South Korea Foots Bill for 'Strategic Flexibility'

South Korea is seeking to revamp its alliance with the U.S., which dates back to the 1950-1953 Korean Conflict, toward regaining wartime control of its own military currently under the US-led combined command. (Photo: Kim Jae-hwan / AFP-Getty Images)

Below is the gist of conversations between Choi Jae Chun, a lawmaker of the ruling Uri party in South Korea, and You Myung Hwan, the assistant minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, during a session of the Committee of Reunification, Foreign Affairs, and Trade in the South Korean parliament on Aug. 25.

Choi Jae Chun: Is the relocation of the U.S. military bases from Yongsan to Pyongtaek related to strategic flexibility or not?

You Myung Hwan: It may not be directly related, but broadly speaking, everything is related, ultimately.

Choi: [Are you] assuming the wartime operational command [is] related to the strategic flexibility [of] the U.S. Global Posture Review [G.P.R.: Relocation of U.S. Forces Overseas] and the prompt deployment of U.S. forces?

You: They are all related.

Choi: Don't the recognition of strategic flexibility and the G.P.R., as well as the prompt deployment [of U.S. forces in South Korea] and the emerging task forces in the Northeast Asian region suggest real changes in the Mutual Defense Treaty between South Korea and the United States?

You: Security environments have changed considerably.

Choi: U.S. forces in South Korea functioned as a buffer against North Korea. But now the regional role of U.S. forces has changed into functioning as task forces in Northeast Asia. Doesn't it imply real changes in the Mutual Treaty?

You: The two governments agreed during the ministerial cabinet-level meeting last January that the U.S. forces in South Korea would not be deployed to a third country without the agreement of South Korea.

Choi: But this agreement concerns only part of the flow-out [the redeployment of U.S. forces in South Korea to another country]. And aren't there real changes in most flow-outs and the sharing of military bases and resources by South Korea and the U.S.?

You: That's true.

Choi: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has denied strategic flexibility for the past two years, but finally recognized it because of the issues of assuming operational command during wartime.

Fortunately, the government now admits that the nature of the Mutual Treaty has changed, and that strategic flexibility and the relocation of U.S. forces are related to each other in a broad sense. The government, however, has not apologized for not revealing this before, and this is a fatal mistake. The government concealed this crucial concept of defense from the Korean people. Furthermore, it has translated the terminology of the changes in the regional role of U.S. forces in South Korea into the vague concept of strategic flexibility.

The Government Suddenly Changed Its Position

The conversations between Choi and You imply many things. First of all, why did the government of South Korea suddenly change its previous position by denying the relationship between the relocation of the U.S. military bases from Yongsan and strategic flexibility and the G.P.R.?

At present, the government is under attack by conservative groups because of issues on assuming operational command during wartime. Also, the public wonders why these issues broke out. It seems that the government wants to emphasize that the issues on assuming the command are related to the relocation of the U.S. military bases from Yongsan, the G.P.R., and strategic flexibility, and therefore they are not irrelevant.

Before the remarks of You, however, the government argued that South Korea demanded the relocation of the military bases from Yongsan for the sake of national pride, shaken during the Roh Tae Woo administration, and therefore should pay all expenses for the relocation.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States worked on relocating and realigning its forces overseas in a more flexible manner (strategic flexibility) to implement the war on terrorism more efficiently. The prototype for this project is the U.S. forces in South Korea. The U.S. government has promoted the relocation of U.S. forces in South Korea to Osan (a city with an airport) and Pyongtaek (a city with a seaport) by 2008 so that the forces can be easily deployed abroad at any time.

Indeed, the relocation of U.S. forces in South Korea has been implemented to meet the needs of the U.S. Nonetheless, the government of South Korea has agreed to pay all the expenses for the project. The government estimates $5.3 billion will be needed for the relocation, but this figure is unrealistic.

Many experts predict approximately $10 billion. In fact, the government has recently announced that it would sell parts of the site in Yongsan in order to pay the record-breaking costs.

On Aug. 17, Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. defense secretary, sent a letter to Yun Kwang Woong, the minister of defense in South Korea, demanding an "equitable" sharing of the defense expenses in Korea, while promising the return of wartime operational command in 2009. The word "equitable" may imply a 50-50 division, and the U.S. has complained that South Korea has been paying less than 40 percent.

Last year, the defense expenditure South Korea was obligated for was about $0.7 billion. To meet U.S. demands, South Korea has to increase its share 10 percent. Meanwhile, South Korea has paid additional expenses, such as providing the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA). The total expenses South Korea pays may reach some $10 billion.

If U.S. forces stationed in South Korea become deployable as task forces in Northeast Asia, South Korea may have to spend $60 billion for national defense to ensure an "independent defense" until 2020. Most weapons purchased for the enhancement of military power are imported from the United States.

It Is the Right Time to Reduce the Share of Military Spending

The parliament's budget office in South Korea pointed out on June 20 that the share taken up by defense expenses was much too high, given the limited economic size and financial structure of South Korea. The office added that the additional expenses already covered by South Korea were not recognized. It argued that its share should be decreased corresponding to reduced U.S. contributions to South Korean national security owing to strategic flexibility, while the burdens for security of South Korea have been increasing.

The government of South Korea has shared the defense expenses because U.S. forces functioned as a buffer against North Korea. If U.S. forces in South Korea were to confront not only North Korea but also China and Russia, however, the share could be reduced. The demands of the U.S. for increasing South Korea's share of the expenses are nothing better than those of gangsters.

The government of South Korea has conducted an "independence business" by making the relocation of military bases from Yongsan a matter of national pride. Once the role of U.S. forces in South Korea has changed and the long-run regional command structure in Northeast Asia has formed, the military of South Korea will find its place in the division of labor of the U.S. military. As a result, South Korea's share of defense expenditures will be increased. But the government of South Korea tries to mislead people into interpreting this as "independent national defense."

The U.S. has imposed the relocation costs from Yongsan by taking advantage of South Korea's "independent business," and demands an increased share of the defense expenses.

The alliance between South Korea and the U.S. is at risk because the two governments are hiding the truth from their own people (not because of the independent approaches of the incumbent government of South Korea, as conservative groups argue).

From OhmyNews International.