Friday, June 18, 2010

SK Solidarity Trip Day 2: Strategic Flexibility

We took a train south from Seoul to reach the city of Pyeongtaek. At the train station we were met by Mr. Kang Sang-Won, the director of the Pyeongtaek Peace Center, who took us to his office. We spent some time in his office, learning the history of the problems that they have had with the always expanding military bases in the area, and later were taken on a tour around the area to see the bases themselves.

To give you a little background, in 2006 Pyeongtaek became a central struggle in the anti-base movement in South Korea. In the areas around Pyeongtaek, there are two US military bases, Osan which is an Air Force base and Camp Humphrey’s which is an Army base. In anticipating of moving US forces from Yonsang in Seoul down to Camp Humphreys, the South Korea government announced plans (three years earlier) to take huge pieces of land from farmers and small villages around the two bases.

In an effort to stop the taking of these lands, local farmers and peace activists from around Korea conducted a variety of acts of civil disobedience, such as blocking demolition equipment, going on hunger strikes, sitting in structures or chaining themselves to them in order to prevent them from being bulldozed, and holding vigils and rallies. In order to ensure that there were no problems in the condemnation of the properties and the eviction of the villagers there, the South Korean government sent in more than 10,000 military soldiers and riot police. They also put up fences and razor wire and dug trenches around the fields of farmers to keep them from returning to their land. Given that the opposition was small groups of activists and farmers, this response was obviously overkill.

But there were interesting geopolitical needs at stake which made it critical for the South Korean government that this land be taken and made available to the US military. Depending on who you ask, it has either been since the 1960’s or the 1990’s that the United States has wanted to move towards providing a more supportive role in the defense of South Korea. Since World War II, the US military presence in South Korea, has been closely intertwined with the South Korean government and military, a fact best exemplified by Yonsang Base in Seoul, where you can find the Combined Forces Command, which is commanded by a four-star American General, with a South Korean four-star general as the deputy commander. You can also see it represented in the way US forces can be found in the DMZ or demilitarized zone on the North and South Korean border.

For the US, the key to disentangling this web of militarization, is to dissolve the Combined Forces Command, get the headquarters of the US military South Korea out of Seoul and Yonsang and also pull back troops from the DMZ. The expanding of Camp Humphreys is one piece which makes that possible, as it is set to be the new home of US Forces in South Korea. Another key is to move those troops closer to the border further away, and readjust the military posture of the forces on the peninsula, from a more conventional one, to a more advanced, long-range one. That is the reason why Osan base is also being expanded, and a new runway built. One of the new additions to Osan Base are PAC-3 missiles, which are a big part of the US military’s strategy "defensive plan" for boxing in China. As fellow solidarity delegate Bruce Gagnon pointed out, the US also has plans to put these PAC-3 missiles in Taiwan.

According to Mr. Kang Sang-Won, whenever the residents of Pyeongtaek question their government as to why, when the US military has to take more land, when it already has so much in the area, they are told that this is about defending South Korea from North Korea, and about giving the United States military “strategic flexibility.”

For those who pay attention to what military rhetoric, this is one of the most important things a military commander wants. In Guam, we are very familiar with this concept since, whenever any random DOD or Federal Official comes through the island to talk about the military buildup there, they in one way or another note that Guam offers the US military “strategic flexibility.” This is usually described as something which gives the US military the extra boost it needs first thing in the morning to respond to a threat or an emergency crisis in the near region. Strategic flexibility is the ability to react quickly, efficiently with minimal interference.
Guam offers strategic flexibility because it has no host government and no status of forces agreement which has to be informed about operations or might have any say in what the military can or cannot do. The military sees that by moving its headquarters, obtaining more territory and dissolving the Combined Forces Command, they would be more free to act and respond. Another aspect of America’s flexibility in South Korea, is that by moving them away from North Korea and south of Seoul, they are not only out of range of most of North Korea’s weapons, but also more free to act and intervene in other places in the Asia Pacific region.

When Mr. Kang Sang-Won took us around the bases in question, it was clear that while the US military may claim to be reducing forces or simply realigning forces, around Camp Humphreys, from the large construction that we saw, it was clear that they are absolutely expanding.

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