Details of the long-expected reduction in U.S. forces in South Korea are emerging, with a drop of 12,500 being the current number on the table. Ultimately, this round of reductions, tentatively set to conclude by the end of 2005, would leave 25,000 U.S. forces inside South Korea.
South Korea maintains a military of 650,000, half of North Korea’s 1.2 million man military. The removal of 12,500 U.S. forces has little substantive effect on the actual physical security of South Korea, but does make a significant statement – at least from the South Korean point of view.
While Washington is concerned about its broader global defense realignment (and the 12,500 number is low by some estimates of what needs to be withdrawn from Korea), South Koreans view the reduction as being directed toward them exclusively. Following a recent upsurge in anti-American sentiments, the troops reduction is being perceived and portrayed as U.S. punishment for South Korean ingratitude.
This is a feeling Washington does little to counter. For U.S. policymakers, it is acceptable to let the Koreans sweat it out a bit, as the perceived anti-Americanism is a big headache for relations. Ultimately, though, Washington has no intention of abandoning South Korea, and the Seoul have little interest in seeing the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula.
As with any relationship, there are ups and downs, and the relationship between Seoul and Washington is no different.