The Hidden Cost of Korean Reunification for US Presence in the Pacific
The idea of lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula is more attainable now than at any time in the past 70 years. Both leaders have stepped across each other’s borders, a framework for ending the Korean War has been signed, and the two nations are starting to field joint sports teams in the Olympics along with other sports, including table tennis. So far it looks good, but there is emphasis on the term “denuclearization” that doesn’t just refer to Kim. In previous statements, North Korea’s idea of denuclearization meant the withdrawal of all nuclear powers from the Korean peninsula, doesn’t preclude the United States’ military presence in South Korea.
The US built up a formidable presence in East Asia since WWII and the Korean War. Marine, Army, Air Force, and Navy bases dot both Japan and South Korea, a presence that has helped keep China’s power over those countries in check and provided a launching pad for any operations that involved North Korea. Support for those bases dwindle among the younger populations of their respective countries; Korean Unification could strike the final blow in closing bases in South Korea and even Japan.
It remains to be seen what the US response to the Korea peace talks will be. A major factor in negotiations will involve control over northern tips of the South China Sea, lying just southwest of South Korea and Japan. The US-allied countries have repeatedly suffered from China’s territorial creep claiming more islands and water as Chinese territory, an effort stymied by the presence and partnerships involving the United States. The waters under question are extremely geopolitically and militarily significant; accounting for 50% of the world’s merchant fleet by weight and significant deposits of oil, natural gas, and a variety of sea resources. Accordingly, South Korea has maintained that the United States won’t be required to reduce their presence in the country, but that’s a point that will be hotly contested by China in the four-way talks required to truly end the Korean War.
North Korea claims it “will have no need” for nuclear weapons if its security is guaranteed and China will likely argue that US presence must be reduced to secure North Korea from US aggression. Until the talks begin, there is no telling exactly what will be the outcome, but it will require deft navigation at the negotiating table to maintain a strong US military presence in the Western Pacific.