Changing global security threats and requirements, the improving conventional weaponry of both militaries, and other factors have led to the mutual decision to reduce the number of US troops permanently stationed in South Korea and to change the location of these forces. American officials argued that the need for US troops to serve as a ‘tripwire’ located along the intra-Korean border to guarantee that the United States would intervene militarily to halt any North Korean invasion has become outdated. Instead, enhancements in US transportation, logistics, and long-range precision-strike capabilities would enable US forces to rapidly reinforce and supplement their units on the Peninsula, providing they could overcome any North Korean missiles and other anti-access weapons.
The changes have proven somewhat controversial among South Koreans, who fear that the transfer could embolden their already erratic neighbour. In particular, some South Koreans worry that these changes could cause the North Korean leadership to misperceive a decline in the US willingness to defend them against a North Korean attack. Although the Americans see the redistribution of troops and missions between US and South Korean forces as upgrading South Korea’s status and underscoring US confidence in its improving military capabilities, many South Koreans interpret the move as reflecting American eagerness to reduce its commitments. For some, the move engendered the same anxieties that South Koreans experienced when President Richard Nixon removed the Seventh Infantry Division in 1971 and President Jimmy Carter proposed in 1976 to withdraw all US troops from Korea.
As a reassurance, the two militaries have developed comprehensive plans to ensure that US reinforcements can flow from Japan through Pusan and other areas of South Korea in a crisis. These facilities need protection from the missile defences that will be located in South Korea, Japan, and on the ships operating out of the Jeju Island base.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Notwithstanding Ahn’s suspicions, the laws of physics and geography mean that positioning the US interceptors closer to the DMZ wouldn’t provide any greater protection to South Korea’s border regions. North Korea has a large number of short-range missiles that could hit targets in South Korea, and the United States would need an enormous number of interceptor rockets to destroy these incoming missiles as well as extensive command and control facilities. Furthermore, North Korea can easily attack South Korea through a variety of other means given their proximity. Not only is Seoul within closer range of North Korea’s long-range artillery, but Pyongyang has also developed and practices the capacity to deploy commandos by land (through tunnels) or by sea (with the help of submarines).
As for China, the United States isn’t pursuing a military containment strategy against China, which wouldn’t be supported by the government of South Korea and may other Asian countries. US national security documents, ranging from presidential speeches to White House strategy documents, to the detailed programme budget justifications the US Defence Department submits to Congress, make clear that the developing US ballistic missile defence architecture in Asia is not designed to, nor capable of, shielding Japan, Taiwan, or any other country from China’s vast missile ballistic arsenal, which now numbers more than a thousand missiles and continues to grow.
The main objective of the interceptors on the ships that will be based on Jeju Island is to counter North Korea’s much smaller and less sophisticated missile arsenal. The Pentagon is certainly not aiming to develop, in Ahn’s words, the ‘capability to strike long-range ballistic missile batteries in southeast China that target Japan or Taiwan,’ which would be an act of war best undertaken by US submarines or another platform rather than from a fixed base. And the interceptor missiles the Aegis destroyers have would be pretty useless for the role of attacking missile batteries in southeast China since they do not even have warheads or kinetic explosives. Rather, they are designed to smash into a target moving at ballistic speed, obliterating it through the resulting collusion, rather than through a detonation.