Why US Needs South Korea Base
Image Credit: US Navy

Why US Needs South Korea Base


In a prominent op-ed in the New York Times last week, Christine Ahn, executive director of the Korea Policy Institute and a member of the Global Campaign to Save Jeju Island, accused the Pentagon and the South Korean government of colluding to turn her island paradise into a missile defence base to support a US military containment strategy against China.

‘Jeju is a bellwether of how conflicts in the Asia-Pacific may be resolved in the near future,’ she warns. ‘Will the South Korean people allow its government to blindly follow US plans to draw its country in a standoff against China?’

Gloria Steinem composed a supporting column, also in the New York Times, backing Ahn’s view that the base serves US but not Korean interests. ‘I fear South Korea is a tail being wagged by the Pentagon dog,’ Steinem wrote.

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But this argument, most developed in Ahn’s piece, is incorrect on several counts. First, while the Aegis destroyers based at the village of Gangjeong on the island can’t defend Seoul from short-range ballistic missiles, they can protect Pusan and other strategically important sites in southern Korea. In addition, the ships operating out of Jeju Island can help shield Japan, and the US forces based there, from North Korea’s longer-range Taepodong ballistic missiles. Furthermore, the US missile defence system isn’t designed to, and is incapable of, countering China’s vast and expanding quantity of ballistic missiles.

Finally, and most importantly, Ahn misconstrues the transformed nature of the South Korean-US alliance. Its most important function is to help protect South Korea from external attack, but it has also evolved, and should continue to do so, to address broader extra-Korean issues where the two countries share important interests. 

Partly to address discontent among South Koreans, the US military and South Korean command, with the support of successive government administrations in both countries, have during the past decade been withdrawing US combat forces from their prominent locations in Seoul and along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and relocating them further south in less prime real estate. For example, the US Forces Korea relinquished the sprawling Yongsan Garrison, shared with the UN Command. This base had been a constant source of tension given its prominent location in downtown Seoul. Meanwhile, more than a dozen other prominent US military bases in South Korea have been closed during the past decade.

The ownership transfer has reduced the burden on many local communities, making the bilateral military relationship more sustainable over the long term. Yet, as is inevitable, when troops are based in a foreign country, some host communities have to accept nearby military facilities for the greater collective good.

At the same time, the US Forces Korea have been transferring important combat missions over to the South Korean forces, whose capabilities have been continually improving in recent years. In addition, US officials agreed to keep certain US military assets in South Korea following specific South Korean requests. These assets include the Multiple Rocket Launching System stationed along the DMZ, the AN/TPQ radar that detects the movement of North Korean long-range artillery, and upgraded Apache helicopters. 

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