02.09.2014 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The American military presence in Korea and its prospects

877-0On August 6-7 at the Pentagon in the United States, a second meeting was held of the South Korean-American Council on the transfer of operational control to Seoul of its military during wartime; such a transfer is scheduled for December 2015. This council meets monthly in preparation for the meeting of an advisory body concerning matters of mutual defense and will be held in October this year in Washington. South Korea is represented by the head of the department of defense policy at the Ministry of Defense, Ryu Jae-son and representing the United States is Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, David Helvi. At the meeting the possibility of moving the deadline from December 2015 to the beginning of 2020 for the transfer of operational control to Seoul over its military during wartime was discussed. This was primarily in relation to the necessity to create and start using its own missile defense system (Kill Chain) as well as systems and missile defense KAMD which must confront the rocket and nuclear threats posed by the North. It is expected that these systems will be developed by the beginning of 2020.

However, practically at the same time, a number of American experts on foreign policy and defense urged the United States to withdraw all its troops from the Korean peninsula once the transfer of operational control to Seoul has been completed and, to accelerate this process, not delay it. This was, in particular, written about by Senior Research Fellow at the Cato Institute, Douglas Bandow, in an article that was published in Forbes magazine. According to him, South Korea is fully capable to independently provide for its own security and the American military presence on the Korean peninsula has to be withdrawn; even more the cost of maintain it is too high. The same opinion is shared by military intelligence officer, Christopher Lee, who noted in his blog that the United States can ensure the safety of South Korea without the permanent presence of American forces on the territory of South Korea.

In this regard, it is worth discussing the history of the American military presence in South Korea and what is behind the talk regarding the transfer of command.

On October 1, 1953, the United States and South Korea signed an agreement on joint defense, the purpose of which was to unite the strategic potential of both countries in order to effectively “defend against common dangers” and strengthen the links for the common struggle “against the threat of Communist aggression.” It is true that the provision of American military assistance was not automatic and required the approval of the United States Congress. However, the U.S. received the right to place on the territory of South Korea American military forces, including army, marine and air force, not only on the basis of previous UN resolutions regarding Korea, but also on a bilateral basis. And any restrictive framework of such presence was not specified.

On November 17, 1954 a protocol was signed regarding Korean-American military and economic matters, according to which the armed forces of South Korea remained under the control command to the United Nations, so long as the organization will be responsible for national defense of South Korea. Thus, on the territory of South Korea, there has been a permanent presence of American troops and the South Korean army has been subordinate to the American general.

The legal status of American troops in Korea over the next 45 years has been reconsidered several times. Its size and its organization is constantly changing. Thus, in the second half of the seventies under the influence of failures in Vietnam and the policy initiatives of President Jimmy Carter, the gradual withdrawal of troops from Korea has been discussed seriously.
In 1978, a Joint US-South Korean command was created by which all South Korean forces are subordinate to American command.

In this context, I want to remember the suppression of the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, which claimed no fewer victims than the well-known events that occurred at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. In both cases, tanks rolled into the city, but since the Korean army is subordinate to American command, the use of military force against the civilian population had to be approved by Washington.

Further, the US-South Korean military alliance has been repeatedly reinforced by a number of additional agreements. The last one was signed in 2012 and requires a joint response to any “North Korean provocations.” In this case, the United States can a) answer, even if the provocation was not directed directly against them, and b) to strike directly not only those committing the provocation, but also on command and control structures.

Until the 90s of the precious century, justification for the continued American military presence in South Korea was the need to contain the world socialist system. Today, the main pretext for USA military in Korea is to combat the North Korean threat, although in reality its presence aims at deterring Chinese and Russian influence.

The United States and South Korea periodically (on average, more than 10 times per year) carry out joint military exercises in various shapes and forms. Pyongyang traditionally reacts to by increasing the combat readiness of its own forces and threatens to retaliate and promises big problems for South Korea and the United States.

In 1994, the right to command its own army was returned to Seoul, but only in peacetime. The final transfer of authority has been constantly postponed. Earlier it was planned that the transfer of this authority would be implemented by 2009, however, at the initiative of South Korea, it was extended until 2012; then, against the backdrop of the incident surrounding the Cheonan sinking, an agreement was reached on June 26, 2010 to postpone the date of the transfer of command to December 1, 2015. As you can see, the deadline has been postponed again.

In general, all the costs associated with the American military presence in Korea are incurred by the Americans; however, specific provisions of Article 5 of the Agreement on the status of American forces in Korea envisage a reworking every 2 to 3 years of the agreement on the allocation of defense costs between the two countries. According to the last such agreement, signed in 2014, South Korean authorities have increased the cost for the presence on its territory of American troops to 920 billion won (866 million 860 thousand USD ) Which is 5.8% more than the previous year. It was a compromise, as Seoul sought to maintain payments at the level of 900 billion won, while Washington insisted on an increase to 950 billion won.

A few words about the American nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula: There is no reliable information that the United States has not continued to place them in Korea since 1991, although periodic visits to Korean ports by American ships with nuclear weapons on board can be considered in a similar way. More importantly, the main reason for the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula was not so much denuclearization as changes in the American military doctrine. The development of missile technology and nuclear submarines has shown greater efficacy compared with the placement of nuclear weapons on the ground. From the list of potential targets of nuclear weapons, North Korea has not been eliminated, and it is quite an important point, because the concept of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons is that they are not to be used against countries that do not possess them.

What is the current place of the American contingent within the regional security system? If at the time of a Korean War, the South Korean army was only able to cut the civilian population and scatter in all other cases, it has now become a serious military force, and support by the United States to this country would be needed only on water and in the air. The role of American troops as the main defender of the country in the event of a conflict between the North and South has been steadily declining; however, the Korean Peninsula is the only continental element in the system of promoting national interests of the USA. In addition, as an ally of the United States, South Korea does increase the American military power, doing it to a much greater extent than Japan, restrained as it is by article 9 of its constitution.

The question as to whether the army of South Korea can win a war with the North without American help is discussed in South Korea and abroad. The aggregate opinions of American military experts is, that while the South Korean army is increasingly turning into an independent force and now is able to conduct military operations “on the ground”, military support from the sea and from the air it is still necessary.

However, the United States formulates its military policy in the spirit of the new requirements of the times; one such doctrine is “a place instead of a base.” The gist of it is that a new kind of war would require a greater mobility of troops. Existing means of delivering large military units on the battlefield and the tendency to reduce the role of the linear parts of the army in the capture of enemy territory, military bases with a permanent garrison now seem unnecessary, including the outer perimeter of the base. The transfer of forces to a critical point in less than a day at a crucial time from any point located within the zone of a likely strike from an enemy is likely to be the target of an enemy. For a new war, attacks will come from smaller numbers of groups, but those groups will have greater skill and better technical equipment, thus it would be easier to have “airfields” and infrastructure to deploy forces, not permanent garrisons.

In this context, the American military analysts are to provide greater autonomy to the South Korean army, while the initiative regarding the continuous postponement of the transfer of command comes from the South Korean military and from some of its politicians. Those, on the contrary, attempt to claim that the American military presence in Korea is vital, and without it, South Korea would be vulnerable to aggression from the North. Many pragmatists find such arguments irrational. For example, in conversation with deputies of the parliament, the head of South Korean Ministry of Defense Intelligence Agency, Cho Bong-geun said, “If we are going to fight against North Korea alone, without the aid of the United States, we will lose. However, if we have the support of U.S. forces, we will win.” This was a controversial and emotional comment.

This is due to the fact that the attitude to the final transfer of the command is unclear. On the one hand, the control of the army by a foreign state is often used to refer to the dependent character of the South Korean military policy. On the other hand, the current situation removes from South Korean generals a large part of their responsibilities and functions related to strategic planning. Enough of the generals are satisfied with the situation in which this complex, difficult and demanding work is done for South Korea by the United States. From a third perspective, given the rise of revanchist mood within the South Korean army, it is unclear what would provoke a possible conflict more, the presence of American control as a kind of deterrent, or lack of it, allowing South Koreans to make all the key decisions on their own.

A data survey of citizens of South Korea regarding their attitudes toward American troops and their understanding of the goals of the American military presence in the country, is rather contradictory: a significant portion of the population believes that the withdrawal of American troops would lead to attack from the North, but yet would also lead to an improvement in relations between Pyongyang and Seoul; more than half of respondents believe that the likelihood of progress in North-South relations after the withdrawal of troops would increase, and at the same time, almost three quarters of respondents believe that American troops should remain on the peninsula until this very progress occurs.

However, it should be noted that the question regarding the withdrawal of American troops from the country after unification has been seriously posed by neither the right nor the left. Since the unification of the country is perceived in the South not only as the absorption of the North into the South, but American troops may very well remain in a united Korea as a guarantor of security or to possibly combat and suppress any resistance. So, for American troops to completely withdraw from the territory of South Korea, Northeast Asia would undoubtedly incur enormous geopolitical changes, the probability of which is not currently foreseeable.

Other news relating to American troops in Korea; In July 2014 the command of the U.S. Air Force introduced new rules for troops in South Korea. These include a complete ban on the purchase and drinking of alcoholic beverages by personnel during the first month of its deployment and the establishment of a curfew (from 10 pm to 5 am) within the same period, as well as taking classes aimed at preventing sexual offenses.

Whether it is necessary to draw conclusions from the fact that, “recently crimes committed by the American contingent in South Korea have crossed all borders”? North Korean propaganda often exploits the idea of the “two-legged wolves of American imperialism are given impunity and vent their evil inclinations,” looting, raping and murdering the local population. But how much of that is true and how do South Koreans feel in general towards the presence of American troops?

As already noted, the American military presence in South Korea has long since been established and maintains substantial rights. For example, in terms of legal jurisdiction, only in 2001, serious crimes committed by GIs were referred to the South Korean Justice not after conviction by a court (which excluded the holding of a Korean independent investigative) and at the stage of preliminary investigation.

The presence on the territory of the country of a large contingent of foreign occupation troops, including a block in the center of Seoul, of course served as a source for certain social tensions. In 1952 there was even a law that declared the possession of foreign cigarettes a crime. This law was enacted to combat the trade of cigarettes on the black market around American military bases.

In spite of this and similar bans around the American bases, there emerged a complete set of “serving structures”, including “the black market” offering prostitution plus a whole range of other entertainment venues. Of course, Americans did not and do not engage in the forced recruitment of Korean women into prostitution, but according to the South Korean historian, Kang Hyun-joo, the overall level of “sexual exploitation” of the local population was also very high. He cites a report of the American priest Ernesto Caston, a report written in October of 1964 and dedicated to the sexual lives of American soldiers in Korea. According to the data he presented in his report, an immoral life (repeated visits to brothels, the permanent presence of concubines, etc.) was led by 90% of soldiers. Almost every soldier had local “fiancé” with which he would offer as stakes in a card game, share with a friend or upon leaving the service in Korea, present to one of the new arrivals.

From the 1950s to the 80s, the number of women involved in army prostitution approached a million. In this case, Syngman Rhee propaganda attempted to encourage woman to sell her body to American soldiers, and claimed her to be a true patriot, contributing to the development of the national economy, and therefore should not be an object of scorn. Indeed, in the 60’s revenue from service of American troops (all types) accounted for 25% of the revenue of the budget of South Korea.

American bases were perceived as such a “useful” source, it even carried out from there food waste. Precisely from there a Korean dish appeared of army soup” (“Pude chchige”). Speculators bought up American military rations of meat and resold it to the general population, after which the meat is slow cooked in a stewing pot and seasoned hot spices.

Excesses associated with the behavior of American soldiers periodically occurred and caused a lot of commotion. However, it should be immediately noted that there are no publicly available statistics that would confirm a higher level of criminal behavior by American soldiers compared with that of the local population; and for this reason people who talk about the bloody crimes of American troops in South Korea usually speak of the iconic stories such as the case of Kenneth Lee Markle, who raped and brutally murdered a twenty-six year old “bar employee” in October 1992. He was arrested, sentenced and served 15 years in the Korean prison. He was released under amnesty in 2006 and the victim’s family received compensation of 72,000 USD.

If such an event had occurred before the Korean economic miracle, or in the period of the “cold war”, it would be perceived by the government and society as an acceptable price to pay for security, but as the situation changed, the levels of tolerance towards such excesses also changed. Even with openly pro-American, Lee Myung-bak, crimes committed by American soldiers, were covered widely

And although, according to some sources, the number of such cases is declining, they are no longer ignored, which may create the false impression that the behavior of American soldiers is beginning to exceed all limits. In actual fact, statistics show that the crime rate of American enlisted men is now below the average Korean rate and yes, a curfew is enforced in South Korea on American troops periodically, and usually after every a serious incident has occurred. The last time a ban was introduced from exiting a military base from the hours of 1 to 5 o’clock in the morning, 7 days a week was in December 2011.

It is very important to note, crimes committed by American soldiers are no longer a taboo subject or considered to be an acceptable price to pay in exchange for protection and it is equally worth noting the changes which have occurred in the attitudes of Koreans towards the United States in general.

Until that time, a positive attitude towards the United States prevailed, and it played a role in how the United States behaved during the overthrow of Syngman Rhee, expressing support for the demands of democracy, without which the event is unlikely to have evolved so quickly and successfully.

In 1961, when Park Chung-hee came to power, the period of intoxication towards the U.S. gradually began to wane. Attitudes towards the United States became more realistic and pragmatic. Nevertheless, the “white man” ceased to be perceived as something exotic only by the late 1990s. In the 1970s and 1980s any Korean who saw Europeans, considered it his duty to say: “Hello” along with the words “miguk Saram” (which means American) but in Korea, it meant Europeans in general. Even during my first visit to Seoul in 1990, any Caucasian was perceived primarily as an American, and a man of a man of a certain age was perceived to being a U.S. serviceman.

Open hatred by younger people towards America only began to show up much later, and after the events of 1980 in Gwangju, which was referred to earlier, and the position of the United States in relation to Chun Doo-hwan, who sought to make up for the lack of legitimacy of his regime’s by contacts with the United States. As a result, the United States would lose the attractive image as a “defender of freedom” and attacks on American cultural centers became one of the characteristics of the student movement of the 1980s.

At the same time we bang to notice a shift in attitudes towards the behavior of GIs. Brawls and rapes were no longer considered an inevitable and unpleasant price to pay for protection from the North. And although in the 1980s the number of incidents has decreased, the reaction to them has become more and more acute.

It is impossible not to make mention of the incident which occurred in June of 2002, an accident involving an American infantry vehicle that killed two Korean schoolgirls. Children ran across the road in front of an armored vehicle and fell under its wheels; and while the general public opinion expected that the driver of the vehicle and its commander were negligent in the death of the two girls, from the standpoint of an American court, because the driver could not see someone crossing within the vicinity of the vehicle, they were acquitted.

On the eve of the presidential elections in 2002, left-wing candidate Roh Moo-hyun, “squeezed” the issue to its maximum. The strength of his anti-American speeches resulted in the Caucasian man being fearful to go out on to the street. Demonstrations were carried out across the country and continued right up to election night, fueled by the leftist media. In order to coordinate the movement and develop a common strategy, an “All-Korean Committee” was created for the two girls who died as a result of the accident. National hysteria became a symbol for the rights of Korean citizens against an “unjust” verdict.

However, after the victory of Roh Moo-hyun, popular indignation was literally “switched off” as soon as in January 2003, when representatives of the American business community informed their Korean counterparts that the confidence rating in South Korea would soon be lowered. The reasons offered for this increased risk was, not only the North Korean nuclear issue, but also the growth of anti-Americanism. Thereafter, Roh Moo-hyun immediately announced a planned visit to the United States, called for the cessation of anti-American protests and held a series of meetings with representatives of the American military and the business community.

Consumer anti-Americanism is strong enough so that amid rumors of mad cow disease, posters were hung in a number of supermarkets in Seoul with the banner, “We do not sell American meat.” However, in spite of the ideological hostility towards the U.S., many young Korean citizens consider “Western” as being synonymous with “progressive”. A. Lankov correctly makes note of it concerning activists from left-wing nationalist organizations who make plenty of shouts of “Yankee Go Home” anti-American activists dressed in jeans sent to the “McDonald’s.”

However, the immediate withdrawal of American troops from South Korea requires only representatives of those leftist circles whose political tradition are marginalized. The fact that American troops in South Korea will remain even after the conclusion of a peace agreement with North Korea has been stated even by Roh Moo-hyun.

Manipulation associated with a possible reduction in the contingent of troops or the redeployment of troops from the capital to areas further south, does not change the picture. The withdrawal of American troops from Seoul, where they occupied an entire city block, also had both a political and military purpose. On the one hand, Americans are no longer an eyesore to the residents of the South Korean capital, on the other – they were withdrawn from the potential strike.

Therefore, the situation with the place of the American contingent in South Korea remains complex and illustrates the inconsistency of Korean-American relations.

Konstanin Asmolov is a Ph.D. of History and a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies at the Far East Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences and a columnist for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.