Updated: Feb 14, 2022
By Becky Coffield, HUSC Historian 2021-2022
Relations between the United States and the Republic of Korea are rooted in over 150 years of history. Though the history is not free from obstacles or world power politics, both have trotted through time with an established friendship and military support.
On May 8, 1871, Rear Admiral John Rodgers, commanding the Asiatic squadron of five aged ships, set sail for Korea from Shanghai. His mission was to escort the US minister from China to Korea to seek assurances of humane treatment for shipwrecked sailors and negotiate a commercial treaty. Just five years earlier, a merchant ship, the General Sherman, was sunk in the Taedong River and all hands were massacred by Koreans determined to resist foreign “contamination.”
Rear Admiral Rogers was a senior naval officer with a long-distinguished career dating back to the Seminole Wars, Mexican-American War, and Civil War commanding a Union Ironclad. In addition to experience in the Far East, he charted the West Sea and the East Sea in the 1850s.
In June, the Admiral requested permission to go further up the Han River, with a Chinese interpreter. The Admiral took Korean silence as assent, however, Korean soldiers who were protecting the river misunderstood the purpose of the forces and attacked the sailors. A subsequent series of attacks and counterattacks resulted in several hundreds of Korean and American lives being taken. In July 1871, Admiral Rodgers pulled anchor and left.
After nine years and a more favorable political climate under King Kojong, Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt was assigned the mission of opening the “Hermit Kingdom” to trade. Attempts in April and May of 1880 were unsuccessful so a US-Korea Treaty was formed with the help of the Chinese Governor General. The treaty appointed diplomatic and consular representatives, permitted US vessels to enter any port in Korea, and US citizens to receive protection under local authority. In addition, Korean subjects could pursue various callings and avocations throughout the US. President Chester Arthur proclaimed the treaty in the US on June 4, 1883. Like the treaty made with Japan in 1876, it was the first to be made by a western power. Other global powers, Great Britain, Russia, France, and Italy were quick to follow over the next few years.
King Kojong requested US military advisors to instruct and drill his troops. The US settled on civil war hero, William McEntire Dye. Dye later published a small treatise on military tactics in the Korean language. The mission was disbanded in 1889, but Dye stayed on to drill the palace guard and advise on agricultural methods. His health deteriorated after the Japanese killed the Queen in 1895, but he stayed on to protect the King until 1899. He died six months later in the US.
Japan demonstrated its supremacy in the region as the Russo-Japanese War victor and then through years of attacks on the Korean Kingdom. Korea was annexed into the Japanese Empire August 1910 and renamed Chosen. The US delegation in Seoul closed in late 1905 at the request of the Japanese, who were irritated by the prospect of US interference in Korean affairs, and a 40 year hiatus in US- Korean relations began.
Japanese rule over Korea ended at the end of WWII. Korea was subsequently divided along the 38th parallel; the Soviet Union occupied the north as a result of entering the war against Japan during the last days of World War II and the United States occupied the southern half of the peninsula. General Hodge and Governor General Nobuyuki Abe signed the formal surrender of Japanese forces in Southern Korea on September 9, 1945. The 7th Division, 40th Division, 6th Division, XXIV Corps and 308th Bomb Wing were tasked with the mission to relieve, disarm and evacuate Japanese forces; to guard critical installations; and to maintain civil order.
Japan had occupied every administrative position in Korean government and industry, and consequently, the US Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) was left to fill the gaps until Koreans could be trained in all affairs and a duly elected Korean government was able to assume control. While this was taking place in the South, a Soviet-trained cadre of Korean communists formed a separate government, spurning all calls by the United Nations for free, UN-supervised elections throughout the Korean peninsula. Barred entry to the North, the UN commission could only oversee elections in the South. These were held on May 10, 1948, and 200 representatives were sent to the National Assembly. The Assembly adopted the Constitution of the Republic of Korea on July 12, and three days later elected Syngnam Rhee as its first president. The USAMGIK was terminated. Shortly after, the Supreme People’s Assembly of Korea in the North adopted a constitution (claimed for all of Korea) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on September 9, 1948 and veteran communist Kim Il Sung took office as Premier of DPRK.
US security forces began to withdraw after General Hodge and President Rhee’s agreement on August 24, 1948. The Joint Chiefs of Staff directed General MacArthur in Tokyo to scale down forces to one regimental combat team of 7,500 men. Concurrently, an economic agreement was made by the US pledging financial, material and technical assistance to avert economic crisis, promote national recovery, and ensure domestic tranquility. At the end of 1948, UN General Assembly adopted a resolution acknowledging the ROK as the only lawfully elected government on the peninsula. By December, the Soviet Union announced a complete withdrawal of its forces in North Korea. By June 30, 1949 the 5th Regimental Combat Team (formerly departing 7th Division) was pulled out of the occupation phase of US forces. On July 1, 1949, the US-Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG) was formed with an authorized strength of 500 men. With the departure of all but a few hundred US forces, and an ROK Army that was nothing more than a border force, the stage was set for the North to pursue its goal of communizing the entire peninsula.
The Korean War phase 1. 27 June-15 September 1950 (Defensive).
The Korean War phase 2. 16 September- 2 November 1950 (Offensive).
The Korean War phase 3. 3 November 1950-24 January 1951(CCF Intervention).
The Korean War phase 4. 25 January-July 1951 (First Counter offensive & CCF Spring Offensive).
The Korean War phase 5. 9 July1951-27 July 1953.
Post War Partners in Peace
A mutual Defense Treaty became effective between the ROK and the US November 17, 1954. It declared both parties would act to meet a common danger in accordance with their constitutions. The ROK granted the US “the right to dispose US land, air and sea forces in and about the Republic as determined by mutual agreement.” The ROK announced it would keep its armed forces under the control of the UNC as long as the UNC is responsible for the defense of Korea. The US government agreed to carry out an extensive program of economic and military assistance.
The reduction of US Forces in Korea after the Armistice was relatively rapid. Headquarters of UNC moved from Tokyo to Seoul on July 1, 1957, in conjunction with an overall reorganization of US military forces and command structures in the Pacific. Concurrent with this move was the formation of US Forces Korea (USFK), a planning headquarters which coordinates joint service activities in the ROK. The senior US Army Officer commanded all three headquarters as CINCUNC, COMUSKOR and CDREUSA.
In the ensuring years, US ground forces in Korea continued their defense readiness mission, helped modernize the ROK armed forces and added a significant measure of stability with economic progress. In April 1971 7th ID was withdrawn and 2nd ID was relieved on line by the 1st ROK Army Division. This left the US with no ground troops deployed along the DMZ, except for an element guarding the Panmunjom truce area. After the Vietnam War ended in 1973, DOD decided to eliminate another 60,000 noncombatant spaces worldwide through consolidation and reduction. Eighth Army HQ and HQ UNC/USFK were integrated into a single joint staff on July 1, 1974. In 1977, US and ROK defense officials established the ROK/US Combined Forces Command at Yongson Garrison with an American CINC and a South Korean deputy commander. Over the next few decades the US and ROK Armies defeated espionage rings across the DMZ and thwarted attacks, but also suffered casualties along the DMZ as the North Koreans have tested their boundaries.
In 2004, an agreement was reached between the United States and South Korean governments to move all US forces to garrisons south of the Han River in Seoul and relocate USFK and United Nations Command to Camp Humphreys, making it the largest US overseas military base, covering more than 3,450 acres. As the Army shifts its priorities to Camp Humphreys, the US Army and Exchange is committed to supporting the growing installation with more stores, restaurants and services.
For more information please visit the U.S. Army Center of Military History website at https://history.army.mil/.
“American Troops arrive in Korea to partition the country.” (www.history.com/this-day-in-history/american-troops-arrive-in-korea-to-partition-the-country). October 1, 2021.
Finley, James P. The US Military Experience in Korea 1871-1982: In the Vanguard of ROK-US Relations. APO San Francisco: Headquarters, United States Forces, Korea, 1983.
“SOFA Documents.” (www.usfk.mil/About/SOFA/). October 1, 2021.
“The Korean War Chronology.” (https://history.army.mil/reference/Korea/kw-chrono.htm). October 1, 2021.
“U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys History.” (home.army.mil/humphreys/index.php/about/history). October 1, 2021.
“USACE Transforms USAG Humphreys in Korea.” (www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/usace-transforms-usag-humphreys-in-korea/). October 1, 2021.