Correction (added 9/27): The number of U.S. soldiers in S. Korea is 28,500, not 37,000 as I wrote in this post. (Source: R. Holbrooke in the current [Sept/Oct '08] issue of Foreign Affairs, p.14.) This does not change the main point I was making.
Sec. of Defense Robert Gates said today that the reinforcements being requested by U.S. generals in Afghanistan will not be available for deployment until spring 2009. We hear all the time that the demands being placed on the all-volunteer force by two ongoing wars are stretching it to a dangerously thin point, and I have no reason to doubt this.
At the same time, the U.S. still has, as far as I know, roughly 37,000 soldiers stationed in South Korea, 55 years after the armistice that ended (in a practical though not legal sense) the Korean War. The U.S. also has thousands of soldiers in Japan and a substantial number in Europe (albeit fewer than during the Cold War). Some of this military presence is no doubt required under the terms of existing alliances. But it's odd that relatively few people (outside of the 'usual suspects' so to speak) seem to have raised questions about the appropriateness of this distribution of military manpower (and womanpower) in a time of stretched forces.
The rationale for having 37,000 troops in South Korea has eluded me for years. They cannot really be serving any genuine deterrent function, in light of North Korea's million-man army, and if the point is to provide a trip-wire effect (i.e., a guarantee of U.S. intervention in the event of a North Korean invasion), then surely 8,000 soldiers (for example) would do that as reliably as 37,000. Do the terms of the alliance require maintenance of a specific number of American soldiers in South Korea? If not, what are they doing there? Does this make any sense? Maybe one of the many bloggers (or others) with more expertise in these matters than I possess can enlighten me on this point. I'd appreciate it.