Korea: Time to Close Military Bases


The U.S. has roughly 39 disclosed military bases in South Korea, 57 years after an armistice put an end to the Korean War (1950-53), and the question now is whether they serve any purpose, or has our ongoing American military presence actually become an obstacle to reunification, and a roadblock to demilitarization?

A U.S. presence in Korea followed a vacuum caused by the defeat of imperial Japan in WWII. After trade started with Korea in 1875, the Japanese decided to simply take resources by force in the 20th Century, and their abuse did not stop until 1945, when the U.S. occupied South Korea, and the Soviets entered North Korea.

While the U.S. and Soviets forced Japan to grant independence, neither of the wartime allies was particularly focused on the needs of the Koreans. As the American and Russian forces withdrew in 1948, they divided Korea into a North Korean People’s Republic, north of the 38th Parallel, and the Republic of South Korea, south of it.

Two years later, the North invaded the South in an effort to reunite Korea. The United Nations, with Russia absent from the vote, found a breach of the UN Charter, and authorized the use of collective force to repel the invasion, in what became the Korean War (1950-53). Mao’s China soon entered the conflict on the side of the North, causing a stalemate, and an ultimate ceasefire. A 2½-mile Demilitarized Zone has separated two Koreas ever since.

After both North and South Korea joined the UN in 1991, train travel between the two was attempted to ease tensions, but the labeling of the North as a terrorist state, and fear of conflict, has kept both sides on edge, and has caused occasional flare-ups.

From the perspective of the North, since the Americans still have 30,000 troops stationed at various military facilities in the South along with their weapons, they must maintain a large military to repel a possible attack.

So what would really happen if the U.S. unilaterally withdrew all forces? Hawks may in a knee jerk fashion predict an invasion by the North. What is much more likely is a demolition of the barrier between North and South, and the commencement of trade. The North would gladly take the benefits of trade from the Southern economy, one of the strongest in Asia.

While a total unilateral withdrawal is largely a pipe-dream given the dysfunctional American political system, since very few American politicians would have the courage to do something so bold, progress always begins with an idea, and the idea is to unilaterally close our bases in Korea, and withdraw from their soil. Such a move would ease tensions, lead to reciprocal demilitarization, and eventual reunification.

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