UNITED STATES MILITARY IN SOUTH KOREA
The United States has 28,500 troops in South Korea, including a full combat division stationed near the DMZ. There used to over 40,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. Another 45,000 troops are based nearby in Japan. More reinforcements can come from bases in Guam, Hawaii and Alaska and on aircraft carriers and other ships in the U.S. Seventh Fleet and from other U.S. island bases in the Pacific.. The main mission of the American military is to help South Korean troops protect their homeland from North Korea aggression but their presence also is part of a strategy to keep the entire East Asia region stable. At its height, the United States had 100,000 troops in South Korea and missiles with nuclear warheads.
At the end of the Korean War, the United States and South Korea signed the 1953 Korean-American Mutual Defense Treaty in which the two countries agreed to collective self-defence should either be threatened in the Pacific region. The deal provided the basis for the stationing of U.S. forces in South Korea. In 1966, the two countries signed the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which laid down the rules governing and protecting U.S. personnel stationed in South Korea. Based on the 1953 Korean-American Mutual Defense Treaty, the U.S. and South Korea hold the joint exercise Team Spirit to promote military cooperation and readiness. [Source: Hyonhee Shin, Joyce Lee, Reuters, March 8, 2021]
Since the Korean War (known as the “6–25 War” in South Korea, 1950–53), the United States hasassumed significant responsibility for assuring South Korea’s security. Since 1978, the Republic of Korea/United States Combined Forces Command (ROK-US CFC) has assumed primary responsibility for defending South Korea from outside attack. The CFC has operational control over more than 600,000 South Korean and U.S. troops and directs joint training exercises. It is under the command of a four-star U.S. general, with a four-star South Korean army general as deputy commander. In 2005, 93 percent of the military personnel at the DMZ were South Korean forces. The United Nations Command (UNC), established in 1951 with the United States as its executive agent and 21 allied members, continues to monitor the 1953 armistice agreement. Fifteen of the original 21 members participated in the UNC Military Armistice Commission in 2005. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]
U.S. Forces in South Korea
United States Forces Korea (USFK) is a sub-unified command of United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). Major USFK elements include Eighth U.S. Army (EUSA), U.S. Air Forces Korea (Seventh Air Force), U.S. Naval Forces in Korea (CNFK), U.S. Marine Forces Korea (MARFORK) and Special Operations Command Korea (SOCKOR). [Source: Wikipedia]
According to Reuters, there are about 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea, the United States’ third-largest military presence outside its country after Japan and Germany, according to data from the U.S. Defense Manpower Data Center. USFK data showed it had about 19,500 Army soldiers, 7,800 airmen and women, 350 Navy sailors and 120 Marines stationed in South Korea. Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, is the largest U.S. overseas military base, housing the USFK headquarters and thousands of troops, civilian workers and their family members. Other major bases include Army Garrison Yongsan in central Seoul, Camp Walker in the southeastern city of Daegu, and two air bases in Osan and Gunsan, south of Seoul. [Source: Hyonhee Shin, Joyce Lee, Reuters, March 8, 2021]
Number of U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea by year (year — number): 1950 — 510; 1951 — 42,069; 1952 — 326,863; 1953 — 326,863; 1954 — 225,590; 1955 — 75,328; 1956 — 68,813; 1957 — 71,045; 1958 — 46,024; 1959 — 49,827; 1960 — 55,864; 1961 — 57,694; 1962 — 60,947; 1963 — 56,910; 1964 — 62,596; 1965 — 58,636; 1966 — 47,076; 1967 — 55,057; 1968 — 62,263; 1969 — 66,531; 1970 — 52,197; 1971 — 40,740; 1972 — 41,600; 1973 — 41,864; 1974 — 40,387; 1975 — 40,204; 1976 — 39,133; 1977 — 40,705; 1978 — 41,565; 1979 — 39,018; 1980 — 38,780; 1981 — 38,254; 1982 — 39,194; 1983 — 38,705; 1984 — 40,785; 1985 — 41,718; 1986 — 43,133; 1987 — 44,674; 1988 — 45,501; 1989 — 44,461; 1990 — 41,344; 1991 — 40,062; 1992 — 35,743; 1993 — 34,830; 1994 — 36,796; 1995 — 36,016; 1996 — 36,539; 1997 — 35,663; 1998 — 36,890; 1999 — 35,913; 2000 — 36,565; 2001 — 37,605; 2002 — 37,743; 2003 — 41,145; 2004 — 40,840; 2005 — 30,983; 2020 — 28,500. [Source: Wikipedia]
U.S. Army soldiers reside in a number of bases scattered around South Korea. A large number used to be based near the DMZ but now they are mostly positioned a staff distance away. Many sailors are based on ships docked in Pusan. The servicemen stay primarily in their bases and on their ships but they do venture out quite a bit. When they do go out it is often to small towns that grow up around the bases that often have restaurants with American food and bars with bargirls. The American military pumps some money into the South Korea economy.
Cost of the U.S.-South Korea Alliance
The United States spends about US$4 a year to maintain it forces in South Korea. It pays about 60 percent of the cost of the American presence in Korea, but only 50 percent in Japan. By some reckoning, and often these reckonings are not so clear, the United States used to pays about 90 percent of the cost of the American presence in Korea, but only 25 percent in Japan.
Article V of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) says the United States will bear all costs for U.S. troops’ maintenance, except those to be borne by South Korea, which included furnishing and compensating for “all facilities and areas and rights of way”. When Donald Trump was U.S. President he wanted to dramatically reduce the number of American troops in South Korea and make the South Korean government pay a greater portion of the costs required to keep them there.
The United States spent $13.4 billion in South Korea between 2016 and 2019 to maintain the roughly 28,500 troops stationed there. These totals largely include money spent on troops’ salaries, military operations, and construction and maintenance of military and family housing facilities, according to the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO). South Korea provided the United States some direct funding to offset some of the costs to U.S. taxpayers, according to the GAO. South Korea paid some $5.8 billion, between 2016 and 2019, to support pay for labor, construction, utilities and training costs. [Source: Corey Dickstein, Stars and Stripes, March 17, 2021
Trump accused U.S. allies across the globe of “are not paying their fair share.” Yuka Koshino wrote in the Wall Street Journal: Japan and South Korea are the two biggest recipients of U.S. resources in East Asia for different but overlapping reasons. South Korea paid around US$866.6 million in 2014 for the U.S. military presence in the country, according to the South Korean government, around 40 percent of total cost. The U.S. maintains its presence there to counter North Korea, which has been boosting its strategic military capabilities against the U.S. and its Asia allies by conducting atomic-bomb tests and missile launches. [Source: Yuka Koshino, Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2016]
Many defense officials and military experts argue that United States saves money in many cases by stationing troops overseas and having host countries pick up a large portion of the tab. The top U.S. commander in South Korea Army — Gen. Vincent Brooks — told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2016 that it was "absolutely" cheaper to have American troops in South Korea than maintaining them in the U.S. " The Republic of Korea is carrying a significant load" of the U.S. commitment and pays "about 50 percent of our personnel costs of being there." [Source: Ryan Browne, CNN, April 21, 2016]
South Korea Pays More Keep U.S. Troops
According to Reuters: “To determine South Korea’s contribution to the cost of U.S. troops as described in SOFA, the two countries have signed Special Measures Agreements, or SMAs, 10 times since 1991, usually to cover multiple years. Under the last agreement, reached in February 2019 for one year, South Korea agreed to increase its contribution to just under 1.04 trillion won ($921.5 million), an 8.2 percent hike from the previous deal. [Source: Hyonhee Shin, Joyce Lee, Reuters, March 8, 2021]
The allies reached a new, six-year deal at talks, where Seoul agreed to a “meaningful increase” in its share, ending two years of standoff. Former U.S. President Donald Trump had demanded $5 billion, a five-fold jump, rejecting South Korea’s offer to pay about 13 percent more. South Korean sources had raised hopes that President Joe Biden’s administration would agree to a deal close to their proposal.
“Out of Seoul’s 1-billion-won contribution in 2019, 48 percent was used to pay salaries to some 9,000 South Koreans hired by U.S. troops, 36 percent to cover construction costs such as building facilities within U.S. bases, and the rest for military assistance expenses including services and materials, according to South Korea’s Defence White Paper.
“More than 90 percent of the costs South Korea shouldered in 2019 went directly back into its economy, a State Department official said. Seoul had been pursuing a multi-year accord as the allies renew it every three five or years, with drawn-out negotiations often creating a vacuum. After the 2019 pact expired with no new deal, about 4,000 South Korean workers of the USFK were placed on unpaid leave, prompting the two countries to scramble for a stopgap agreement to allow them to return to work.
Benefits and Burdens of the South Korean-U.S. Military Alliance
At a time when U.S. President Donald Trump was accusing South Korea of not paying its fair share towards maintaining U.S. troops there, Uri Friedman wrote in The Atlantic: “South Korea isn’t just any old ally. Its formidable military is arguably more intertwined than that of any other country with America’s. It hosts the third-largest contingent of overseas U.S. troops, a presence that has persisted (if in diminishing form) since the countries signed a mutual-defense treaty following the Korean War. It bankrolled the construction of a new headquarters for American forces in the country that ranks as the largest overseas U.S. military base on the planet. It is one of the world’s biggest buyers of U.S. arms and home to a U.S. anti-ballistic missile-defense system. The point of the American military presence in South Korea, former Defense Secretary James Mattis once reportedly informed Trump, is to “prevent World War III.” The United States could be said to have some skin in the game on the peninsula.” [Source: Uri Friedman, The Atlantic, May 23, 2019]
“If relations between the U.S. and South Korea were to break down and “future negotiations with other allies collapse as well, it could potentially precipitate withdrawals of U.S. forces, constrain America’s capacity to project power globally, and encourage partners to embark on their own defense buildups and more independent foreign policies. All of which would scramble geopolitics in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, at a time when the Trump administration has staked out the strategic goal of competing with powers such as China and Russia for supremacy in the 21st century.
“Ever since the late 1980s, Trump has been expressing what appears to be among his most firmly held convictions: Countries such as Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea have gotten rich at America’s expense, drawing on U.S. military might to safeguard their economic expansion rather than having to divert resources to defend themselves like the United States does. He has argued with remarkable consistency that it’s time for the United States to either get paid top dollar for the services of the finest fighting force in the world, whose presence he believes is a bigger boon to allied countries than it is to the U.S., or bring American soldiers home.”
U.S. Forces in Korea After the Korean War
In the confusion of the early days of the Korean War, Seoul placed its armed forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur as United Nations (UN) commander. This arrangement continued after the armistice. For some twenty-five years, the United Nations Command headquarters, which had no South Korean officers in it, was responsible for the defense of South Korea, with operational control over a majority of the units in the South Korean military. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 Based on information from Republic of Korea, Ministry of National Defense, Defense White Paper, 1987, Seoul, 1988; and Taek Hyong Rhee, US-ROK Combined Operations, Washington, 1986, 31-47.*]
The command was the primary peacetime planning organization for allied response to a North Korean invasion of South Korea and the principal wartime command organization for all South Korean and United States forces involved in defending South Korea. In 1978 a binational headquarters, the South Korea-United States Combined Forces Command (CFC), was created, and the South Korean military units with front-line missions were transferred from the UN Command to the CFC's operational control. The commander in chief of the CFC, a United States military officer, answered ultimately to the national command authorities of the United States and the Republic of Korea.*
Historically, operational control of South Korea's tactical armed forces has made the United States commander vulnerable to the politics of association. United States commanders have rigidly avoided commentary on South Korean party politics, confining public statements to purely military matters on such issues as arms buildups and threats from North Korea. However, in the complex politics of the Korean Peninsula, the United States commander's military opinions often have been publicly manipulated as support for Seoul's authoritarianism.*
U.S. Military When South Korea Was a Military Dictatorship in the 1960s, 70s and 80s
In May 1961 and December 1979, the command structure was breached by South Korean troops participating in military coups. A more complex set of circumstances occurred in May 1980, when troops were withdrawn from the CFC under existing procedures and dispatched to Kwangju to respond to the student uprising. Confusion in the South Korean public over the particular circumstances of the incident, the United States position, and the limits of the CFC's control led many South Koreans to believe that the United States fully supported the violent suppression of the uprising. The lack of an accurate historical record for nearly ten years generated widespread misunderstanding, and it has been credited with the rise of anti-Americanism in South Korea, a movement which continues. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 Based on information from Republic of Korea, Ministry of National Defense, Defense White Paper, 1987, Seoul, 1988; and Taek Hyong Rhee, US-ROK Combined Operations, Washington, 1986, 31-47.*]
Only after President Chun stepped down at the end of 1987, and the opposition in the National Assembly grew stronger, did the United States begin answering the questions concerning United States involvement in Kwangju. On June 19, 1989, Washington issued the "United States Government Statement on Events in Kwangju, Republic of Korea, in May 1980," in response to formal requests from the National Assembly. The statement addressed a series of questions related to the rise to power of then Lieutenant General Chun Doo Hwan. The statement noted no prior knowledge of the assassination of President Park Chung Hee, nor warning of the December 12, 1979, íncident, in which a group of South Korean army officers led by Major General Chun seized control of the military. It was revealed that Washington repeatedly protested to the government and the military leadership about the misuse of forces under the Combined Forces Command. The report also stated that South Korean authorities gave the United States two hours advanced warning of the extension of martial law on May 18, 1980, and no prior warning of the military's intention to arrest political leaders or to close both the National Assembly and the universities.*
The statement clearly noted that none of the South Korean forces deployed at Kwangju were, during that time, under either the operational control of the CFC or the control of any United States authorities. Additionally, the United States had neither prior knowledge of the deployment of special forces to Kwangju nor responsibility for their actions there. The report addressed the use of the Twentieth Division, CFC, and clarified that the CFC agreement allowed both the United States and South Korea to assert control over its forces at any time without the consent of the other. According to the statement, the United States was informed in advance of intentions to use elements of the Twentieth Division to reenter Kwangju, that United States officials, after cautioning against the use of military force to solve a political crisis, accepted that it would be preferable to use the Twentieth Division rather than Special Forces units (but the latter were also involved). The report further documented that the United States repeatedly protested public distortions of Washington's actions and policy by Seoul and the South Korean press, namely allegations that the United States knew either of the December 12 incident in advance or of the extension of martial law, or that Washington approved of the Special Forces actions in Kwangju.*
While the report rebutted most of the myths of American culpability for events in 1979 and 1980, the ten-year delay in issuing the report did little to resolve the misgivings held by many South Koreans, who still persisted in believing that the United States was in some way a party to the military takeover in May 1980, and the harsh suppression of the Kwangju demonstrations that followed.*
U.S. Military in South Korea in the 1990s
In 1990 a few hundred United States military personnel were assigned to the United Nations Command headquarters in P'anmunjom, in the DMZ, and were responsible for representing the United States at meetings of the Military Armistice Commission. Because the Seoul and Pyongyang governments had never negotiated a peace agreement after the Korean War, the sometimes shaky 1953 armistice concluded between the United Nations Command, North Korea, and China remained the only formal channel for handling complaints about violations of the truce. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 Based on information from Republic of Korea, Ministry of National Defense, Defense White Paper, 1987, Seoul, 1988; and Taek Hyong Rhee, US-ROK Combined Operations, Washington, 1986, 31-47.*]
There were 32,000 United States Army personnel in South Korea in 1990; most were assigned to the Eighth Army, which included the Second Infantry Division, the Seventeenth Aviation Brigade, and other detachments deployed north of Seoul as part of the joint South Korean-United States forward defense strategy. If a conflict were to occur, the Second Infantry Division would be expected to serve as a reserve force for the South Korean army on one of the main invasion routes between the DMZ and Seoul. United States Army personnel with command or planning responsibilities for combat units also were assigned to the headquarters of the CFC and to the headquarters of the Republic of Korea-United States Combined Field Army, of which the Second Infantry Division was the main American component. The remaining United States Army personnel were assigned to support the missions of selected United States and South Korean combat units, serving primarily in communications, logistics, and training positions.*
There were 12,000 United States Air Force personnel in South Korea in 1990. They were assigned to units responsible for early warning, air interception, close air support of United States and South Korean ground forces, combat support, aircraft maintenance, and the transportation of personnel and supplies from the United States, Japan, and other United States military installations in the Pacific. The Seventh Air Force, headquartered at Osan Air Base, was the command element for all United States Air Force organizations in South Korea. United States Lockheed U-2 high- altitude reconnaissance and South Korean Grumman E-2C early warning aircraft patrolled the North Korean border and monitored the Soviet Union's air and naval activities in the Sea of Japan area. Advanced F-16 fighter aircraft were used by tactical fighter squadrons based at Osan and Kunsan. These squadrons operated alongside South Korean air force tactical squadrons in both air interception and close air support roles. South Korea and the United States jointly managed the South Korean tactical air control system, which had wartime responsibility for North Korean airspace and the entire South Korean coastline. The United States Military Airlift Command was responsible for transporting United States military personnel, weapons, and supplies from the United States and locations in the Pacific to South Korea.*
United States Navy and United States Marine Corps personnel in South Korea consisted of about 500 officers and enlisted personnel who occupied critical staff and liaison positions in the CFC. The United States Pacific Command in Hawaii frequently deployed units of the United States Pacific Fleet, based in Japan, and units of the marine corps, based in Okinawa and other locations in the Pacific, to South Korea for joint training exercises, particularly Team Spirit, held every spring to promote South Korean-United States military cooperation and readiness. During the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the United States Seventh Fleet operated in the Sea of Japan and was assigned specific missions to assist units of the CFC in discouraging Pyongyang from attempting to disrupt the Olympic Games.*
South Korean and United States Cooperation
In 1968 the United States and South Korea held their first annual Security Consultative Meeting. This meeting provided highlevel defense experts from the two countries with an official forum for reassessing the nature of the North Korean threat to South Korea, for agreeing on an overall defense strategy for South Korea, and for outlining the roles of both countries in deterring a North Korean invasion. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]
During the 1989 Security Consultative Meeting in Washington (the meetings were held in alternate years in Seoul and Washington), the two nations agreed that the Moscow-assisted modernization of Pyongyang's air force and army indicated that the military situation in Northeast Asia remained tense and unpredictable. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's Korean policy, focused on promoting unofficial contacts with Seoul though Moscow, continued to bolster Pyongyang's military establishment.*
South Korean and United States leaders who attended the 1989 Security Consultative Meeting considered it unlikely that the Soviet Union would initiate a military conflict targeting South Korea. They believed, however, that increasing Soviet military support for North Korea made it highly probable that the Soviet Union would continue to assist North Korea if war broke out. For this reason, United States secretary of defense Richard B. Cheney and South Korean minister of national defense Yi Sang-hun agreed to strengthen strategic planning through existing organizations, such as the CFC.*
After protests over two South Korean school girls crushed to death a tank-like vehicle in 2002, U.S. soldiers were repositioned away from the DMZ and the responsibility for their missions was transferred to South Korea. Washington, announced it would spend an additional US$11 billion over three years to strengthen its weaponry and intelligence gathering. There were calls for the removal of large numbers of U.S. troops from South Korea.
United States Military Weapons in South Korea
U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) operates about 90 combat planes, 40 attack helicopters, 50 tanks and some 60 Patriot missile launchers, according to South Korea’s Defence White Paper issued in December 2020. US has deployed top-of-the-line Apache helicopters, Paladin Howitzers with global positioning systems to locate targets, top-of-the-line M1-A2 Abrams tanks, Cobra attack helicopters, and first class night-vision equipment. Some of the Apache and Cobra helicopters have laser guided smart bombs. [Source: Hyonhee Shin, Joyce Lee, Reuters, March 8, 2021]
For many years the United States had nuclear weapons in South Korea. In 1991, the United States announced the withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed abroad, including about 100 based in South Korea. Gas masks have been distributed to American soldiers and diplomatic personnel in case North Korea tries to use chemical or biological weapons.
United States Military Bases in South Korea
U.S. bases are scattered around South Korea. Among those closest to the DMZ are the 210th Field Artillery of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, stationed in Dongducheon,north of Seoul near the North Korean border in Gyeonggi Province, for the purpose of countering the threat of North Korea’s long-range artillery. The brigade is supposed to be relocated in the mid-2020s after the South Korean army has strengthened its firepower.
In 2016, the U.S. 8th Army Command at the Yongsan Garrison in Seoul began moving to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province. This was the first relocation by a major command unit for US troops in South Korea. The Pyeongtaek Base is the largest single overseas U.S. military base. It covers an area of 7,140 square meters (equivalent to 2,056 football fields) and has 513 buildings, including ones for the USFK 8th Army headquarters and other command facilities. There are shooting ranges and other training facilities; schools, hospitals and other support facilities; roads, railroads, water mains and other infrastructure; and barracks. [Source: Park Byong-su, hankyoreh, May, 20,2016]
Construction began on Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek in 2013. A number of companies and battalions (including the 94th Military Police Battalion and the 501st Signal Company) were relocated there. About 560 construction companies and around 8,000 workers a were involved in the construction of the Pyeongtaek base
Kunsan Air Base is located in Gunsan on the coast of the Yellow Sea in western South Korea and falls under the command of the United States Air Force. It is one of only two United States Air Force installations in the Asian peninsula, with the other being found in Osan. Osan Air Base in Songtan is only 64 kilometers away from Seoul. The general objective of this base is to ensure the protection of South Korea from all points of view. [Source: militarybases.com]
Camp Casey Army Base is a relatively important base in Daegu (Taegu). Camp Castle covers almost 50 acres and is located neat Daegu in Dongducheon. The camp is not as important and large. It is located relatively close to a similar military base in the area — Camp Casey — but is not connected to it. Camp Carroll Army is a small camp located in Waegwan near Daegu (Taegu) in the south east part of South Korea.
Camp Humphreys is a small base about 90 kilometers from Seoul and close to in Anjung-Ri. Camp Market Army Base in Bupyeong, is a small base in the larger USAG Yongsan Instillation. Camp Red Cloud Army Base in Uijeongbu, was initially established as Camp Jackson and still referred by that name sometimes, Camp Red Cloud is located in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul and relatively close to the DMZ. Camp Stanley Army Base in Uijeongbu is the largest part of the Red Cloud Garrison. Camp Hovey Army Base is in Seoul
USAG Yongsan is the most important base run by the U.S. in South Korea. It is located in Seoul and hosts the headquarters of the American command. The unit is referred to as the USFK (United States Forces Korea. K 16 Air Base Army Base in Seongnam, is located in the middle of the country, close to Seoul. It may be seen like a complementary camp for the more important and larger Camp Colben. K 16 is often referred to as a Seoul Air Base camp.
USAG Daegu is by far the most important military facility owner and operated by the U.S. n South Korea. It is among the largest such facilities and oversees four complementary bases – Carroll, Walker, George and Henry, of which Camp Henry is the largest.
Chinhae Navy Base in Busan is the main navy base in South Korea, Fully operated by the United States Navy, it is close to Busan, the second largest city in Korea, after Seoul, in the southeastern side of the country.
THAAD and Patriot Missiles in South Korea
In 1994, the U.S. sent patriot missiles to South Korea to help the country protects its airfields and ports from North Korean missiles. In 2003, an upgraded version of these missiles, the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 system, was deployed along with ATMS Block 1A missiles, with a range of 200 miles and capable of hitting most targets in North Korea. There has been some discussion of deploying “bunker buster” bombs that can be used against North Korean armaments protected in deep bunkers and tunnels.
In the 2010s, the U.S. deployed more Patriot missile batteries in South Korea. Patriot is a surface-to-air missile (SAM) system intended to shoot down incoming missiles. The at the heart of the system the "Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target" (PATRIOT) which tracks the incoming missiles and guides the aerial interceptor missiles. The U.S. military command in South Korea operates the air defense battery and has conducted ballistic missile training using the Patriot system at Osan Air Base near Seoul. A second battery was temporally installed in February 2016. [Source: Wikipedia, Fox News, February 13, 2016]
In March 2017, the United States deployed the "first elements" of the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system to South Korea, despite angry opposition from China. According to Reuters: Once fully deployed in South Korea, a THAAD battery could theoretically use its radar to see and monitor activity beyond North Korea, deep into Chinese territory. Russia also worries the deployment could compromise its security, and said it would lead to a stalemate on the Korean peninsula.” The presence of THAAD on South Korean saol has been a contentious political issue in South Korea and created friction with North Korea and China. [Source: James Pearson, Reuters, March 13, 2017]
Song Jung-a, wrote in the Financial Times: “South Korea and the U.S. have agreed to deploy the US anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea as a shield against North Korea’s increasing missile and nuclear threats, sparking a strong rebuke from China. Seoul’s defence ministry said THAAD would be deployed US forces stationed in South Korea to counter the North Korean threat and would not be directed to any other country. The decision was made “as a defensive measure to ensure the security of the South and its people, and to protect alliance military forces from North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile threats,” the ministry said in a statement. “When the THAAD system is deployed to the Korean peninsula, it will be focused solely on North Korean nuclear and missile threats and would not be directed towards any third-party nations,” it added. [Source: Song Jung-a, Financial Times, July 8, 2016]
China, however, called on the two countries to reconsider the move, with the foreign ministry saying the system would destabilise the security balance in the region and achieve nothing to dismantle the North’s nuclear programmes. “China strongly urges the U.S. and South Korea to stop the deployment process of the THAAD anti-missile system, not take any steps to complicate the regional situation and do nothing to harm China’s strategic security interests,” it said in a statement.
Regional concern about the security threat from Pyongyang has increased amid North Korea’s frequent missile launches in defiance defying international sanctions. North Korea has recently boasted of more advanced missile technologies including new rocket engines and simulated atmospheric re-entry, as it aims to threaten the mainland US with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
Opposition and Support of THAAD in South Korea
Choe Sang Hun wrote in the New York Times: South Koreans are divided over the THAAD system, whose deployment has been sought for years by the United States but angrily opposed by China, South Korea’s top trade partner. China asserts that it, not the North, is the system’s true target, and Russia has joined Beijing in contending that its deployment would compromise their security and worsen tensions in the region, making it even more difficult to persuade North Korea to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons. [Source: Choe Sang Hun, New York Times, July 13, 2016]
“President Park Geun-hye said that the deployment “neither targets third countries nor undermines their security interests.” But critics of the government, including many opposition lawmakers, worry that China will engage in economic retaliation against South Korea and cooperate less on reining in the North’s nuclear ambitions. “It will do more harm than good to our national interest,” a prominent opposition leader, Moon Jae-in, said in a statement on Wednesday. He also called on the government to submit the deployment for parliamentary approval.
“Under its deal with Washington, South Korea will provide land and build the base for the THAAD battery, but the United States will pay for the missile system, to be built by Lockheed Martin, as well as its operational costs.” North Korea has “threatened an unspecified “physical counteraction” against the THAAD deployment, which it said was part of an American plan to build “an Asian version of NATO” to secure military hegemony in the region.
South Korean Villagers Protest Plans for U.S. Missile Defense System
In July 2016, thousands of residents in the town of Seongju, South Korea staged protest expressing their opposition to the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system there. Choe Sang Hun wrote in the New York Times: “South Korea announced that a rural southern county would be the site of an advanced American missile defense battery, the planned deployment of which has angered China and North Korea — and, now, thousands of local residents, who demonstrated against the plan. Villagers rallied under a sweltering sun to condemn the choice of their county, Seongju, which is about 135 miles southeast of Seoul,, for the” THAAD missile defense system. “South Korea and the United States say the powerful missile and radar system is needed to defend the country, and American forces stationed here, against North Korean missiles. [Source: Choe Sang Hun, New York Times, July 13, 2016]
“But residents fear it will threaten their health and ruin their agricultural economy. “We oppose THAAD with our lives!” the residents chanted, holding banners that bore the same slogan. Local political leaders, wearing red headbands, wrote the same vow in blood after cutting their fingers, a dramatic form of protest that has a long history in South Korea. Some of the politicians and protest leaders also began a hunger strike. “If we lose our precious land to THAAD, we will be ashamed before our ancestors and posterity,” Kim Hang-gon, who oversees the Seongju county government, told the crowd, many of them aging melon farmers, according to the news agency Yonhap. The county, which has a population of about 50,000, provides 60 percent of all melons sold in South Korea.
“After South Korea and the United States announced the agreement to deploy THAAD on Friday, local news reports mentioned Seongju and several other towns as possible sites. Protests against THAAD have since been held in those communities. Some demonstrators expressed concern that hosting the system could make their towns high-priority targets for North Korea in the event of war. South Korea’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that the THAAD battery would be installed at an existing South Korean Air Force radar and missile base on a mountain in Seongju. The South Korean unit will be moved elsewhere, it said. The deployment in Seongju will allow the THAAD system’s interceptor missiles to protect from half to two-thirds of the country from North Korean missiles, the ministry said. It said the radar system would be positioned in such a way that its powerful signals would pose no threat to human health, an assurance that villagers in Seongju did not accept.”
“Some critics in South Korea found fault with the government’s choice of Seongju as the THAAD site, noting that Seoul, with its 10 million people, will lie outside the coverage of its intercept missiles, which have a range of just under 125 miles. The Defense Ministry said it would operate low-altitude Patriot missile defense systems together with THAAD to help defend the capital.”
U.S. Marines Send F-35 Fighters to South Korea
In 2017, the Pentagon said it was sending U.S. Marine Corps F-35 fighters to South Korea for the first time. Loren Thompson of Forbes wrote: The eight planes are from a squadron of F-35Bs deployed to Iwakuni, Japan in January, where they will be permanently stationed and on call to respond quickly if a crisis occurs on the Korean Peninsula.F-35B, the Marine variant of the tri-service fighter, isn't just the world's first supersonic tactical aircraft capable of taking off and landing vertically, it is also invisible to radar. [Source: Loren Thompson, Forbes, March 30, 2017]
When you combine the vertical agility and invisibility of the Marine Corps' latest fighter with the fused data from diverse sensors and the ability to share information securely among all fighters on a mission, what you have is a plane that can operate pretty much anywhere. Including over North Korea. So although U.S. Pacific Command is at pains to describe the training exercise as a routine annual event intended to provoke no one, the F-35's presence is sending a powerful message to the mercurial leader of North Korea.
The Korean Peninsula is not a big place. The distance between the South Korean capital of Seoul and the North Korean capital of Pyongyang is only 120 miles. An F-35 can cover that distance in less than ten minutes, and unlike the aging F/A-18 Hornets that the F-35B serves alongside in Northeast Asia, it can't be tracked by any of the air defense systems available to the North Korean regime.
“The F-35B operated by the Marine Corps — it is also being bought by Britain and Italy — is a uniquely versatile tactical aircraft that integrates a "lift fan" behind the cockpit and downward swiveling engine nozzles so that it can ascend or descend vertically. It therefore does not require a landing strip and can operate wherever it is needed in a war zone. F-35B is part of a Marine warfighting vision including the MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor and CH-53K Super Stallion helicopter that frees U.S. forces from dependence on vulnerable land bases.”
United States Military Strategy and Deterrence
Large numbers of American troops were originally positioned along the DMZ as a “tripwire” — with the understanding that the United States would counterattack North Korea if it ever attacked South Korea . The thinking was this would make North Korea think twice about attacking. Later many of the U.S. soldiers along the DMZ were pulled back to positions further away from the DMZ to keep them out of range of North Korean artillery. In the event of war the United States would rely more on long-range strategic bombers.
"The Koreans spell deterrence against North Korea U-S-A," one Pentagon official told the Wall Street Journal. The South Korean defense establishment believes that presence of the U.S. military is an effective deterrent against a North Korean invasion, which enables South Korea to focus on Japan as a long term rival and build up a sophisticated arsenal of modern weapons to ward them off.
If the U.S. military were to leave it would probably be a big mistake. The North Koreans could claim victory and put more pressure on South Korea. South Korea would have to pour much money and resources into its own defense. The stability of all of East Asia would be upset. However, some feel that South Korea is strong enough militarily and politically that it doesn’t need American military support to such a degree any longer.
United States Military Training
Each year the United States and South Korean militaries used to stage large exercises together. These often served as reasons for anti-American demonstrations in South Korea and anti-American rhetoric from North Korea.
Team Spirit was a joint military training exercise of U.S. and South Korean forces held between 1974 and 1993. The exercise was scheduled from 1994 to 1996 but cancelled during a time when the U.S. was encouraging North Korea to discontinue its nuclear weapons program. Until 2007 the exercise was called "Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration of Forces" (RSOI). In March 2008, it was called Key Resolve. North Korea has denounced the joint military exercise as a "war game aimed at a northward invasion." Team Spirit was a tactical exercise conducted in the spring. RSOI is a command post exercise conducted in late summer. RSOI focused on staff procedures at theater level to get the force into theater. Team Spirit focused on tactical procedures at the brigade level. [Source: Wikipedia]
U.S. soldiers train by crawling under barbed wire and smoke from smoke bombs while loudspeakers broadcast the sounds of artillery and sniper fire. Describing a training exercise near the DMZ in 2003, Tom O’Neill wrote in National Geographic, “Black Hawks drop troops at night onto what the officers call ‘dinosaur country” — rough, up-and-down terrain — where the men have to clear the high ground of enemy forces (convincingly played by U.S. soldiers with their uniforms turned inside out). A few hours after dawn, a firefight (with blanks) erupts on a nearby hillside. Screams and curses tear through the air as a platoon leader tries to direct his men. Mortars boom and yellow clouds from smoke bombs drift over.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021