North Korea, South Korea And The U.S. Military Presence: A Complex Trio

It has been announced that South Korea will aim to keep U.S. troops within its borders, even if a peace treaty with North Korea is signed. The announcement came recently and with a confused reaction from many International Relations experts, many who directly associate the presence of U.S. troops as a direct threat to North Korea from the South.

International Relations expert Moon Chung-in commented on this in U.S.-based magazine “Foreign Affairs.” He claims that “it would be difficult for U.S. forces in South Korea to justify their presence after a peace treaty [between North and South Korea] is signed.”

Conversely Kim Eui-Kyeom, a spokesperson for the South Korean government, told reporters that “U.S. armed forces in Korea is an issue between South Korea and United States alliance,” and that their presence has “nothing to do with signing peace treaties.”

Much of the tension is due to the history between the two nations of North and South Korea, and how the U.S. has played into that. This is as the splitting of the peninsula was a direct result of the United States and the Soviet Union, who could not decide on how to distribute the land that had previously been Japanese colonies, with the Korean peninsula being included amongst that.

This caused the cutting of the country in half along the 38th parallel, with the North being given to the Soviets and the South to the United States. This saw the growth of two new governments that had vastly different ideologies. Such a difference resulted in the Korean War of 1950-1953. The outcome of this was never actually a peace treaty, but instead a ceasefire, so by International Law the Korean War technically never ended. This has meant that the U.S. has garrisoned significant numbers of troops within South Korea, just in case one day the North decided to make their move.

As a result, it would seem odd to many that the United States would not move their military, even if a peace treaty were reached. It strikes many as indicative that the relationship between South Korea and the U.S. is more tight-knit than many realized, and that there may be a power imbalance between North and South Korea; with the North being left alone to the might of the South Korean army and the support it receives from the United States. Likewise, there is perhaps a continued mistrust placed on North Korea, even with a peace treaty. If so, what does that signal to Pyongyang if U.S. troops were to stay in South Korea even after a peace treaty?

I feel as though handling a peace treaty with North Korea is similar to handling nuclear disarmament after the Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR. It needs to be done in a manner that is reflective of mutual trust, with each side taking apart its offensive capabilities one step at a time, in an equal manner. If countries such as the U.S. do not take North Korea’s peace treaty seriously enough and therefore, refuse to remove their soldiers from the country, then it sends a message of mistrust and intolerance towards the government of North Korea. This in turn could spark more diplomatic and military conflict, especially given the rather unpredictable nature of the North Korean government.

Therefore, it can be seen that International diplomacy and relations need to be more than just one-sided bickering. It must include mutual movements and communication that involves both clearly communicating one’s own perspective, and listening to the other’s. In this sense, trust can be highlighted to avoid relationship breakdowns and thus, prove as an alternative to military conflict.