Saving ROK-US alliance
CAMP HUMPREYS, Pyeongtaek — The change of command ceremony at Barker Field in U.S. Camp Humphreys Thursday, carried with it a complicated set of changes in sentiment, history and uncertainty about the ROK-U.S. alliance.
New U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) commander, Gen. Robert Abrams, captured this when he said, “The current conditions on the Korean Peninsula are as dynamic as they have ever been.” Perhaps, the pouring rain not only soaked the honor guards and the military band but somehow also concealed the full impact of what that dynamism would entail.
President Moon Jae-in made no mistake in shining a light on the situation when in his address, read on his behalf, he asked the new commander to ensure the smooth transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean forces.
The transfer of control or OPCON is a tricky issue because it has the possibility of leading to a reduction in U.S. troops here or even their complete withdrawal.
The transfer comes against the background of an accelerated reconciliatory process between South and North Korea, which involves declaring an end to the Korean War. If a peace agreement is signed, the reason for U.S. troops being here would be greatly weakened.
Also, U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly argued that the U.S. has paid for South Korea’s defense and that it is time for Seoul to stop being a freeloader.
Trump is eager to cut a denuclearization deal with the North, which, if consummated, would give him one more reason to bring the GIs home and save more money.
So far Trump has opted to use economic pressure to deal with China’s emerging power, while focusing on improving U.S. military on the nuclear front and in space. This raises questions about a shift in the strategic value the U.S. places on South Korea.
And Koreans have had a change of heart.
The ceremony being in Pyeongtaek testifies to this.
Most of the U.S. military facilities located in Yongsan, Seoul, and near the frontline with the North have been moved to Camp Humphreys. Koreans felt shamed and became indignant about the big U.S. installation being in the middle of their capital on a site where Japanese imperial forces were stationed.
The U.S. Yongsan garrison was once on Seoul’s perimeter, but now, when the city has expanded, the garrison has been pushed into the center.
So boasting that it is the biggest U.S. military facility outside the U.S. has a double meaning — on the surface, it may appear to be a symbol of the alliance but at its core it is a rationalization process.
Outside the camp, there is major disagreement, with supporters of the U.S., conservative forces, who are now out of power, criticizing the current progressive government for conspiring with North Korea to kick out the Americans and sell out the nation.
Although the degree of disagreement varies, the battle between both camps can be seen in protests in downtown Seoul every week, if not more often. In his speech, Gen. Abrams accented the power of the alliance, using Aesop’s bundle of sticks fable, and vowed to maintain the “fight tonight” capability.
His predecessor, Gen. Vincent Brooks, used the Chinese idiom of crossing the river in the same boat to stress the camaraderie of the two allies.
Both generals used the alliance’s motto — Let’s go together.
Like members of the honor guards and band members, the generals were so soaked that water was dripping from their jackets and hats.
Spartan as the ceremony might be, their pledges sounded reassuring against the constant din of trouble from the outside because they represented the core value of the seven-decade alliance and displayed a willingness to continue this tradition.
The venue of the ceremony, Barker Field, is named after a U.S. Army private killed on Pork Chop Hill in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province, toward the end of the shooting war in June 1953 just before the Korean truce.
Some may feel tempted to say that the two generals are standing in the way of the approaching peace. But we have seen false signs of peace before and the strong alliance has helped maintain peace on the peninsula since the 1950-1953 Korean War.
It is prudent to prepare for the worst — a conflict — while hoping for the best — fast and lasting peace. For this reason, keeping the alliance strong is not only a viable option but a priority.
Although it may sound ironic, the strong alliance — for all its flaws and faults — can be the key to bringing adjustments that enable it to better serve the interests of Korea and the U.S.