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[Kim Myong-sik] Humphreys carries alliance into hazy future

The new headquarters of the US Forces in Korea and the United Nations Command officially started business at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, last week. Having been to Camp Humphreys many years ago when it was a center of logistic support for US troops here, I hope to have an opportunity in the near future to look around what is now the largest US military base in the world.

While being curious of the shape of an integrated military community existing in a foreign country in the 21st century, I am also anxious to know how the uniformed Americans there define their role in the changing security situation on the Korean Peninsula, which is swinging between a negotiated denuclearization and a more radical solution.

Most participants in the Camp Humphreys ceremony last Friday must have learned of the stateside report that President Trump had ordered the Pentagon to prepare measures to reduce the US Forces in Korea. At the dedication of the new headquarters building, local media quoted USFK Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks as saying: “USFK will remain the living proof of the American commitment to the (Korea-US) alliance.”

Trusting that commitment, South Korea has built the mammoth military facility in the plain of Pyeongtaek. Construction began in 2007, expanding the old site of what used to be the 19th US Army General Support Group, after a hard tussle with farmers who refused to be evicted from their land. Korea paid most of the $10.7 billion cost for the project, including compensation for the residents.

US authorities wanted to assemble many military camps scattered across Korea, 173 in all, into two huge compounds -- combat outfits in Pyeongtaek and support units in Daegu -- to achieve “strategic flexibility” under their Global Defense Posture Review. Korea was concerned about weakening of defense readiness here but eventually consented to the scheme which allowed the US freedom to dispatch forces from here to flash points in the world.

According to USFK introductory materials, the present population of 23,000 at USAG Humphreys consists of soldiers, their dependents, civilian employees and KATUSA (Korean augmentation to US Army) personnel. They work and live in more than 500 barracks buildings and apartments and use clinics, a general hospital (to open in 2020), elementary to high schools, cinemas, chapels, almost all brands of franchise eateries, a shopping mall and other amenities.

Now positioned south of Seoul and approximately 100 kilometers from the Demilitarized Zone, most of the 28,500 US troops are now out of the reach of North Korean artillery strikes. This is said to improve USFK’s “operational efficiency” both in offensive and defensive situations, while it of course ensures easier evacuation in time of emergency.

Among existing US military bases overseas, Ramstein Air Base in Germany is the biggest covering 12 square kilometers. Camp Humphreys will have a total of 43,000 American residents in a 14-square-kilometer compound by the time the entire relocation program has been completed. Gen. Brooks said in the opening ceremony that Korea paid the huge cost for the construction as “investment in the long-term presence of the US Forces in Korea.”

Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo spoke of a “new mission” that US forces will henceforth perform in Korea in his congratulatory speech. The retired Navy admiral was quoted as saying, “The new mission will be an important one to contribute not only to peace on the Korean Peninsula but also to world peace as a stabilizer in Northeast Asia.”

At least one important part in the USFK mission was recently curtailed as Korean and US military authorities decided to “suspend” some of their annual joint exercises to spur North Korea on its process of denuclearization. It was hardly an encouraging coincidence that the USFK had to review the traditional mode of its operations upon making a fresh start at its new facilities. Diplomacy seems to have touched upon the realm of the military.

We imagine that, while the USFK redeployment was underway at a rather slow pace, its successive commanders and their staff had a hard time trying to produce adequate plans to counter North Korea’s rapidly growing capabilities and weapons of mass destruction. When Washington decided to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system in Korea, the host government failed to cope effectively with domestic dissent and Chinese pressure.

The rise of China to G-2 status over the past decade made the USFK mission further complicated with the Asian superpower showing little restraint on power demonstrations in the air and seas. Forced to do its part to meet the fresh challenge under the global defense posture concept, the USFK, for example, has dispatched A-10 close air support fighters from Pyeongtaek to Clark Air Base now under Philippine control to patrol islands in the South China Sea.

The Trump administration can produce surprises for the world, and Korea in particular, over the course of denuclearization bargains in the next three or possibly seven years, which could include changes in the strength, status and mission of the USFK. A declaration of the end of the Korean War leading to the signing of a peace treaty with North Korea may actually be proposed in exchange for the North’s tangible steps toward denuclearization.

In that case, what will happen to USAG Humphreys, a legacy from the Cold War that can serve as formidable leverage for US global strategy in the 21st century. Korea has paid a lot of money -- far beyond what President Trump imagined for the upkeep of the alliance with the US -- which also benefits 300 million Americans across the Pacific.

Clark Air Base, once the largest US military installation overseas, was reverted to the Philippines in the early 1990s as negotiations for lease extension broke down. Camp Humphreys has now taken over the title while the 21st century US strategists must regret giving up Clark AB at the end of the Cold War.

Camp Humphreys is taking off to an unclear future, but it is up to the wisdom of the two allies to make it a worthy asset of both countries. It is already connected to Osan Air Base and Pyeongtaek Port by highways and public transportation. Large industrial facilities are under construction nearby, with investment from top conglomerates. The North Koreans had better take a close look at Camp Humphreys as they consider how to -- or not to -- denuclearize their country.

By Kim Myong-sik

Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. - Ed.