Battle grounds

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2007, 12:00am

The sprawling American military garrison in the centre of Seoul has, for years, been symbolic of the US-South Korean military alliance. But more recent difficulties in relocating the base are now becoming equally emblematic of the strains facing the partnership, as it creaks under alterations in Washington's strategic priorities, policy disputes over North Korea and high-profile anti-Americanism in South Korea.

The on-again, off-again nature of plans to move Yongsan Base to a new garrison south of the capital prompted the general in command of US Forces Korea (USFK) to make frank statements at a media briefing yesterday when he voiced concerns about the stresses facing the alliance.

Set on prime real estate in the heart of the bustling city of 10 million, Yongsan (Dragon Hill) Base is the headquarters for the 29,500 US troops in South Korea - but a tense, front-line garrison it is not. Viewed from nearby Mt Namsan, the site is an oasis of green lawns, tree-lined roads, sports fields and low-rise barracks amid Seoul's sprawl of concrete high rises and clogged highways. An invitation to dine at one of the restaurants on the base - itself, more like a mid-western college town than a military base - is eagerly sought by Seoul-based expatriates.

The intrusiveness of the base in the heart of a foreign capital is only one issue; history is another.

The Americans acquired the base from the hated Japanese colonial troops who were stationed there from 1910 to 1945, but when the Japanese occupied Yongsan, it was at least on the outskirts of the sleepy capital of the 'hermit kingdom'. Today, it is in the heart of a bustling, commercial metropolis.

Unsurprisingly, the base has been, along with the US embassy, a lightning rod for the anti-American protests that climaxed in 2002 after the accidental killing of two schoolgirls by a US military vehicle.

After negotiations that started in 1990, Washington and Seoul finally agreed in 2004 to move the base, with its 6,500 troops and 8,000 accompanying civilians - who include defence contractors and family members - to Pyeongtaek, about 70km south of the capital, by 2008.

Last month, local media reports quoted an unnamed government official as saying the base would not be moved until 2013. Seoul made no move to refute the statement.

Expressing surprise at the reports, General Burwell Bell said yesterday: 'This is not a reflection of our agreement with the Republic of Korea. Any delay concerns me.'

He said that regardless of 'political decisions or fiscal constraints', many of the soldiers and families in Yongsan lived in 'Korean war-era' facilities. The move to a new base would improve their quality of life, an issue he felt 'fairly emotional' about.

But the base relocation is only one issue facing the alliance. There is also Seoul's plan to recover wartime control of the South Korean military, as the troops now fall under American command. The US side proposed that the transfer could come as early as 2009; the Korean side wants to delay it until 2012.

But hinting at a lack of detailed planning, and stressing the urgency of the issue, General Bell said: 'We have to look at war plans. I hope we can come up with something that will work effectively; we cannot have an arrangement that adds risk to our alliance.'

He also complained about a budget shortfall from the South Korean government of US$106 million, which USFK uses to pay local employees, buy domestic supplies and undertake construction. He was being 'driven into a corner', he said.

Another issue for USFK is training. The large-scale 'Team Spirit' exercises were halted in 1998 in an effort to conciliate North Korea. General Bell hinted that a routine exercise scheduled for this spring could face domestic political opposition.

'I expect to and I need to execute it,' he said. 'I am certain at some point, someone will raise their hand and ask, 'Why are we doing it?'' He added that he had read in the media about concerns from Pyongyang about the exercise. Some joint military exercises in the past have been cancelled on South Korea's initiative for fear of provoking the North.

And with US troops across the peninsula consolidating their footprint and returning some bases to South Korean control, there have been allegations from local non-governmental organisations that some US garrison areas have been polluted. General Bell said he hoped the relocation process 'will be conducted in a dignified and co-operative manner'.

Some commentators were taken aback by the timbre of General Bell's statements. 'Commanders-in-chief have always been restrained and diplomatic in the past,' said Mike Breen, a former president of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club. 'Clearly, Washington is expecting Koreans to step forward and take greater responsibility for their own defence, and also behave honorably in the negotiation process as that happens.'

More broadly, the alliance is looking fractured at the highest political levels. While there has been anti-Americanism since the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan's administration supported the autocratic Chun Do-hwan regime in Seoul, pundits point out that never have there been so many anti-American voices in the Korean government - which is, to a large part, composed of those who went to university in the 1980s.

A recent example was when South Korean presidential secretary Song Min-soon said in October that the US had fought more wars than any other nation. In an unusual move, the US government demanded a clarification of his statement. In November, Mr Song was appointed foreign minister, replacing current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The alliance has also been strained over North Korea policy between, on the one hand, the liberal administrations of President Roh Moo-hyun and his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, originator of the 'Sunshine Policy', and on the other, the neo-conservative government of US President George W. Bush.

The apparent deterioration in what South Koreans call the 'blood-forged' alliance dating back to the Korean war dismays some local conservatives.

'The sharp rise in anti-Americanism in South Korea has partly been instigated by North Korean propaganda, but the behaviour of our government in the recent two to three years has been rather out of the ordinary in its ability to be diplomatic,' said Lee In-ho, a professor at Myongji University. 'That is why conservatives are concerned here: even if we are critical of some policy lines pursued by the Bush administration, we do not want to jettison the alliance completely.'

Meanwhile, USFK has been steadily shrinking. From 37,500 troops in 2003, to 29,500 today, there will be 25,000 in 2008. Given all the factors, some experts wonder whether the US, in pushing for an accelerated transfer of command, is actually considering a complete withdrawal from South Korea.

There is a rationale. With Washington focused more on the 'war on terror' than the cold war relic that is the Korean peninsula, it is a liability to maintain troops where they could not only become hostage to North Korea, but also, with their intrusive footprint, promote local anti-Americanism.

A removal of troops from the South would give Washington maximum latitude to strike the North - a scenario that is, while unlikely at present, a possibility should North Korean President Kim Jong-il be seen to export nuclear materials or expertise to terrorist groups.

'Both countries need to survive presidents and cabinet members who are damaging to the alliance, but the longer these problems fester, the closer we get to the proverbial cliff of a pullout, and so people are looking over,' said Peter Beck, the Northeast Asia head of the think-tank International Crisis Group. 'We have to be careful we do not fall off.'

In his closing remarks, General Bell made it clear that there were provisos to maintaining American troops in South Korea. 'The US remains as a reliable and trusted ally,' he said. 'As long as we are welcome and wanted.'