In Korea in early June, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced what could potentially be the greatest shift in U.S policy toward the Korean peninsula in the last 50 years. Though the Western media paid little attention, the proposed change in tour lengths of U.S. troops stationed in Korea from 12 months to 36 months has profound implications.
According to current U.S. policy, the overwhelming majority of U.S. troops stationed in Korea are required to serve 12-month unaccompanied tours, meaning that military members are not permitted to bring their spouses or children with them during their assignment. This policy results from the U.S. designation of Korea as a war zone, a Cold War label that reflects the armistice that stopped open conflict with North Korea but never officially ended the Korean War. Although tripling the duration of military assignments to South Korea may at first seem like entrenching military forces against North Korea, it actually reflects a softening of the U.S. stance. Symbolically at least, the United States no longer considers itself at war with North Korea.
If implemented, then, this seemingly minor policy shift could accelerate the warming trend in U.S.-North Korean relations. Such a policy shift would also provide much-needed reform in U.S. policy toward Asia. Rather than continue to defend against an ever diminishing threat, the United States might finally update its Asia policy to reflect the modern age of globalization and its attendant threats and opportunities. As North Korea becomes more of an economic and humanitarian disaster and less of a military threat over time, U.S. policy must adapt accordingly. Secretary Gates’s statement indicates that this adaptation has finally begun.
Although the Gates statement might seem largely symbolic, symbolism is extraordinarily important in U.S.-North Korean relations. In 1968 for example, after North Korea seized the USS Pueblo, the United States offered an apology for “illegally” entering North Korean territorial waters. Although the apology was purely tactical – to save the lives of US sailors – North Korea nevertheless felt it had achieved a huge symbolic concession from the United States.
More recently, the signs indicate a positive trend in the relations between the two long-time enemies. In September 2007, the United States quickly sent emergency aid after North Korea experienced disastrous flooding. Two months later, the U.S. military came to the aid of a civilian North Korean vessel attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. This was followed in February 2008 by an unprecedented personal letter from President Bush to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, coupled with the highly touted and overtly symbolic New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s visit to Pyongyang for a concert that showcased both the American and North Korean national anthems.
Gates never explicitly mentioned North Korea in his statement of support for the change in tour lengths. But in the context of this ongoing and highly symbolic rapprochement, the obvious implication of his proposed policy shift is that the United States has a new raison d’être vis-à-vis the Korean peninsula: a transition from the longstanding U.S. war posture to an internationally oriented rapid-response posture. Instead of maintaining a U.S. footprint on the peninsula with the primary purpose of deterring war with North Korea, the U.S. military presence will serve multiple purposes, only one of which will be guarding against a threat from the North. Along with the U.S. military presence in Japan, the military presence in Korea could serve to address seaborne pirating activities. Such a presence could also serve to quickly respond to humanitarian crises throughout Asia, whether spawned by natural disaster, public health catastrophe, or even political regional upheaval.
At the same time, a continued U.S. presence on the Korean peninsula would reinforce its otherwise waning influence in the region. As Japan has renewed its international activism and China has begun to establish itself as both a regional and global leader, the United States has watched the slow erosion of its historic Pacific leadership role. Gone are the days when non-communist Asian countries had no choice but to rely on the United States as a benefactor. A continued presence on the peninsula would thus ensure its role in Asia as a regional player, helping to preserve regional order for the sake of its economic and national security interests. Through a change in U.S. troop tour lengths in Korea, the United States can both move toward finally ending the Korean War and restructure its Pacific presence to meet the needs of a globalizing world.