An episode of dark comedy unfolded throughout the process of how Washington reached its decision to reduce U.S. forces stationed in Germany by a third. So much so that it was not until news media reported Washington's decision that U.S. senior officials and even Germany learned it. Added to this, there was a marked difference between U.S. President Donald Trump's explanations and relevant authorities’ official announcement made last Wednesday.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper emphasized at a briefing that Washington's decision to reduce 12,000 U.S. troops in Germany was made after more than a year's deliberation based on the National Defense Strategy. He expected that it will strengthen deterrence and defense posture of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and take flexibility in management at the U.S. European Command to a higher level. The word "flexibility” was uttered as many as 11 times during the defense secretary's speech. Gen. John E. Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Tod D. Wolters, commander, U.S. European Command, implied support for Secretary Esper's remarks by using military-specific jargon.
The U.S. Defense Department's briefing provided other nations with a window into Washington's rationale hidden behind the reduction – or withdrawal – of U.S. troops stationed overseas. Being assumed as the next target for military reduction, South Korea should consider the significant implications of what has just happened to Germany. The U.S. Defense Department has already been carrying out a review of the United States Indo-Pacific Command to which the U.S. forces in South Korea belongs. Probably, the results of the review will explain that a strategic decision was made to better react to threats from China and ensure flexible management of U.S. troops in the Indo-Pacific region. If so, is Seoul fully ready for such a likely scenario?
The main focus of the U.S. forces in South Korea is on the Army to protect against North Korea's attacks. Most troops of the U.S. Air Force and Navy, which may in effect counter China, are stationed in Japan. Not South Korea but Japan and Australia have partnered with U.S. forces in joint military exercises in the South China Sea. All things considered, it is likely that the role of U.S. army troops in South Korea will become less significant on a redesigned defense framework that targets China. Additionally, Washington may mention development of cutting-edge defense systems and transfer of wartime operational control as grounds for a decision to scale back its troops in South Korea.
There is growing skepticism among U.S. officials about Seoul's determination to join Washington's Indo-Pacific Strategy. Some even point out the difference between Seoul and Tokyo as the Japanese government has shown strong support for Washington's policy toward Beijing and increased purchases of U.S. arms. When a U.S. official implied that Seoul may not be a determining factor in improving Washington's readiness and competence in fight against China by listing names of U.S. military bases in Japan, his remarks came across as a spine-chilling threat. Asked a "what if” question by a reporter assuming that Japan becomes a more important security partner than South Korea, another U.S. government official cut him in and replied that the assumption is already true.
Concerns about a reduction of the U.S. forces in South Korea may linger even after the two nations reach agreement on the Special Measures Agreement (SMA). Deep consideration and thorough preparations can provide Seoul with a solution. If the South Korean government misunderstands that it all comes down to money, it will likely feel helpless when the U.S. troops pack their bags and leave South Korea.