[Overseas view]The mercenary messBlackwater is bad news, currently quite literally. The firm, established in 1997, has evolved into one of the most prominent ― and profitable ― of a growing array of sizable corporations that provide military services, including firepower, to governments and others. The current controversy results from allegations that Blackwater personnel opened fire while working for the U.S. State Department and killed civilians in Iraq without defensible provocation.
The Iraqi government responded by banning the firm from further operations in the country. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly apologized for the incident, and Congress has begun very visible hearings.
These developments put the U.S. strategy of using mercenaries to augment a badly stretched military into question, but it also raises important concerns for South Korea, given the exceptionally close military partnership between the two countries. The Korean War of 1950-53 defined not only this notably tight alliance but also the much more comprehensive American approach to foreign policy throughout the Cold War.
Private corporations supplying mercenary forces were not part of the equation during the Cold War. The U.S. relied on a military draft, supplemented by volunteers, until President Richard Nixon initiated the move to an all-volunteer military force in the early 1970s as a result of protests against the last failed military adventure of the United States, the Vietnam War.
Extensive use of private contractors by the Pentagon did not begin until the first Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. At that time, uniformed U.S. soldiers outnumbered private contractors in the Gulf region by approximately sixty to one. By contrast, in Iraq, private security personnel supplied by firms like Blackwater and Dyncorp now outnumber the U.S. military. As the Blackwater controversy has revealed, these corporations provide heavily armed personnel who often engage in direct combat in the course of their duties as security officers in a war zone.
By contrast, the Republic of Korea has largely avoided reliance on contractors. Instead, the military draft has been retained and the established armed forces are uniformed and under direct government control. Arguably, this has been a crucial ingredient in South Korea’s dramatic transition from an authoritarian government to a democracy with popularly elected representatives, including the president.
There have been very positive benefits resulting from Seoul’s reliance on the traditional approach to military organization. First, discipline has been retained along the border with North Korea. Blackwater and other firms have gained notoriety, and are now being investigated for trigger-happy behavior. Such actions along the always-tense, and at times violent, border with the North could easily spark renewal of the Korean War.
Second, the U.S., without great fanfare, has begun reducing the number of its troops deployed along the Korean border. This is an extremely important development, representing a major change since the 1953 armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War. Relatively little press attention has been devoted to the development.
The Bush administration has also agreed to President Roh Moo-hyun’s request that operational control of the South Korean military in wartime be transferred from Washington to Seoul. The presence of the very disciplined, conventional Republic of Korea Army under direct government control has been crucial to these important transitions.
Third, the Korean War was fought under the auspices of the United Nations. The recent summit between the leaders of North and South Korea represents a major step in the peace process. Arguably a crucial ingredient has been reliance on conventional militaries on both sides of the 38th Parallel. Had private contractors been part of the equation, this progress might well not have been achieved.
As UN involvement indicates, the military policies of any member nation have important ― potentially profound ― implications for the international community at large. Private military contractors operating with virtual impunity directly challenge an orderly approach to global security.
Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI), for example, another very large private security firm, since the 1990s has developed extensive involvement in Africa, including Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria. In both countries, MPRI assisted highly repressive regimes, contrary to U.S. and UN policies.
South Korea has one of the world’s most effective armies, as well as one of the most successful economies. The growing American reliance on private military contractors may change, especially with a new administration in Washington, but the military remains badly stretched in Iraq and elsewhere. As a result, Korea may well become more prominent in UN peacekeeping efforts.
*The writer is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY Arthur I. Cyr