The United States Military has been instrumental in shaping perceptions of the United States in Korea, and has played an outsized role in the development of the South Korean state. This relationship dates back to 1945 and the end of World War II. It is a partnership that has been bound in blood since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, where 36,516 Americans died pushing North Korean troops out of the South.[i]
The U.S. Military helped build the foundation for the ROK and has had a physical presence in the country for almost all of its history. Underscoring the importance of the relationship, it was during the short period after U.S. forces left Korea in 1949 that North Korea invaded the ROK and started the Korean War. North Korea remains a threat to both South Korea and American interests in Pacific Asia. From 1953 to 2003 North Korea was responsible for 1,439 major provocations, as well as for the deaths of at least 90 US and 390 ROK soldiers.[ii] Additionally, this past March, North Korea tested two medium range ballistic missiles and threatened to test a new nuclear device. Furthermore, on the last day of that month, North and South Korea fired hundreds of artillery shells into each other’s national waters.[iii]
There are currently about 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea, however the original Cold War logic that inspired the United State’s need to defend against communist encroachment has become more of a historical memory than a driving force. Also, South Korea is no longer poor and authoritarian, but economically dynamic and legitimately democratic. South Korea’s democratic society is unable to repress latent anti-Americanism in the same way previous authoritarian Korean leaders could. American leaders are losing patience with supporting rich allies while America’s economic situation is still troubled. Strains within the ROK-U.S. Military relationship caused by historical grievances and anti-Americanism, as well as issues related to Operational Control of the South Korean Military will affect the evolution of the alliance. The continuing vitality of the alliance will depend on South Korea and the United States both being flexible and recognizing the interests of their treaty partner.
[i] Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, “Korean War Death Stats Highlight Modern DoD Safety Record,” American Forces Press Service, June 8, 2000. http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=45275
[ii] Andrew Scobell and John M. Sanford, “North Korea’s Military Threat: Pyongyang’s Conventional Forces, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Ballistic Missiles,” Strategic Studies Institute, April 200, 27.
[iii] Jason Miks “Analysis: North Korea acts up again; how should West react?,” CNN World, April 2, 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/01/world/north-korea-provocation/index.html?iid=article_sidebar