Why US Needs South Korea Base

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Why US Needs South Korea Base

The Jeju Island base isn’t about containing China. It’s about protecting South Korea and others from an increasingly erratic North Korea.

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.

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. 

Changing global security threats and requirements, the improving conventional weaponry of both militaries, and other factors have led to the mutual decision to reduce the number of US troops permanently stationed in South Korea and to change the location of these forces. American officials argued that the need for US troops to serve as a ‘tripwire’ located along the intra-Korean border to guarantee that the United States would intervene militarily to halt any North Korean invasion has become outdated. Instead, enhancements in US transportation, logistics, and long-range precision-strike capabilities would enable US forces to rapidly reinforce and supplement their units on the Peninsula, providing they could overcome any North Korean missiles and other anti-access weapons.

The changes have proven somewhat controversial among South Koreans, who fear that the transfer could embolden their already erratic neighbour. In particular, some South Koreans worry that these changes could cause the North Korean leadership to misperceive a decline in the US willingness to defend them against a North Korean attack. Although the Americans see the redistribution of troops and missions between US and South Korean forces as upgrading South Korea’s status and underscoring US confidence in its improving military capabilities, many South Koreans interpret the move as reflecting American eagerness to reduce its commitments. For some, the move engendered the same anxieties that South Koreans experienced when President Richard Nixon removed the Seventh Infantry Division in 1971 and President Jimmy Carter proposed in 1976 to withdraw all US troops from Korea.

As a reassurance, the two militaries have developed comprehensive plans to ensure that US reinforcements can flow from Japan through Pusan and other areas of South Korea in a crisis. These facilities need protection from the missile defences that will be located in South Korea, Japan, and on the ships operating out of the Jeju Island base.

Notwithstanding Ahn’s suspicions, the laws of physics and geography mean that positioning the US interceptors closer to the DMZ wouldn’t provide any greater protection to South Korea’s border regions. North Korea has a large number of short-range missiles that could hit targets in South Korea, and the United States would need an enormous number of interceptor rockets to destroy these incoming missiles as well as extensive command and control facilities. Furthermore, North Korea can easily attack South Korea through a variety of other means given their proximity. Not only is Seoul within closer range of North Korea’s long-range artillery, but Pyongyang has also developed and practices the capacity to deploy commandos by land (through tunnels) or by sea (with the help of submarines).

As for China, the United States isn’t pursuing a military containment strategy against China, which wouldn’t be supported by the government of South Korea and may other Asian countries. US national security documents, ranging from presidential speeches to White House strategy documents, to the detailed programme budget justifications the US Defence Department submits to Congress, make clear that the developing US ballistic missile defence architecture in Asia is not designed to, nor capable of, shielding Japan, Taiwan, or any other country from China’s vast missile ballistic arsenal, which now numbers more than a thousand missiles and continues to grow.

The main objective of the interceptors on the ships that will be based on Jeju Island is to counter North Korea’s much smaller and less sophisticated missile arsenal. The Pentagon is certainly not aiming to develop, in Ahn’s words, the ‘capability to strike long-range ballistic missile batteries in southeast China that target Japan or Taiwan,’ which would be an act of war best undertaken by US submarines or another platform rather than from a fixed base. And the interceptor missiles the Aegis destroyers have would be pretty useless for the role of attacking missile batteries in southeast China since they do not even have warheads or kinetic explosives. Rather, they are designed to smash into a target moving at ballistic speed, obliterating it through the resulting collusion, rather than through a detonation.

At the tactical level, these ship-based interceptors can only be used for defensive purposes, in this case supporting an overall defensive strategy of deterring North Korean aggression and provocations while reassuring South Korea and Japan that they don’t need to develop their own nuclear arsenals to achieve such assurance since the United States has the capacity and intent to defend them. Last year’s outrageous North Korean provocations against the South – the sinking of the Cheonan warship and the shelling civilians on a border island – affirm the importance of preventing further North Korean aggression through a combination of deterrence and defence combined with diplomacy and dialogue.

At the regional level and beyond, the US ships at the base can add to the maritime network of naval assets designed to prevent North Korea from exporting or importing additional weapons of mass destruction components or their means of delivery, acts that contribute to horizontal and vertical proliferation. Selling these and other contraband has become a major source of North Korean revenue, used to prop up the ruling elite, as well as a source of regional and even global instability.

To curb the export of WMD-related material and their means of delivery from North Korea, the George W. Bush administration launched the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) in 2003. The Obama administration has vigorously supported the PSI, including through legitimizing UN Security Council resolutions. Both administrations have helped secure unilateral and multilateral sanctions on North Korea that mandate international cooperation to curb the flow of these items, as well as the financial transactions that underpin them. The South Korean government has supported these measures.  

But South Korea has also become a global player in its own right, one with worldwide interests. In terms of economics, it clearly ranks as one of the most powerful. But even in the security realm, South Korea has entered the elite global ranks, as seen by its hosting of the G-20 summit last year and the second nuclear security summit next year. Albeit with little enthusiasm, South Korea became a major force contributor to the US-led coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, South Korea has sent a warship to join the international flotilla that’s patrolling the Gulf of Aden against maritime pirates.

Still, future instances of South Korean foreign military operations will more likely occur within the framework of the bilateral alliance than independently. South Korean and US planners have discussed ways that they two militaries can support each other in humanitarian and disaster-relief missions, as well as other extra-Korean contingencies, by building on their existing Peninsula-based cooperation.

All this means that not only does South Korea accept the necessity for US Forces Korea to contribute to extra-peninsular missions, but South Korea’s own military modernization programme, the Defense Reform Project 2020 adopted in 2005, has increased its capacity to participate in out-of-Korea missions. While reducing South Korean ground forces from 680,000 to 500,000 troops, and grouping the remainder into more agile, modular structures, the South Korean Air Force and Navy will receive enhanced long-range surveillance and strike systems, including some AWACS planes and UAVs as well as KDX Aegis-equipped destroyers, Dokdo class amphibious warships, and longer-range Type 214 attack submarines.

In this context, asking the inhabitants of Jeju to help their compatriots and the American soldiers risking their lives to protect them and others in Asia from another Korean War seems a reasonable, if regrettable, request.