US troop presence will be critical to the Korean Peninsula for the foreseeable future

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The U.S. troop presence on the Korean peninsula has been a priceless deterrence against our adversaries and invaluable reassurance to our allies in the region for nearly 70 years. In Defense Secretary James Mattis’ words, the nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea are a “stabilizing presence” in an unpredictable region.

With all eyes on Singapore, the looming question is whether President Trump will use the presence and the number of U.S. troops as leverage for comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear program and arsenal.

{mosads}U.S. troop removal has long been a stipulation for peace from the North Korean dictator, who views their presence as justification for his nuclear ambitions, though he recently softened that stance in order to ensure talks between the two countries continue and the summit remains on schedule. While Kim may have dropped his demand to bring Trump to the table, there’s no reason he will not reengage the subject once they actually sit down in Singapore.


President Trump has stated that the U.S. is paying too much money to station troops in South Korea but has denied that troop withdrawal would be any part of the DRPK negotiations — although Secretary Mattis has left the door open by saying that, at some point, withdrawal could happen due to agreement among allies.

The strategic implications of any sizable demilitarization from the Korean peninsula would yield devastating results. Our troops aren’t a deterrence only to North Korea but to China as well, whose rapid military aggression in the South China Sea and other places around the globe landed them on Secretary Mattis’ list as our top threat in the National Defense Strategy. Additionally, our allies would feel betrayed. South Korean President Moon has stated that the U.S. troops are more than just a deterrence force and are part of a long-term alliance. While other U.S. military assets exist in Asia, including in Japan and in Guam, the U.S. would be fracturing strong alliances and would no longer have the strategic advantage of a staging area that provides the geographical convenience we currently hold in South Korea.

James Jay Carafano, vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, believes that “the balance of conventional forces is just as important an issue as the nuclear weapons when it comes to preserving peace and stability in Northeast Asia. The region would be even more at risk if all we did is take out the nukes and went home. The DPRK has a massive conventional force advantage that would leave our key allies, South Korea and Japan, feeling vulnerable without the counterweight of a conventional U.S. force. The goal here is to make the region more, not less, stable. Perhaps nuclear and conventional force negotiations are done together or on separate tracks, (but) what the US shouldn’t do is offer up unilateral force reductions. That makes no sense.”    

Once U.S. troops are absent from the peninsula, it’s not as simple as merely reinserting if needed. The “surge” strategy — a rapid increase of a sizable number of U.S. troops — would not be plausible. Any significant U.S. military presence larger than a standard rapid-response force would require significant time to deploy and posture.

Retired U.S. Army colonel and former chief of the Joint Operational War Plans & Posture Division at the Pentagon, Jimmy Blackmon, agrees that the military presence in South Korea has been a great equalizer on the peninsula: “No matter how fast you can surge U.S. military forces, you will always show up to the fight too late. In order to be an effective component of regional stability and deterrence, troops have to already be in place ready to go.”

With so much at stake surrounding the denuclearization of North Korea, negotiations involving U.S. troop numbers should not occur until after the North’s nuclear program has been completely denuclearized — and verified. Only then should that conversation take place. Any promise to reduce any level of U.S. troops prior to that will put our key allies and military members in the region at risk.

These are not the first nuclear negotiations the North Koreans have been part of, and they have a long history of offering concessions on which they never follow through once they have sanctions relief. It is a continuous cycle that they have used to their advantage to receive aid and economic relief when the regime is in a dire situation. While we should take North Korea’s denuclearization ambitions seriously, we should not forget history while we’re at it.

Regardless of what is promised at the Singapore Summit, North Korea may not hold up its end of the deal — and, if that happens, we need to ensure that the U.S. military’s posture and commitment has not changed. We can hope for the best, while being prepared for the worst.

In order to “compete, deter, and to win,” as outlined in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, we have to be present to do so.

Amber Smith is the former deputy assistant to the secretary of Defense for outreach and the author of the best-selling book, “Danger Close.” Smith is a former combat helicopter pilot and veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. For more information visit

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