The US forces Korea opened its new headquarters in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, on Friday. Its relocation from Yongsan, central Seoul, has historical and security implications.
Historically, the relocation means Yongsan, which has been a garrison for foreign forces, starting as early as in the early 19th century when Japan stationed its forces as part of its efforts to colonize Korea, has ended its chapter with the shameful history.
It was after the end of World War II in 1945 when the US military took over Yongsan on a mission to disarm the Japanese military and police in liberated Korea. After participating in the 1950-53 Korean War, the US military set up its Korean headquarters in Yongsan in 1957.
It is against such a historical backdrop that the end of Yongsan as the hub of foreign troops should remind all Koreans of the importance of protecting their land and sovereignty for themselves.
The start of the US forces Korea’s new era in Pyeongtaek also indicates some changes to its role and the decadeslong alliance with South Korea. What also should be noted is that the relocation comes at a time when the security dynamics on the Korean Peninsula is changing rapidly in the wake of the talks to denuclearize North Korea.
The US military in Yongsan and the 2nd Infantry Division in the north of Seoul were regarded as a “tripwire” for defense against North Korea. Their relocation to Pyeongtaek, about 70 kilometers south of Seoul, means a shift in their security strategy.
Armed with high-tech combat capability, pulling its headquarters and backbone army division down south of Seoul should not necessarily mean that the US forces Korea are abandoning its tripwire role. Rather, it means the command will have a broader regional security role.
The Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek is the largest US army base overseas, and it is close to the US air base in Osan and the South Korean naval base in Pyeongtaek port. One can see being in Pyeongtaek, the US forces could have a broader and wider regional security role, especially vis-a-vis China, whose military expansion could threaten countries like Japan and Taiwan, as well as South Korea.
The fact that China and North Korea are deepening ties could also be a factor for the new security situation in the region.
The US forces Korea is not opening its era in Pyeongtaek only with rosy prospects for its role in regional security and alliance with South Korea.
There are signs that the US may weaken the strength of the US forces Korea out of premature optimism about the progress of the work to denuclearize North Korea and out of myopic economic calculations.
None other than its president, Donald Trump, is taking the US forces Korea to the ill-advised path. In the absence of any visible follow-up actions to his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Trump halted joint military exercises with South Korea. He not only said that the suspension would save a “tremendous” amount of money but also that he wanted to bring the American troops home eventually.
It is simply natural US Congress comes forward to check Trump. Two senators have already introduced a bill calling for greater congressional oversight of the US government‘s denuclearization talks with North Korea. The US legislature may need more measures to rein in the unilateralism of the Trump presidency.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said here on Friday that there is not even a one-millimeter gap in the alliance between the US and South Korea. Mattis also said that the US will maintain the current level of US forces Korea. The problem is his comments may not reflect exactly what is on the minds of his boss in the White House who are obsessed with his “America First” policy.
There should not be any radical shift in the size and role of the US forces Korea, and its relocation to Pyeongtaek should be an occasion to reaffirm solid alliance between the two countries.
As South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo said in his talks with Mattis, the alliance should “grow ever stronger, more mature and mutually complementary.” Goodbye Yongsan and welcome to Pyeongtaek.