This week's historic summit between North and South Korea may herald a new age of peace in the East. But experts wonder if a possible rapprochement would hurt the U.S.'s military presence in Asia.
The meeting between the leaders of communist North Korea, Kim Jong Il, and democratic South Korea, Kim Dae Jung — the first in half a century — shows the signs of being perhaps the first real step toward peace on the tortured peninsula.
The Pyongyang summit — which was postponed by one day, to begin Tuesday — also has implications for the U.S., which could lose its second-most important military home in the region.
Since the end of the Korean War, the U.S. has based a substantial number of troops in South Korea to bolster the native soldiers who man the world's most heavily defended border. Of the 100,000 troops the U.S. has committed to Asia since 1995, South Korea currently hosts 37,500.
North Korea has long demanded the U.S. eliminate its forces on the peninsula before the two Koreas can reconcile. A genuine reduction in tensions between the rival sister nations could make the current justification for those American forces vanish.
Experts say that's not likely for the foreseeable future, though. Even in the best-case scenario — that North Korea truly wants to eliminate the possibility of war — Korea experts said Americans aren't leaving any time soon.
"It's somewhat of a leap to say this summit signals the beginning of the end of U.S. forces on the peninsula," William Drennan, Korea analyst for the Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C., said. "The official propaganda coming out of Pyongyang, excoriating us as the masters of South Korea, belies the fact that North Korean has benefited from (the U.S. presence). If you remove the U.S. presence, then you create a vacuum that will be filled by somebody, and they know that."
Focus on China
The U.S. knows it won't be in South Korea forever, though, and the summit brings home the fact America needs to think about its presence in Asia even as the Pentagon is pushing for a greater military emphasis on that part of the world.
With the Russian bear fitfully slumbering, the U.S. has been shifting its military attentions from away from Europe and eastward. The Joint Chiefs of Staff made that new thinking a priority on May 25, when it issued a strategic outline for global security over the next 20 years.
The big question in that report was China, which could be the U.S.'s biggest military rival in the region. China's increasing economic and political power has gone hand-in-hand with dire warnings about the future of Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province it has the right to take back with force. That is coupled with fears about other flashpoints in Asia, such as potential nuclear instability between India and Pakistan or recurrent threats in Baghdad or Tehran.
In turn, the U.S. has stepped up its naval presence, intelligence operations and war games in Asia. More submarines patrol the Pacific, both as eavesdroppers on communications lines and as potential cruise-missile platforms. Diplomats woo the elite and form alliances in the capitals of key countries like Australia, the Philippines or Thailand. Singapore is building a pier that could shelter a nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier. And when American soldiers play war games, they're often working in tandem with Asian troops in theoretical battles with other Asian armies.
South Korea has played an important part in American movements in Asia. If or when the Koreas give the U.S. its marching orders, everything could change.
First of all, the U.S. would likely say goodbye to its ground troops in South Korea, with perhaps a only core group of crisis-response troops standing guard, according to Ralph A. Cossa, executive director of the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies.
That in turn could also lead to cutbacks elsewhere in the region, especially in what the U.S. considers its most important base across the Sea of Japan. It could be hard to rationalize why the U.S. has military bases in Japan if there's no threat to democracy on the mainland.
The U.S. military considers the Japanese bases, especially Okinawa, to be vital to operations in the Pacific theater. Without Japanese military staging sites, the logistical problems with coordinating combat from across the Pacific Ocean would be staggering.