North Korea's string of provocations over the last nine months calls into question America's decisions over the last decade on the number and positioning of ground forces in the Asia-Pacific region. Though Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates insists that we must focus on winning the wars we are in, Pyongyang's repeated acts of aggression should remind us that we cannot be unprepared for the war that may be just around the corner.
War on the Korean peninsula is not a distant possibility. South Korea has reacted with noble restraint to the torpedoing of the warship Cheonan in March and to last week's shelling of Yeonpyeong island. But eventually, Seoul will choose to retaliate forcefully. The South Korean response will not necessarily lead to all-out war, but if China does not restrain its North Korean ally, a war that no one wants will become much more likely. The North's next deliberate attack on South Korean civilians could well be its last.
The best way to avoid a new Korean War is to successfully deter future North Korean provocations. Although the just-concluded naval exercises in the Yellow Sea sent an important message of allied resolve to Pyongyang, previous changes to U.S. force deployment in the region have had the opposite effect.
Early in the last decade, the U.S. Army had 27,500 soldiers stationed in South Korea. That number now stands at under 20,000. The majority of the forces redeployed from the peninsula have been combat troops. In other words, infantry, armor and artillery have been permanently removed from South Korea during a time in which Pyongyang has been vigorously developing nuclear weapons and slowly pushing its estranged southern neighbor toward war. Removing U.S. troops from harm's way — even though that was not the reason for the redeployment — is no way to demonstrate steadfastness in the face of a determined foe. Deterrence has suffered as a result.
Just as worrying as Army reductions on the peninsula is the U.S.- Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation. This provides for the relocation, to be completed by 2014, of 8,000 U.S. Marine Corps personnel from Okinawa to Guam. Kim Jong Il will be happy to see these Marines move more distant from his country's shores and will certainly appreciate the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force's necessarily diminished capacity to react rapidly to a crisis in Northeast Asia.
The road map should be scrapped. Political obstacles will be difficult to surmount, but ongoing North Korean belligerency could ease the way. The Marine Corps' presence on Okinawa should remain at its present strength. Moreover, force planners should investigate the feasibility of relocating elements of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, now headquartered at Camp Pendleton, to newly constructed facilities on Guam. Having 8,000 more Marines in-theater provides 8,000 more reasons for Kim to think twice about provoking America's South Korean ally.
The Army footprint in South Korea should likewise be increased to at least its level in the early years of the last decade. The United States cannot deter a war if it is not prepared to fight and win one. With fewer than 20,000 soldiers on the peninsula, America is ill-prepared for such a conflict, even if it lets South Korean forces do the heavy lifting during what could be an arduous slog to the Yalu River. Should Beijing decide to intervene to ensure that allied forces never reach the Yalu, the shortsightedness and irresponsibility of U.S. force deployment decisions over the last decade will be borne out.
The potential for a conventional war on the Korean peninsula is an unfortunate reality. That American forces are not properly postured to fight in a renewed Korean War makes such a conflict more likely to occur and less likely to end quickly. There are, of course, monetary and political costs in the United States, Japan and South Korea for increasing troop presence on the peninsula and for canceling plans to relocate Marines from Okinawa. But the military and civilian casualties that would be averted if North Korea is successfully deterred from further aggression — or, should deterrence fail, if the allies achieve a quick victory in an unwanted war — should be worth the cost in dollars and political capital.
In order to avoid the war that nobody wants, U.S. forces must be prepared to fight and win.
Michael Mazza is a senior research associate in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.