With U.S. President Donald Trump once more touting his desire to withdraw the 28,500 U.S. troops currently stationed in South Korea, it is perhaps worthwhile briefly examining the last time an American president attempted to remove U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula. U.S. President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s was ultimately stopped by congressional obstruction, the Pentagon, and the intelligence community, among others, from implementing a troop withdrawal policy he had repeatedly promised during his presidential campaign in 1976. Put otherwise, and to use 21st century Trumpian parlance: the so-called “deep state” stopped Carter from executing his plans.
During the 1976 presidential campaign — the same year two American soldiers were axed to death by North Korean soldiers in the demilitarized zone — Carter repeatedly voiced his desire to pull out the 40,000 American soldiers (out of which only 15,000 were combat troops) from South Korea, where they served as a de facto tripwire to deter a North Korean invasion. For example, at a Foreign Policy Association luncheon that year Carter declared: “I believe that it will be possible to withdraw our ground forces from South Korea on a phased basis over a time span to be determined after consultation with both South Korea and Japan.”
In his remarks he also mentioned one of his chief personal motivations for the desired troop pullout: “[I]t should be made clear to the South Korean Government that its internal oppression is repugnant to our people, and undermines the support of our commitment there.” South Korean leader Park Chung-hee was indeed a notorious human rights abuser, who had political opponents imprisoned and tortured. Park was not the only reason South Korea was unpopular in Washington DC at the time. In 1976, Seoul was directly implicated in what came to be known as “Koreagate,” a political scandal which involved South Korean lobbyists trying to bribe members of U.S. Congress in order to win favorable treatment for South Korea’s interests.
Carter’s broader motivations for the desired troop withdrawal included reigning in military spending — “trimming the fat,” as he called it — as well as the legacy of the recently lost Vietnam War, which made the American public wary of any military commitments abroad.
Once Cater assumed office in January 1977, he immediately ordered plans to be drawn up for the removal of all U.S. ground troops (air and logistical elements were to remain behind) from South Korea along with around 700 nuclear weapons deployed in the country by issuing a presidential memorandum that called for a “reductions in U.S. conventional force levels on the peninsula,” and an assessment of the “the human rights problem in Korea.” He issued the memorandum without consulting the South Koreans, although he did dispatch Vice President Walter Mondale to Japan in January 1977 to consult with the Japanese government on the subject. Japan’s Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda was naturally skeptical of Carter’s plan and thought it would detrimentally impact Japan’s security.
The South Korean government was informed in the middle of February 1977 about Carter’s desire to withdraw ground troops from the peninsula — which, according to a Congressional Budget Committee estimate, would save $2 billion and not alter the military balance on the peninsula. The plan met stiff opposition from the Park administration, despite the pledge that South Korea would receive increased military aid and credits. Park was especially incensed about the perceived U.S. abandonment of its ally as South Korea had dispatched thousands of soldiers to Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s to support U.S. efforts to turn the tide in the fight against communist insurgents. Over 16,000 South Koreans were killed in the Southeast Asian country.
Nonetheless, it was not just the South Koreans who opposed the president’s plans. More importantly, the majority of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, especially the defense and intelligence communities — what today would be known as the deep state — as well as U.S. Congress, in particular members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Armed Forces Committee, vehemently opposed the president’s withdrawal plans. Ultimately, the concerns of most opponents within the establishment boiled down to two major points: the state of U.S. conventional deterrence in East Asia and the loss of U.S. credibility as a reliable ally and partner. (There was also the danger that South Korea would resume its quest for nuclear weapons.)
The military in particular was opposed to the president’s plans. In May 1977, Major General John K. Singlaub, the chief of staff of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), gave The Washington Post a highly critical interview of Carter’s South Korea policy. He predicted a breakdown of conventional deterrence by noting that “if U.S. ground troops are withdrawn on the schedule suggested, it will lead to war.” Carter immediately reassigned Singlaub as a result. The general, however, was not alone. Concerned about conventional deterrence and trying to delay a final presidential decision, the Joint Chiefs of Staff pushed for a phased four-to-five year withdrawal. As the commanding general of USFK, General John Vessey Jr., emphasized in 1977: “President Carter’s decision is based on a vision of the future, a Korea four or five years from now in which United States ground troops won’t be required. That’s not the situation now.”
Notably, what ultimately caused Carter’s plan to unravel was the work of an intelligence analyst, John Armstrong, an Army officer working for the U.S. Army’s Special Research Detachment at the National Security Agency who forced the U.S. intelligence community to reassess its estimates of North Korea’s conventional military strength as a result of his work. Among other things, he calculated that North Korea’s tank forces were purportedly 80 percent larger than previously estimated. As a result, because of Armstrong’s efforts a consensus slowly emerged in the U.S. intelligence community that the North Koreans were militarily superior to the South, which provided ground troop advocates a solid argument for opposing the president’s pullout policy.
As a Diplomat contributor sums up: “Armstrong’s work influenced Army generals, members of Carter’s own bureaucracy, and Congress, who then put pressure on Carter to reconsider the withdrawal.” This is confirmed by Morton Abramowitz, then the deputy assistant secretary for international security affairs in the Department of Defense, who said in a 2011 interview: “The analysis was very useful for the anti-withdrawal forces in Washington. It undermined one of Carter’s assumption upon which he based his decision.”
Naturally, the president was less than thrilled and even less convinced about the conclusions of the intelligence community.“This conclusion is absurd,” the president jotted down after reading a 1978 CIA estimate which emphasized: “The static military balance between North and South Korea alone now favors the North by a substantial margin.” Nonetheless, the North’s superiority over the South slowly became more or less the new accepted wisdom for the majority of the foreign policy establishment, which feared the political repercussions of a withdrawal and tried to slow down the implementation of the policy in any way it could.
For example, a number of establishment members — Abramowitz, Richard Holbrooke, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Michael Armacost, director for East Asian and Chinese Affairs at the National Security Council, among others — got together regularly as members of “East Asia Informal,” an unofficial talk shop or discussion group, to discuss U.S. policy in Asia where they plotted U.S. policy in South Korea. According to Abramowitz: “[T]here was an informal network in Washington among people dealing with Asia. It consisted of a variety of offices in State, the NSC, and ISA. Holbrooke, Armacost, and I were in frequent contact.” Following deliberations, the majority of group members concluded that the troop pullout “was bereft of strategic purpose.”
While most “East Asia Informal” members did not think that the North Korean military threat had substantially increased over the last eight years as was claimed by Armstrong’s analysis (indeed some even favored a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops), the reports on North Korea’s growing conventional military strengths by the intelligence community were nevertheless used as tools to prevent or at least delay the president from executing his desired policy. Holbrooke noted that even if “the bean counting [the intelligence community’s assessment of the North Korean military] had gone the other way, we still would have found a reason to suspend the withdrawal.” Nonetheless, Armstrong’s findings were their most potent weapon in influencing the bureaucracy.
The intelligence community’s finding also filtered into the legislative process. For example, the Senate refused to endorse the withdrawal policy and asked the president to seek congressional approval for his South Korea policy. Additionally, two senators — Hubert H. Humphrey and John Glenn — wrote a critical report in 1977 on the military balance on the Korean Peninsula, corroborating Armstrong’s finding and stating that “when measured by firepower only, the balance has shifted from rough parity in 1970 to a definite advantage for the North in 1977.” As a consequence, the report argued for a reassessment of the withdrawal policy. The House Armed Forces Committee reiterated the Senate’s findings in another report that same year stating that “the North Koreans possess the capability of attacking the South with a minimum of warning and that the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division is needed for an adequate defense.”
This legislative opposition forced Carter to grudgingly sign into law the Foreign Relations Authorization Act (Fiscal Year 1978) in August 1977, which included the following provision: “(1) United States policy toward Korea should continue to be arrived at by joint decision of the President and Congress; (2) any implementation of the President’s policy of phased troop withdrawal from Korea should be consistent with the security interests of South Korea and the interests of the United States in Asia, notably Japan (…).” Given growing tensions with the Soviet Union and uncertainty over U.S. relations with China at the time, all of which negatively impacted the security interests of the aforementioned states, in addition to the North Korea’s alleged conventional military superiority, the case for withdrawing U.S. troops from Korea became weaker and weaker as time progressed.
The president’s withdrawal plans finally died when it became clear that it would prove impossible to sway the establishment’s majority opinion, which had a disproportionate impact on bureaucratic processes and consequently the implementation of any policy directive coming from the White House, on the wisdom of the troop pullout. At the end, Carter stood virtually alone in his desire to bring the troops back home. A Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) compiled by the CIA in the spring of 1979 confirmed Armstrong’s key findings and would prove to be the final nail in the coffin for Carter’s plans. Abramowitz noted in 2011 that “the bureaucracy came together to oppose the withdrawal decision,” with the “withdrawal decision […] finally rescinded when CIA’s analysis came to the conclusion that the North Korea’s military capabilities were far greater than had been thought.”
Following a few more months of bureaucratic infighting (carefully hidden from the public) after the publication of the SNIE and influenced by other geopolitical considerations, notably the Carter administration’s desire to normalize diplomatic ties with China, various domestic obstacles — Congress initially refused to step up military aid to South Korea (a precondition for any troop pullout) as it was still experiencing the aftereffects of the “Koreagate” scandal — as well as a result of a heated meeting between the U.S. president with South Korean leader Park in July 1979 after a G-7 economic summit in Tokyo, Carter decided to abandon his withdrawal plans that same month.
On July 20, 1979, Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski read to reporters a statement from the president: “Withdrawals [from Korea] of combat elements of the 2nd Division will remain in abeyance. (…) The timing and pace of withdrawals beyond these will be re-examined in 1981. In that review the United States will pay special attention to the restoration of a satisfactory North-South military balance, and evidence of tangible progress toward a reduction of tensions on the peninsula.”
Carter was voted out of office in 1980 and the re-examination of a U.S. troop withdrawal never took place. The deep state had played for time and prevailed. At the end, the president did manage to remove around 3,000 troops from the peninsula — by simply not sending replacements for soldiers as normal rotations ended — along with 450 of the roughly 700 nuclear weapons.
Jimmy Carter remains skeptical about the intelligence community’s assessment to this day, writing a few years ago: “[T]here were very close ties between military leaders in our two countries (the United States and South Korea), so a lot of pressure (on the policymaking process) also came from the Pentagon and CIA. I was somewhat skeptical of intelligence reports that North Korea had doubled the size of its military within a few years but had no way to disprove them.” The last sentence still conveys a sense of frustration that it was ultimately the intelligence community’s assessment that triggered the unraveling of his South Korea policy.
Consequently, with another U.S. president once more considering a removal of U.S. troops from the peninsula in the near future, and opposition to this possible effort already forming, the White House would do well to re-examine the 1977-79 policy debate and the fate of the Carter troop withdrawal plans should it wish to succeed where the administration of the 39th U.S. president failed.