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The Peninsula

Fact Check: Burdensharing by Korea

Published August 18, 2015
Category: South Korea

By Phil Eskeland

Recently, there has been some discussion among certain opinion makers in the United States claiming that the U.S. bears all the burden in defending allies against potential North Korean aggression.  Currently, the U.S. has approximately 28,500 troops stationed on the Korean peninsula.  Many other U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region participate in regular military exercises with the Republic of Korea (ROK) and provide extended deterrence from bases in Japan, Guam, and elsewhere.  Some incorrectly believe that the ROK contributes relatively little to its own defense, relying on the U.S. “tripwire” for its national security, or does not offer funding to offset the cost of stationing U.S. troops in South Korea.

First, the ROK, with a population of just under 50 million, has approximately 630,000 enlisted in their armed forces and has nearly 3 million South Korean citizens serving in the reserves.  This compares to the U.S. with 1.4 million enlisted in the armed forces with 850,000 in the reserves out of a population in excess of 320 million.  Also, unlike the United States, the ROK has compulsory military service for South Korean young males, lasting between 21 to 24 months.  Just in recent days, the world was reminded once again of the immense sacrifice South Korea makes to deter aggression with the maiming of two of its soldiers patrolling the heavily-fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with North Korea.

Second, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), South Korea expends a relatively large percentage of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense – 2.6 percent – representing one of the highest in all of Asia and bigger than any European ally of the United States.  Japan spends 1 percent of its GDP on defense; the Philippines spends 1.1 percent; Germany spends 1.2 percent; Australia spends 1.8 percent; and the United Kingdom spends 2.2 percent.  According to the SIPRI, the U.S. spends approximately 3.5 percent of its GDP on defense.

Third, according to the independent, non-partisan Congressional Research Service, the ROK has provided financial support to offset the cost of stationing U.S. forces in Korea since 1991.  In January 2014, the U.S. and the ROK renewed the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that increased South Korea’s contribution to maintain the U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula.  Last year, Korea raised its support to the U.S. military by 6 percent to approximately $870 million per year, which will further increase with the rate of inflation each year through 2018 when the SMA will be up for renegotiation.  CRS estimated that in combination with other compensation outside the SMA (such as the South Korean contribution to the relocation of a major U.S. military base in Seoul to other parts in Korea further from the DMZ), the ROK provided for about 40 to 45 percent of the total non-personnel costs of the U.S. troop presence in 2012.

Finally, the U.S. troop presence in the ROK is there to preserve peace and stability not just on the Korean peninsula but all throughout northeast Asia.  This mission serves U.S. interests, particularly as South Korea has emerged to become America’s 6th largest trading partner supporting over 330,000 U.S. jobs.  Any premature withdrawal of U.S. troops would send the wrong signal to our adversaries that the U.S. commitment to defend our allies against unprovoked aggression has weakened.  So, next time when you hear the siren song that South Korea isn’t doing enough remember:

1)      Korea has a draft and 630,000 of its 50 million citizens under arms;

2)      Korea spends a higher percentage of its GDP on its own defense than other U.S. allies;

3)     Korea contributes almost half of the non-personnel costs associated with the U.S. troop presence in the ROK; and

4)      The U.S. military is in the ROK and other parts of the Pacific Rim to protect its larger national interests in northeast Asia, which includes – but is not limited to – deterring North Korean aggression.

Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command, U.S. Army’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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