An Alliance? History U.S. & Korea U.S. Military

Some USFK Stats and History

A few days ago, a reader asked me how much the presence of the USFK cost American taxpayers.  This is a research project I’ve taken on before, only to be confronted by few answers from credible sources.  You’re about to see what I mean here.

Writing for the Nautilus Institute, Selig Harrison claimed in 2001 that the annual cost was $42 billion per year.   Another Nautilus alum,  Doug Bandow, claimed in his recent Korea book  that withdrawing from the ROK would save us $40 billion  a year; presumably that’s an annual cost estimate.  But then here, Bandow said the annual cost was “upwards of $15 billion;” while here, Bandow said the figure was “about $15 billion.”

Another interesting stat:  writing at  Cato,  Bandow estimated the cost of IMF bailout of South Korea  at $57 billion.   It isn’t clear whether Bandow means to U.S. taxpayers or to the IMF as a whole.  We pay most of the bill, of course.

Troop Strength:

The reader also asked me how U.S. troop strength had changed in Korea.  The Time archive — unlike the New York Times’s, it’s free and availble for most of this century — notes that U.S. troops strength peaked at 400,000 during the Korean War, but had fallen to 50,000 by 1959, where it  stayed  until the North Koreans seized the Pueblo and attacked the Blue House in 1968, resulting in a major U.S. buildup.  According to page 13 of Don Oberdorfer’s “The Two Koreas,” our troop strength was  up to  62,000 by 1969,  but Nixon reduced that by 20,000 by 1971, declaring that America’s primary role would be to provide air and naval cover while Asian armies defended their own countries.   That concept became known as the Nixon Doctrine.

The actual reduced strength appears to have been  43,000, a number that persisted mostly unchanged  up to 1988, despite President Carter’s expressed desire  to  withdraw most or all of them.  Intense South Korean lobbying and State Department opposition killed the plan.  Troop strength remained stable through the Reagan years as well. 

usfk-strength-slide.jpgIn  1989,  South Korea was shaken by  its first big anti-U.S. riots, and an angry U.S. Congress passed legislation to cut troop strength.  The cuts were shallow, however; by 1991,  total strength  had fallen to “over 40,000.”  By 1995, Choe Sang Hun was reporting that it was at 37,000.  That’s where the figure stayed from 1998 to 2002, when I was there. 

Then came the ugly days of late 2002 to early 2003.   Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s  subsequent troop cuts, announced in 2003 and begun in 2004, reduced that to 29,500 by 2006.  Seasoned Korea reporter Don  Kirk reports that  the number is supposed to fall to 25,000 by the end of this decade, but  Global Security claims that the number is to be reduced to 24,500 by 2008.  The latter figure is more consistent with other reports I’ve read. 

The graph above shows that the cuts of 2004-2008 are  the steepest in USFK history aside from the drawdown following the  1953 Armistice and that following the 1968 “surge,” after the  test of wills between  Kim Il Sung and LBJ.   

Still, don’t take that last  figure too literally.  South Korea has much experience with aggressive lobbying and bargaining to forestall the exodus of Americans in uniform.  Although the trend suggests a long-term decline in U.S. forces, especially ground forces, a collapse in North Korea could briefly reverse that trend.

An Abbreviated, Cynical History:

Since this week has the blogosphere buzzing about the New York Times’s archives, here are some interesting finds to put your tour in Korea in perspective.  I found all of these pieces while researching the other information above.

*   Who knew?  The fine pan-Korean  tradition of counterfeiting American money dates back to at least 1954.

*   August 1954:   Syngman Rhee came to Congress to sell his master plan:  using only South Korean and Taiwanese troops — with American air and naval support —  he would invade and conquer Red China.  Rhee was no doubt right that  many Chinese already hated Mao, but China in 1959 was more than the world’s most populous nation.  It was a nation still basking in the fervor of a revolution that hadn’t broken most of its promises yet.  Thankfully, Congress rejected Rhee’s plan, but it also gave him a standing ovation, perhaps  because Rhee was as eloquent as he was ruthless:  “[T]he Communists have made this a hard world, a horrible world, in which to be soft is to become a slave.”

*   Admit it.  You’ve been tempted to see a world as it would be if only someone would round up the  hippies and  give them all haircuts.  This piece from June 1961,  in the immediate aftermath of Park Park Chung Hee’s coup, tell  us that Park  was destined to be that someone.  Another explains how the Americans were wrong-footed by Park’s move, although it seems unlikely we were sad to see the end of Syngman Rhee’s rule by then.

*    November 1959:   Ever wonder why your wife can’t use the PX unless she’s command sponsored? 

*   Back in  April 1963, Louis Armstrong played the Walker Hill on its opening night, but  Satchmo was wise enough to make sure the check cleared first.  And this:  “[W]hile we do not allow prostitution, we are not going to insist on couples producing a marriage license.”

*   October 1964:   A look at mooses, hooches, and camp-town culture in  South Korea’s  bad old days.  Bonus:  how Camp Howze got its name.

*   1968 was a scary year in Korea:  the seizure of the Pueblo in February; North Koreans crossing the DMZ to kill American soldiers; low-grade guerrilla warfare and generals cussing each other out at Panmunjum; and, of course, the Blue House raid.  In retrospect, it appears that Kim Il Sung was seriously considering either an invasion or the sponsorship of an insurgency.  The fact that South Koreans ratted out most of his infiltrators may have been decisive.  If you set your mental Wayback Machine for that year, you can understand why Park Chung Hee revealed something of a seige mentality.

*   Kwangju, June 2, 1980:   The incident is now famous for the brutal overreaction of the  ROK Army when it  retook the city, but we tend to forget that those who  seized the city were  anything but  nonviolent democracy activists.  Their seizure of the city cost over 100 lives.  They  seized iron pipes and automatic weapons, literally ran amok in the streets brandishing them, and waited for the Army.  Here is the final, fateful paragraph of that story:

Nor can the Carter Administration realistically hope to bolster the position of President Choi, since he has little power and indeed may be a virtual prisoner of the military in the presidential compound, the Blue House. To be sure, American and South Korean troops are joined in a combined command, and in theory this gives the U.S. some control over more than half of South Korea’s 600,000-man armed forces. But such authority can amount to very little. General Chun himself flagrantly ignored a Korean-American agreement on prior consultation last December, when he ordered reserve units to help him arrest some 40 rival officers. More cooperatively, the Seoul government last week asked General John Wickham Jr., U.S. commander of the joint forces, to release some Korean units under his command for “crowd control and internal security.” He obliged.

Thugs are careening through the streets in stolen jeeps, pointing stolen weapons at people, in full control of one of South Korea’s major cities.  Removing hindsight from the picture, wouldn’t it seem that a measured amount of “crowd control and internal security” is needed?   And what would have been the effect  had Wickham refused?

See also:

*   On the Sunday talk circuit, Condoleezza Rice says she expects answers from North Korea on proliferation and calls for full transparency on its nuclear programs, but avoids mentioning the Syria story.

*   If you want to watch South Korean TV in Pyongyang, all you need is the right antenna and the courage to risk your life, and your family’s:  “There is no technical difficulty in receiving South Korean TV if they are on an elevated apartment with spacious veranda heading the Southern direction. All of the 7-8 channels including KBS1, KBS2, SBS, MBC, EBS, China HAO TV and others can be directly received.   The antennas have become a hot item on the black market, and even some members of the elite are customers.  [Daily NK]

*   Also in the Daily NK:   A look at all the labor and  resources wasted on building Kim Jong Il his own private railroad station, and Arirang as mass child abuse.  If they treated circus animals like this in America, there would be outrage.

*    Like GI Korea, I believe  it’s officially fair to  describe South Korea’s UniFiction Minster Lee Jae-Joung as  a holocaust denier. 

*   Seizing on allegations of North Korean-Syrian proliferation, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is calling for a cutoff of U.S. funds for North Korea, as well as a cutoff of funds to the U.N. Development Program, which passes out cash to both North Korea and Iran.  No links or details yet — don’t have time at the moment — but I’ll provide the full statement later.


  1. Excellent work! Is there any information on what impact, if any, the discoveries of the tunnels across the DMZ may have had on USFK troop levels?


  2. Regarding Kwangju;

    “The incident is now famous for the brutal overreaction of the ROK Army when it retook the city.”

    The brutality of the army came long before the retaking of the city. Of the total official figures for the dead (191 known fatalities – 164 civilians, 23 soldiers, 4 policemen), 12 died between May 18 and May 20, 62 died on May 21, when troops opened fire on protesters, of which 54 died by gunshot, which was followed by “thugs”, as you call them, taking up arms against their own government’s troops. At least 64 died on the outskirts of Kwangju as soldiers fired on cars, trucks and buses leaving or entering the city (sometimes at night) and other passersby, killing at least 65 civilians and 12 soldiers (that’s right – on two occasions soldiers opened fire on other military units, resulting in 12 deaths and around 40 wounded). Only 26 died during the final battle. These figures do not include 40 official missing and 100 or more missing who are unrecognized by the government.

    As for the Time article, worth noting is that their reporter on the scene was Korean, and most Korean reporters were distrusted because the media wasn’t reporting with any accuracy what was going on in Kwangju (due to censorship). Perhaps because he was treated so badly he chose to paint the demonstrators in the worst light possible. Foreign reporters have different descriptions of Kwangju than seen in that Time article. Calling them ‘thugs’ has you mouthing the disinformation that Chun was spreading during and after the uprising (as does calling it an “incident” – the term Chun used to hide the significance of what had happened there).

    Keep in mind that this disinformation included Chun making clear to people in Kwangju that the US had approved sending in the paratroopers whose brutality set off the uprising (untrue; the US had no control over them), as well as the ruse of asking Wickham if the 20th division could be moved to Kwangju (when there was no need – the 20th division had been removed from the CFC two days before the uprising even began, approved by Wickham’s second in command (a Korean) because Wickham was in the US at the time). Chun would also later nearly destroy Wickham’s career.

    Why is it that the disinformation that paints the protesters as “thugs” is so easily believed, but that painting the U.S. as responsible is quickly dismissed? If any one person is responsible for anti-Americanism in Korea, it’s Chun Doo-hwan and the lies he spread in 1980.



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