, such as China, Japan and Russia, that could vie for greater influence over the peninsula amid geopolitical flux in Northeast Asia.
The top priority for USFK has been fending off North Korean aggression under a collective defense mechanism. The presence of the world's strongest military has created a conventional superiority vis-a-vis North Korea.
Though the allies' defense treaty, signed in 1953 after the Korean War, does not guarantee the USFK's "automatic" intervention in a crisis, its forward deployment has indicated that it has assumed the "tripwire" role. But the ongoing project for the U.S. base relocation away from the inter-Korean border has spawned concerns that its frontline defense could weaken -- though experts say technological advancements could offset geographical disadvantages.
The USFK's crisis operations are based on the allies' joint contingency plans that target North Korea as a potential adversary. The plans outline a series of procedures to deal with a wide range of scenarios, such as a full-blown war and a political collapse in the North.
Aside from the deterrence role, U.S. forces as part of the United Nations Command (UNC) have played a pivotal role in overseeing the armistice regime that Pyongyang has constantly challenged through border provocations and low-intensity attacks.
USFK is based on the alliance treaty while the UNC is anchored in a U.N. mandate. But many U.S. troops in the South have carried out responsibilities at the direction of both entities. The four-star USFK commander now leads both the Combined Forces Command and the UNC.
Like U.S. forces in Japan, some of the American troops in the South have also served as a strategic stabilizer in the volatile security landscape in East Asia currently marked by an increasingly assertive China and a resurgent Russia.
Washington's strategy and USFK
Should the USFK get some relief from its hitherto intense task of deterring the North, it may have greater room to operate beyond the peninsula in line with the U.S.' military strategy to maintain its power projection capabilities and regional preponderance, and preserve global commons, such as the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a strategically vital waterway long challenged by China, observers said.
Over the past years, the U.S. military has been developing a series of operational strategies, doctrines and concepts, such as the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons, the Multi-Domain Battle and the Distributed Lethality.
They appear aimed largely at countering the "anti-access/area-denial" threats from China's cruise and ballistic missiles, bombers, coastal artillery and other advanced weapons with longer operational ranges, and greater lethality and accuracy,
Anti-access, or A2, refers to action that stops an adversary from approaching a specific operational area, while area-denial, or AD, means action aimed at limiting the freedom of action and maneuver within an area.
Should there be a peace treaty with Pyongyang that would lessen the USFK's burden for peninsular defense, American troops here could gain greater flexibility to serve Washington's regional strategy, analysts said.
"For long, the U.S. has been striving to transform the USFK into an easily deployable maneuver force rather than a static one, but that endeavor has been impeded by the North Korean threat factor," Kim Tae-hyun, a diplomacy professor at Chung Ang University, said.
Analysts argued that the changing contours of security in Asia have raised the need for a readjustment of the USFK operational structure and the alliance's missions. But deterrence against a belligerent Pyongyang has overshadowed discussions over its new roles.
"As new strategic realities create new powers, new types of conflicts are likely to emerge. China's military modernization leveraging new domains of warfare -- space, cyberspace, near-space, and underwater -- will likely impact the future of U.S.-R.O.K strategic planning," Michael Raska, assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. R.O.K is the acronym for the Republic of Korea, South Korea's formal name.
"The challenge for the U.S.-R.O.K alliance is to be able to adapt to these potential changes to the character of war. The reality is that the force posture of the alliance has remained relatively unchanged, in terms of its current doctrines and strategies," he added.
But the pitfalls of the USFK undertaking a mission to keep China in check could be a strain on Seoul's relationship with Beijing, its largest trading partner, and the possibility of the peninsula serving as a staging base for U.S. troops in case of a conflict between the two major powers.
"South Korea's concern has been what if the U.S. uses its Pyeongtaek garrison or Osan Air Base as a staging base to deploy its troops to potential conflicts in the South China Sea or the Taiwan straits," Park Won-gon, a security expert at Handong Global University, said. "That is a matter of negotiations between the allies."
USFK missions after peace treaty
A heated debate over the status of the USFK surfaced in 1999 when then President Kim Dae-jung pushed for his "Sunshine Policy" of engaging the North. It was triggered by Kim's remarks that Pyongyang hoped to see the USFK remain on the peninsula as a peace keeper.
"If the USFK is not stationed on the peninsula, an arms race between China and Japan could arise, and our country could sustain the greatest damage," Kim was quoted as saying during his meeting with military leaders here. "While calling for the USFK withdrawal, the North might not want to see the arms race occur and break the balance of power in Northeast Asia."
To tamp down the dispute over his remarks, the then National Security Council released its position that the USFK is a matter only between the South and the U.S., and that it is desirable for the USFK to stay on the peninsula as a "stabilizer" in Northeast Asia even after a peace regime is established and the two Koreas are reunified.
Those calling for a shift in the USFK roles argue that as its operational plans target Pyongyang as an enemy, a peace regime, if forged, could make those plans obsolete and force it to explore new military purposes.
They, in particular, argue that the U.S.-led UNC, where troops from 17 countries, including Britain, Canada and Australia, still serve, will become useless should a peace treaty be inked to remove its core role to maintain the armistice.
However, others say that any change in the USFK will be a decision only by the South Korea-U.S. alliance, and that whether to retool or abolish the UNC should be a political decision by Washington because the U.S. led its creation and has been entrusted with sweeping authorities to designate its commander and spearhead its overall operations.
One of the key issues over the USFK status following a peace treaty is whether it can stay "neutral."
Experts say the USFK can remain here as a neutral enforcer of a possible peace regime, as the Seoul-Washington defense treaty does not specify Pyongyang as their shared adversary. The treaty stipulates the allies would come to each other's defense in case of an armed attack in the Pacific area or territories under their administrative control.
But the experts note that the UNC might find it difficult to appear neutral, as it is rooted in a 1950 U.N. resolution that clarified the North's invasion into the South as a "breach of peace" and its military support for the South against the North.
As for the future USFK roles, a peacekeeping function is one of the most talked about ones. The USFK could serve as a peacekeeper on the peninsula independently or as part of a multinational group with or without ties to the United Nations.
Also under a new security arrangement with the South, American troops could embrace new functions, such as a collective security mission to promote peace and stability in conflict-laden zones beyond Korean borders.
This would be a path that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has taken since the end of the Cold War, so as to stay relevant and move beyond its collective defense mission aimed at deterring the Soviet Union and blocking communist expansion.
Chief among NATO's post-Cold War roles is a crisis management function, which includes intervening in overseas conflicts, such as those in the Balkans, Libya and Syria, and promoting peace and stability across the globe.
Beyond the peacekeeping responsibility, the USFK could stay here as a regional balancer. For Seoul, a dramatic drawdown of U.S. troops or their pullout would be a concern, as it could create a power void that may prompt major powers to jostle for greater clout over the peninsula.
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