Not even the Bush administration can get everything wrong. In announcing American intentions to reposition troops, eventually bringing 60-70,000 home, Mr. Bush has finally made the strategic moves needed now that the Cold War is over. His critics say that his plans are a disaster for U.S. policy in the Korean peninsula, but a thoughtful consideration of the situation suggests the changes envisioned offer a way to halt the saber-rattling there.
The U.S. has had troops in South Korea since the North attacked the South in 1950. After three years of nasty, and largely forgotten, fighting, the war ended with an armistice but no peace treaty. American troops, about 37,000 of them, are there as of August 2004, facing a North Korean army that may number 1,000,000. South Korea has 560,000 in the field. It doesn’t take a West Point graduate to realize that the U.S. troops in and of themselves do not shift the advantage to the South.
American troops are still there as a trip-wire. They are deliberately positioned to come under fire should the North attack again. This would naturally result in American casualties, and the U.S. would have a perfectly legitimate reason to intervene with whatever forces it wanted. One needn’t be a conspiracy theory nut to see this. Paul Wolfowitz himself has called it a “tripwire function” (which he then calls “counterproductive,” proving that if there was a man in the Bush White House capable of getting everything wrong, he’s the one to do it.)
So, the question is how many Americans would have to remain in the North Korean crosshairs to retain this function? Would America go to war if a single U.S. soldier died in an attack by Pyongyang on Seoul? Or is the number 10, or 100, or 1,000? Truly, I couldn’t say, but I am confident that there are 25,000 troops surplus to requirements for this function.
This recognition of reality gives America a genuine lever against North Korea, probably the nastiest regime in the world. Withdrawal of American troops is something the North wants, and we should extract a price for it. It is a truism in diplomacy that one should always try to get a concession for doing what one intended to do anyway.
The current plan, which is still open to change, wouldn’t start pulling troops out until 2006. That gives American diplomacy time to work on Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow. North Korea has had it all its own way for too long – what does Mr. Kim get for not making nukes? The shoe is on the other foot with the US troop withdrawals – what does Washington get for cutting troop levels?
And if the North Koreans won’t play nice, we can always cancel the plans.
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