170. Memorandum From the Officer in Charge of Korean Affairs (Nes) to the Director of the Office of Northeast Asian Affairs (Parsons)1


  • Level of Korean Forces

In the September 25 [20], 1956, meeting of the NSC 2 the President directed the JCS to report on “the minimum level of U.S. and ROK forces which it would be in U.S. interests to maintain in Korea over the next two years”. This report, together with the Prochnow study,3 is then to provide the basis for a review by the Planning Board of NSC 5514.4

According to the Prochnow report the continued maintenance of 20 Korean infantry divisions, 10 reserve divisions, 1 Marine division, and present Naval and Air Forces, a total strength of 720,000 men or 3.2 percent of the population, will cost approximately $500 million annually in military aid and direct forces support. In addition, $150 million annually in local currency is required, making the total cost of the ROK military establishment $650 million per annum. These expenditures do not provide for any “modernization” so that a gradual deterioration in combat effectiveness through obsolescence is to be anticipated. The cost of maintaining two U.S. infantry divisions and supporting units in Korea is likewise very great.

If we direct our attention to the ROK forces a number of interdependent factors bear directly upon a determination of the level best designated to promote both short- and long-term U.S. interests. In addition to obvious Korean defense requirements, political and economic justifications have been used to support the continued maintenance of such a sizeable Korean military establishment at such tremendous cost both to the U.S. and to the Korean Government. In view of the President’s directive to the JCS, here are the views of NA/K on the arguments heretofore used to defend the present level of forces.

[Page 316]

1. To Deter and Repel Aggression

NSC 5514 states as a current U.S. objective in Korea “to develop ROK armed forces sufficient for internal security and capable of defending ROK territory short of attack by a major power”. This has generally been interpreted as calling for adequate defense against the renewal of aggression by north Korean forces alone, but not against intervention by Chinese Communist and/or Soviet forces. The July 25, 1956, Progress Report on NSC55145 states that the ROK Army “is almost twice the size of the north Korean Army” and “is superior to the north Korean Army in heavy weapons and artillery”. It concludes that “despite weakness in the air, the ROK, given adequate logistic support, could repel an aggression by north Korean forces alone”. “However, against aggression by combined Communist and north Korean forces the ROK would be incapable of conducting a sustained defense without prompt military assistance from the U.S.”

In brief, the U.S., at a cost of $500 million per annum is maintaining south Korean armed forces adequate to repel aggression by north Korean forces alone, i.e., a repetition of the 1950 invasion, but inadequate to defend south Korea against Communist Chinese and/ or Soviet aggression. Since the equipment and weapons of the ROK forces have been limited under the Armistice Agreement to conventional types of 1950 vintage, any far reaching modernization of the north Korean forces, signs of which are already reported, could result in the inability of the ROK Army to put up a successful defense even against those forces though inferior in numbers and acting alone.

A deterrent to renewed Communist aggression, far more effective than any military strength which is or could be maintained in south Korea, exists, however, in the guarantees embodied in the Joint Policy Declaration of July 27, 1953, and the U.S.-Korean Mutual Defense Treaty of October 1, 1953. Under these agreements any Communist attempt to attack south Korea by armed force would bring to Korea’s immediate defense not only the U.S., but fifteen other members of the UN. It has been made clear that in any such eventuality Manchuria and Communist China would not again be “privileged sanctuaries”.

In view of the limited effectiveness of present ROK forces against an invasion by the Communists, unless pursued solely by the north Koreans equipped with 1950 weapons, a highly unlikely development, and in the light of the positive guarantees contained in the Joint Policy Declaration and Mutual Defense Treaty it is extremely difficult to make out a strong case, purely on the grounds of defense, [Page 317] to support the necessity of maintaining present south Korean forces either as a deterrent to aggression or as an effective instrument to repel aggression.

The most recent [less than 1 line of source text not declassified],6 concludes that “the USSR will probably retain its predominant influence over north Korea’s internal and external policies” through 1960 and that the Communists “will not resort to force” to obtain their objective—control over the entire Korean peninsula—“at least so long as the U.S. remains committed to the defense of the ROK”. The estimate also states that “the chances are about even that the Chinese Communists will complete the withdrawal of their troops (from north Korea) within the next year …”.7

From a strictly military standpoint the following assumptions, basic to the question of determining the appropriate size of the ROK forces, emerge:

A renewal of aggression by north Korean forces acting alone and equipped according to 1950 standards, is extremely unlikely, especially in view of the role played by the Soviet Union in directing north Korea’s external policies.
So long as the Joint Policy Declaration and perhaps more important the U.S.-Korean Mutual Defense Treaty, are in effect the Chinese Communists and/or Soviets will not utilize military force in Korea short of a decision to embark on global war.
Present south Korean forces would not only prove inadequate against a massive Chinese Communist-Soviet onslaught but were the Communist potential in air power and nuclear weapons brought to bear would probably be destroyed before U.S. and UN intervention could become effective.

If the above assumptions are considered valid then justification other than defense, i.e., to deter or repel renewed Communist aggression, must be found for maintaining a Korean military establishment of present size, character, and dollar cost. Forces greatly reduced in size but more modern in organization and equipment could perform this role.

2. Political Justification

As a newly independent country, inexperienced in self-government, thwarted in its desire for unification, recently torn by invasion, occupation, and war, Korea is faced with the ever present threat of political instability and Communist subversion. Both have thus far been held successfully at bay by an authoritarian, semi-“police state” regime dominated by President Syngman Rhee. One of the principal instruments for assuring stability and sustaining the will of the [Page 318] Korean people to remain non-Communist and independent is the ROK Army. As a visible and concrete force ready at battle stations to repel renewed aggression, it provides the Korean people with a tangible guarantee of continued free and independent existence enabling them to concentrate on the reconstruction of their country and the development of some sort of democratic political framework. Were the armed forces to be cut drastically one immediate effect would probably be a loss of confidence in the future on the part of the Korean people and a break in their will to resist Communist subversion from within and Communist blandishments on the unification issue from without. Such adverse repercussions might largely be avoided, however, were a reduction in forces accompanied by the arrival of “new” weapons thus sustaining or augmenting their present defensive capabilities.

Apart from the internal political importance of the ROK Army, its existence through U.S. support as the largest, best-trained, and equipped, and battle-tested non-Communist force in the Far East may have considerable symbolic significance throughout the area. Its reduction in strength might in the eyes of many be interpreted as a reflection of Western and particularly U.S. disinterest in maintaining Korea as a non-Communist enclave on the Asiatic mainland and as an anchor in the defense line running through Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Again were “new” weapons to be provided to counterbalance force reductions these adverse psychological repercussions would undoubtedly be largely avoided.

In summary, any drastic cut in the ROK Army without the parallel introduction of modern weapons might not only endanger Korea’s internal political stability and weaken the morale and anti-Communist convictions of her people but could undermine the will to resist Communism elsewhere in the Far East.

3. Economic Justification

The armed forces numbering 720,000 men are perhaps the greatest single factor in the Korean economy. A military establishment of this size not only provides direct sustenance and technical training to a large segment of the population, but indirectly furnishes a stimulus to many economic activities. Any sizeable cut back would undoubtedly result in intensifying the present unemployment problem. In addition, the fact that the Korean troops now enjoy a standard of living considerably above the general civilian population and have become accustomed to a more “modern” and more “Western” way of life adds to the difficulty of assimilating those who are released. Complications are already being experienced with officers and men demobilized in accord with normal rotational procedures. In many cases, these men having achieved certain skills and having become accustomed [Page 319] to the standards established by American training, equipment, and supply return to their villages and farms, find a resumption of their former way of life unattractive and thence congregate unemployed and discontented in the towns and cities.

Should the military establishment be drastically cut over a short period of time, the problem of assimilating hundreds of thousands of ex-soldiers could only be met by a vast public works program, perhaps far more costly to establish and maintain than military units of comparable size. In brief, reducing the Korean Armed Forces to any great extent would not necessarily reduce internal governmental costs or total U.S. contributions and might be expected to create serious social and economic problems.

Another aspect of a reduction of forces involves senior officers. At the present time, neither private business and industry nor the national and local governments could absorb a large number of young, intelligent, vigorous, highly educated, rank conscious general officers. These officers suddenly retired or released would in fact have no place to go outside of politics and through force of circumstances would undoubtedly be swept up in political maneuvers perhaps of a revolutionary nature.


The maintenance of a military establishment in Korea consisting primarily of large ground forces organized and equipped along World War II lines and costing the U.S. $500 million annually cannot be justified on purely military grounds. Certain political and economic factors do tend to support their continuation, however.

Were these forces gradually reduced with parallel “modernization” both in organization and equipment their military utility would not only be vastly increased, but the adverse political repercussions of such a reduction would be minimal. The economic difficulties of a reduction could probably be overcome by a large public works type program.

The cost of “modernization” and of such public works programs would in the short run exceed that of maintaining the armed forces at their present levels. In the long run, however, the overall cost of the Korean military establishment should be materially less, the Korean economy would benefit by the additional skilled and semiskilled labor released from the armed forces, and our military posture in south Korea would be such as to offer reasonable opportunities for defense against a Communist attack even though spearheaded by Manchurian based air power and nuclear weapons.

With respect to U.S. forces suffice it to say that their presence at current strength in Korea serves as a deterrent to renewed aggression and contributes greatly to the defensive capabilities of the UNC. [Page 320] Likewise they support materially in troop expenditures, local purchases, and employment of local labor, the Korean economy. As a symbol of U.S. determination to preserve Korean independence they foster the will to resist Communism not only in Korea but elsewhere in the Far East. As in the case with the ROK Army, however, U.S. ground forces in Korea could undoubtedly be reduced without endangering their several roles were they at the same time to be modernized and provided with weapons of nuclear capability.

The level of both U.S. and ROK forces is, therefore, inseparable from the question of “modernization”. Unless and until we are able to evolve a formula with respect to the Armistice Agreement permitting the introduction into Korea of new weapons including those of nuclear capability, NA/K feels that a reduction in either or both U.S. and ROK force levels would tend to compromise U.S. objectives in Korea and to weaken the U.S. position there and in the Far East.8

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 795b.5/10–156. Secret.
  2. See Supra.
  3. See Document 155.
  4. In a memorandum to Assistant Secretary Robertson dated October 3, Assistant Secretary for Policy Planning Bowie noted that the NSC Planning Board had been directed, “on an urgent basis,” to review NSC 5514 in light of the forthcoming JCS report and the study prepared by the Prochnow Committee. Bowie suggested that the staffs of FE and S/P begin to consider revision of NSC 5514 without waiting for the JCS report. (Department of State, S/P Files: Lot 62 D 1, Korea, US Objectives and Courses of Action (NSC 5514))
  5. The July 18 Progress Report is printed as Document 162.
  6. See Document 159.
  7. Ellipsis in the source text.
  8. In a marginal notation on the source text, Parsons observed, in part, “I think your conclusion makes a lot of sense”.