AGORA DEBATE: Why Do We Still Have Troops in South Korea?

Why Do We Still Have Troops Stationed in Korea?

Should we, the taxpayers continue to pay for our troops to be stationed in South Korea, even though the Korean War has been over with for more than half a century? In this edition of Agora, Dan Georgakas and Constantinos E. Scaros discuss the issue and invite you to join the debate!


Dino, Congress will soon be discussing how to exempt military budgetary cuts from the sequester. There will be lots of talk about “national security,” but little will be made of the fact that our military budget is greater than the combined military budgets of the next four largest nations. Huge items in our military budget are the 1,000 military bases we have on foreign soil. A case in point involves Korea.

We still have 28,500 soldiers in South Korea as a symbolic gesture that any invasion by North Korea will not be tolerated. These troops are currently stationed on a score of bases. The annual cost per soldier is $500,000, mainly due to maintaining the bases. If we do some simple math, we will see that the cost per annum is in the billions.

Given that the force is only symbolic, the total number of troops could easily be reduced to a few thousand on one or two bases. Moreover, the reality is that these troops have not intimidated the provocative North Koreans and may actually feed their paranoia. The South Koreans, in turn, have grown prosperous without having to fully shoulder the cost of defending themselves.

Closing unnecessary bases has support among activists of very divergent ideologies. The strongest voice for closing bases has been former Congressman Ron Paul, a libertarian who wants to use the resulting savings to reduce the national debt and/or lower taxes. Paul is an isolationist, but other Republicans, who are not isolations, have endorsed his perspective. On the progressive side, former Congressman Dennis Kucinich and Senator Bernie Sanders hold positions similar to Paul’s. Some conservative magazines such as Forbes have advocated closing or reducing the total number of bases as have some liberal magazines such as The Progressive. With the exception of Pat Buchanan and Amy Goodman, none of the major columnists in the mainstream press or the political pundits who appear regularly on television question the cost or the utility of such bases.

In the past 60 years, none of the presidential candidates of either major party has considered closing the bases or even discussing their value as worthy of being a major campaign issue. Hillary Clinton and Governor Christie, currently the presumptive frontrunners for the presidential nominations of the Democrats and Republicans in 2016, are both hawks who broadly endorse our present policies.

The bases in Korea are part of a system of military waste. The cost of maintaining one soldier in Afghanistan, for example, is between $840,000 and $1,500,000 annually. Most of that money goes to hardware and maintaining bases. Over the years this come to spending trillions of dollars to fight what nearly everyone acknowledges is an unwinnable war.

The time has come for the public say, “enough!” Obviously, closing bases is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Just eliminating half of them would liberate billions of dollars annually. Half of that sum could significantly lower the national debt and the other half could be spent on needed repairs of the decaying infrastructure within our own borders. Modernizing our infrastructure would have the added benefit of finally ending the jobless recovery from the Great Recession with all the usual economic pluses that generates. A good place to begin serious cuts is South Korea.



Dan, I, too, fail to see the logic of keeping troops in South Korea. Unless we think that North Korea is completely insane – which is not a far-fetched idea – and would attack South Korea as soon as we left, only to draw us back in and then back off again. And moving troops from one part of the world to the other only to bring them back again is not as easy as it might sound.

Nonetheless, I do believe that globally we are overextended, and that not enough countries are pulling their own weight. And we need to tell them, once and for all, that we are not their caretakers.

One of the reasons why I am most proud of being an American is that the United States is the only country in history that had the chance to take over the entire world – when we were the only nation with a nuclear bomb – and we turned it down, because world domination was never what we were all about. And we still aren’t about that – which is why, even today, when we remain the most powerful nation on earth, we are not, and should not, be a bully. On the other hand, to be the strongest kid on the block and yet be bullied ourselves is utterly ridiculous.

As you have pointed out on various occasions, President Eisenhower warned against a military-industrial complex run amok. But he was also a president who, although he strove to avoid war at all costs, said that a decision to fight a war should know no bounds. That means, all-out war, fight to win, even if it means the nuclear option.

To that end, limited war is a concept that I find absurd. Whether Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, we could blow those places to smithereens in a nanosecond. I am not suggesting that we should, or that we necessarily should have even gone to war with any of those nations to begin with. But I’m saying that instead of dilly-dallying for years, slowly killing their forces and subjecting our own troops to the same consequence, all the while squandering billions upon billions of dollars that could do so much more good elsewhere, perhaps we should have paid heed to Ike’s admonition: only go to war as a last resort, but then, fight to win as quickly and decisively as possible.

We are in agreement for the most part on this issue, Dan, except that I think neither Afghanistan nor any other war we have ever fought is unwinnable. It is only unwinnable in the manner by which we are fighting it. To put it another way, Muhammad Ali in his prime would have an unwinnable fight on his hands, too, even against a cub scout, if he were tied to a chair while the cub scout pummeled him with rocks.

A conspiracy theorist I am not. In fact, I devote much time to exposing various conspiracy theories as utter nonsense. But sometimes, when those wacky denizens of Conspiracyville say that researchers haven’t found a cure for cancer because the money’s in the medicine, cars and computers can be built to last 100 years but the money’s in selling new ones, and conflicts between nations in this day and age are manufactured so as to perpetuate the defense industry, at least for a few fleeting seconds every now and then, it makes me wonder whether they have a valid point.