Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said while touring the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) Monday that Washington would not reduce U.S. military presence in South Korea, reaffirming commitment to the country in the event of a North Korean offensive.
"This is probably the only place in the world where we have always a risk of confrontation, when two sides are looking clearly and directly at each other all the time," Hagel said during a visit to Panmunjom, an abandoned border town separating the two Koreas.
The U.S. currently has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea. However, some Korea experts suggest that keeping them there is not strategic for the U.S.
“In terms of military strategy, it’s not really a military advantage to have U.S. soldiers on the ground,” Charles Armstrong, a Columbia University Korean Studies professor, told Al Jazeera. “If there is a war between North and South, Americans would be in harms way.”
T.J. Pempel, a professor of East Asian political science at University of California, Berkeley agreed.
“If North Korea attacked, U.S. citizens would get killed, and the U.S. would get involved if for no other reason than Americans had been killed,” Pempel said.
South Koreans see the U.S. military presence as a sign of Washington’s steadfast support in the event of a North Korean offensive.
“It’s more about the symbolism than physical troop numbers,” Sokeel Park, director of research at human-rights advocacy group Liberty in North Korea, told Al Jazeera.
But symbolism can be costly.
“Americans are moving bases out of the DMZ and out of Seoul further south,” Pempel said. The move from Yongsan Garrison to a new base 40 miles south of the capital is projected to cost the U.S. $7 billion, according to the Associated Press.
Not only is troop presence and maneuvering costly, but a number of South Koreans have opposed the U.S. presence in recent years.
“There are many Koreans who would like to see an American troop reduction,” Armstrong said, “There are people who argue this is a provocation to the North, that it creates a provocation that is unnecessary, and that it’s an infringement on Korean sovereignty.”
But Armstrong, Pempel and Park all indicated that in recent years, with North Korea’s hostile rhetoric and a series of military standoffs, particularly over Pyongyang’s nuclear tests, sentiment against the U.S. presence in the Korean Peninsula has died down.
“The South Korean elites worry that in the long-term, the U.S. commitment to East Asia isn’t guaranteed, and they are worried budget cuts in the U.S. would reduce the U.S. military’s [role as a] deterrent against North Korea,” Park said.
“Hagel’s comment basically aims to reassure that kind of constituent.”
Al Jazeera and wire services