John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies and KPI Advisory Board Member, discusses the purpose of U.S. military bases in the Korean peninsula. (Video and transcript courtesy of TRNN.)
[Jesse Freeston, TRNN]: In Part 1 of our look at the US military’s network of foreign bases, Miriam Pemberton explained that the US maintains roughly 1,000 bases outside of its borders, excluding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at a cost to the US taxpayer of approximately $100 billion per year. For a better understanding of these bases and the roles they play, The Real News dug into one such location in South Korea, a country that 25,000 US troops call home. Most of those troops are moving into a brand-new, $13 billion garrison in Pyeongtaek.
[John Feffer]: The major base in South Korea is, of course, the Yongsan base in Seoul. And it occupied—you know, it’s a major territory right in the middle of the city. And if you can imagine Central Park suddenly being a military base in New York City—. And there was also the location of a former Japanese military base, which—of course, the Japanese were occupiers of Korea in the first part of the 20th century, so this continuity was not always appreciated by Koreans. This relocation encountered considerable resistance from the inhabitants of Pyeongtaek. It was basically rammed down their throat by both the United States and the South Korean government. They resisted. They did a pretty good job of resisting, but it was very difficult to do so. They got a lot of media attention; again, they got international support; but they were up against some pretty substantial firepower in the United States and the South Korean government. They had a number of arguments. They argued specifically for kind of the environmental and social costs that are associated with a military base in South Korea. So, traditionally in South Korea there have been prostitution, an enormous amount of prostitution around the military bases. There’s the cost of the crimes that are committed by US soldiers, and in Korea those have included murder, rape, theft. There are the environmental costs, and some of those environmental costs are very obvious. I mean, there’s noise pollution from all of these very, very loud jets. There’s the mistakes that jets make when they’re going on bombing runs and the bombs fall on the wrong places. There’s the environmental costs of all the trash and all the chemicals that are produced on a military base. They also made a larger argument with these bases’ cost to the South Korean government.
[Freeston]: The South Korean government is providing 90 percent of the $13 billion for the base.
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[Freeston]: It is clear from their financial commitment that the South Korean administration wants the US there. But what do the South Korean people think about this?
[Feffer]: Public opinion has generally been expressed by the US alliance in general. And it waxes and wanes. I mean, public opinion in South Korea is extraordinarily volatile. So, for instance, at any given point you’ll find a poll that will say that the United States is the greatest threat to peace in the region. This tension between fears of abandonment and fears of embrace with the United States compete in the body politic, as well as in public opinion polls. They’re very upset about many of the things that the United States Army does in Korea. If you ask the question after the two young girls were killed by a US transport vehicle back in 2003, you’re going to get some very strong feelings against the US Army. And at the same time they’re very fearful of US withdrawal—a latent fear of regional instability, not just from North Korea. South Korea fears, just like North Korea fears, Japan and of remilitarizing. And it would prefer the United States to Japan. Latent fears about China as well.
[Freeston]: The US-South Korea alliance has been in the spotlight as late, as North Korea prepares to launch a new rocket with the stated purpose of launching a satellite for domestic use. Meanwhile, the leadership of South Korea, Japan, and the US have contended that the launch is actually a test of a new long-range ballistic missile. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited South Korea in February.
[Clinton]: I commend the people of South Korea and your leaders for your calm resolve and determination in the face of the provocative and unhelpful statements and actions by the North.
[Freeston]: Since that time, North Korea has gone on to announce that it can no longer guarantee the safety of South Korean commercial flights in its airspace. For its part, North Korea claims it is only responding to what it believes to be the region’s real provocative act, March’s US-led war games, an exercise North Korea has condemned as a rehearsal for invasion.
[Feffer]: Every year, the United States brings together its allies, and some observers as well, to essentially prepare for a war scenario. It requires an enormous number of troops from around the region, aircraft carriers bringing in jets, and so on, and they basically run through a variety of scenarios: if war were to break out, how would the United States respond to it? It’s actually rather difficult to coordinate, you know, different armies. I mean, you’re talking about different languages, different cultures, different weaponry. It’s critical, from the Pentagon’s point of view, to hold these exercises in order to actually see what coordination’s like, practically speaking; also to see what the interoperability of these systems are. That takes an enormous amount of support from these military bases. It couldn’t be done without these military bases. The other reason, of course, is to send a message, send a message to our adversaries of our military strength. In a sense, it’s why we bring in the observers in as well. We want the Chinese to see exactly how powerful we are; we want the North Koreans to know exactly how powerful we are. And what we want to demonstrate through our exercises is we have overwhelming power and we have overwhelming conventional power. The problem is it often, these kinds of exercises, achieves the opposite of what we want. (A) Countries who see that say, “Hey, you guys spend more money on the military,” and so we get into that arms race dynamic. Second thing is, if North Korea sees that our conventional forces are so overwhelmingly more powerful than their conventional forces, they say, “Well, we can’t compete. We actually can’t compete.” China might have the idea that it can compete. North Korea can’t, so it says, “Okay, that just reinforces our desire to get a nuclear deterrent and to keep a nuclear deterrent.”
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