Korean Bases of Concern

Last month the New York Philharmonic grabbed the world’s attention by performing Dvorak’s New World Symphony in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. The Philharmonic may well have chosen Dvorak’s piece as an overture for a new world of peace. With negotiations over security issues in Northeast Asia making some progress, the United States and North Korea have been inching closer.

Before and after this music diplomacy, however, a different kind of new world was being rehearsed around the Korean peninsula: the Pentagon’s brave new world of lily pads and rapid deployment forces. This latest military transformation involves turning Cold War-vintage heavy armored forces into high-tech, agile, rapidly deployable fighting forces for the 21st century. The military is being restructured into modular units that can be put together in innumerable combinations, like Lego blocks. U.S. bases overseas are being realigned to maximize the efficiency of the transformed, restructured forces. In early March, U.S. forces held military exercises in Korea to test the existing plan and to facilitate the process of realigning the military bases and restructuring the military deployment.

Nowhere is the trinity of transformation, realignment, and restructuring more vividly demonstrated than in South Korea. There U.S. bases are being consolidated to facilitate the “strategic flexibility” of the U.S. forces. With this flexibility, various U.S. forces can be flown in from outside the region and assembled into a lethal force, and U.S. forces in Korea can be projected out of Korea and Asia to be parts of a larger force. According to the Pentagon plan, the new bases will function as lily pads on which new high-tech forces will land to jump off to far away places. Welcome to the Pentagon’s new world.

Realigning Bases in South Korea

This new world entails a major reshuffling of overseas bases, including a significant realignment of U.S. bases in South Korea. The most ambitious part of the realignment is to consolidate most of the U.S. military facilities, now scattered south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates South Korea from the North, in Pyongtaek City, about 55 miles south of Seoul. Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek City, currently home to U.S. Army Garrison Command and the Area III Support Activity of the U.S. Army Installation Management Command Korea, is expected to absorb most of them. As one of only two planned “enduring hubs,” the camp is slated to grow by as much as 500% by 2012, rocketing from its current 3,500-troop population to more than 17,000, and making it the largest installation on the peninsula. Combined with family members, civilian staff, and contractors, the population is expected to grow to more than 44,000, according to official estimates.

The location of the newly expanded camp is important for a number of reasons. First, it is not the capital of South Korea. Since U.S. military was sent to accept the surrender of the Japanese forces in 1945, it has been stationed in downtown Seoul. Currently home to the headquarters of the United States Forces Korea, the Eighth United States Army, the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command, and the United Nations Command, the Yongsan compound occupies some 630 acres of prime real estate in overpopulated Seoul. Koreans see its size and location as a major impediment to Seoul’s development. Adding insult to Koreans’ sense of injury is the fact that U.S. forces inherited the same area where the Japanese Imperial Army had been headquartered during the occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Concerned about the explosive mix of economic impediments, social frictions, and nationalist sentiments, Seoul and Washington agreed in 2004 to move most American forces out of the capital. These forces will be relocated to the Pyeongtaek area once the new facilities are completed.

The relocation, by removing one of the enduring sources of frictions in Seoul, may help ease the continuation of the U.S.-Korea alliance into the 21st century. But it also may have only transferred the source of frictions from Seoul to Pyeongtaek. Even before the new facilities could be constructed, the Korean government had to mobilize thousands of police and military forces in order to forcefully remove hundreds of residents who were opposed to the planned construction of the new base over their homes and farming land in Pyeongtaek area. The residents waged spirited resistance for five years, including 935 consecutive days of candlelight vigils. They were dispersed in March 2007, paving the way to the ground-breaking for the new military base in November. But a seed of discontent has been sown that may some day grow uncontrollable.

To the Americans, the relocation may help justify the continued presence of U.S. forces in Korea at a time when South Korea is outspending the North in military expenditures by over ten times. Camp Humphreys is conveniently out of reach of the long-range artilleries the North’s military deployed just north of the DMZ. Of the North’s 13,000 artilleries, 250 can fire shells at Seoul on short notice. Even with the most advanced counter-battery systems that can track and destroy these artillery positions, the U.S. forces, as well as 11 million Seoulites, are vulnerable at least to the first few rounds, which can wreak enough damage to turn this modern city into a pile of rubble and corpses. The relocation of U.S. forces to Pyeongtaek would get the U.S. forces “out of harm’s way into sanctuary locations,” as General Bell, Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, stated in March testimony. For further protection, the base will be surrounded by a 3.5 meters high levee and built on top of a 2.5 meters high land-fill so that “the base may last over 100 years,” according to Michael J. Taliento Jr., commander of Camp Humphreys.

Shifting Base for the Bases

What is the purpose of an “enduring hub” that is expected to sit on 3,500 acres for the next 100 years? The question becomes more puzzling given that U.S. forces have been reducing their size and missions while at the same time giving more responsibilities and power to South Korea’s military. The number of U.S. soldiers has declined from a high of 37,000 two years ago down to 28,500, and is planned to go down to 25,000. After American forces are redeployed to the “sanctuary locations,” South Korean military is expected to assume the frontline defense. By 2012 when the Combined Forces Command is to be disbanded, South Korea will regain the operational command control of its military that has been in the hands of the U.S. commander since the Korean War.

Although the United States is reducing its responsibilities, it is nevertheless proceeding with base construction at an estimated cost of $10 billion. The purpose of this investment, according to U.S. officials, is to deter and defeat the North, as ever before, but with different, and more efficient, means. “On the Korean peninsula, our planned enhancements and realignments are intended to strengthen our overall military effectiveness for the combined defense of the Republic of Korea,” argues former Pentagon official Douglas Feith.

With South Korea leading the fight, Pyeongtaek’s tactical importance increases for American forces. The “sanctuary locations” will provide convenient stops for forces flown from out of area, such as Alaska or California. As the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercise this March demonstrated, Stryker units of armored combat vehicles were deployed from Alaska to Korea in less than 9 hours. Marine troops, flown in from California, were outfitted only with light personal arms and were not weighted down by heavy armored vehicles such as M1A2 tanks. They were then “married” with the heavy equipments that had been “pre-positioned” in country or off-shore, thereby dramatically reducing their reaction time without compromising their lethality.

The March exercise made an extensive use of ports and air bases in South Korea’s southeast hub – such as Busan, Jinhae, Pohang, and Taegu – to land, and move forward, rapid deployment forces and pre-positioned heavy equipments under the protection of missile defense systems. Pyeongtaek, once the base relocation is completed, will assume a similar role. It will serve as a “sanctuary location” to receive forces from around the world and from which rapid deployment forces can be projected deep into North Korea as current war-fighting plans require.

This “enduring structure” in South Korea, however, no longer depends entirely on a North Korean threat. In 1992, Korea’s minister of defense and the U.S. secretary of defense tasked their think tanks to “assess whether and how the United States and the ROK can maintain and invigorate their security relationship should North Korea no longer pose a major threat to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.” Their answer emerged by 2000. “The alliance will serve to maintain peace and stability in Northeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region as a whole,” the joint communique read, “even after the immediate threat to stability has receded on the Korean peninsula.”

In 2003 when the Department of Defense announced its plans to realign the U.S. force structure in Asia, it offered a straightforward rationale: to make U.S. forces in Asia more flexible in a security environment that called for more forces to be available on shorter notice instead of being permanently earmarked, as in South Korea, for a single operational plan (the defense of South Korea). The Department of Defense also intended to consolidate a number of U.S. bases in South Korea, creating hubs from which forces could be deployed outside the region if necessary.

The military requirements for dealing with North Korea and the region more generally are similar. A 2007 report by Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments puts it frankly: “[c]onceptually, the posture/force structure necessary to confront regional nuclear powers and a rising China are generally the same”. It also justifies the “move toward dispersed Pacific basing structure,” including the hubs in South Korea, in terms of the tactical requirements of forward basing “within easy range of Chinese strike forces” and the need for hardened mobile offshore bases and rapidly constructed “cooperative security locations.” The dispersed Pacific basing structure likely includes not just the hubs in Korea. Camp Zama outside Tokyo is slated to house the U.S. 1st Corps Army Headquarters. Kenney Headquarters in Hawaii is to direct U.S. air forces in the Pacific. And Guam is expected to play a key role as it plans to host B-2 bombers, KC-135 aerial refueling tankers, and nuclear submarines,- some redeployed from the continental United States and others newly commissioned – as well as the Marines redeployed from Okinawa.

Neoliberal Globalization Applied to Military

Rumsfeld’s Pentagon envisioned a global military posture that highlights flexibility, speed, and efficiency on a global scale. While Rumsfeld and his cohort are long gone, their vision lives on, still guiding the trinity of military transformation, base realignment, and force restructuring that seeks to deploy modular forces throughout the world, globally source them, deliver them in time. It is neoliberal globalization applied to security.

By 2006, the Roh Moo-Hyun government – the supposedly anti-American regime in South Korea – saw no problem with this globalist view. It agreed to globalize the scope of the alliance: “the future Alliance would contribute to peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, in the region, and globally.” The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review suggests “reorienting U.S. Military Global Posture” so that the “United States will maintain its critical bases in Western Europe and Northeast Asia, which may also serve the additional role of hubs for power projection in future contingencies in other areas of the world.”

In his inauguration last month, just one day before the Philharmonic played Dvorak in Pyongyang, South Korea’s new president Lee Myong Bak said that “we’ll work to develop and further strengthen traditional friendly relations with the United States into a future-oriented partnership.” Time will tell whether his future is oriented more toward the Pentagon’s vision of neoliberal militarism or the New York Philharmonic’s music diplomacy. Either way, a new world is upon us.

Jae-Jung Suh, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org), is an associate professor and director of Korean Studies at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Power, Interest and Identity in Military Alliances (2007).