[Viewpoint] One alliance, two viewsIn the middle of one of the largest and most advanced cities in the world is a bustling U.S. military base home to nearly 5,000 members of the United States Forces Korea (USFK). The closest comparison to be made is a military camp in Manhattan’s Central Park.
It is a fixture on Seoul’s landscape, an unmistakable blot on any Google image display. South Koreans want this valuable piece of real estate back.
And yet to most Seoulites it is a mystery as to what happens inside. What they know of USFK comes from a monthly stream of negative news stories: “Soldier rapes woman in Uijeongbu,” “GI assaults taxi driver,” “U.S. military accused of burying dangerous chemicals near Daegu.”
Inaccurate, skewed, but nonetheless decisive at creating a narrative in the minds of Koreans - Americans are reckless, and they don’t care about the best interests of Koreans.
As a company commander for two years in Seoul, I had the opportunity to spend every Friday afternoon giving my soldiers the USFK-mandated safety briefing before soldiers were released for the weekend: “You are all diplomats representing America,” “Don’t drink or participate in human trafficking,” “Respect the local culture.”
A side-by-side comparison with most other United States military bases would reveal that USFK has not only beaten the Department of Defense standard for behavior, but exceeded it.
The difference is Korea, where one event, one incident, is enough to capture Korean headlines, and leave an indelible impression upon Korean readers.
From the squad-level Friday briefings to rigorous community outreach programs, USFK has tried incredibly hard to promote a positive image among everyday Koreans. These efforts have made little impact because they are not being reported by the Korean media, and it is doubtful that they ever will be.
As most United States Army officers stationed in Korea know, the old respect us, but for the young and middle-aged, our relationship has become increasingly pragmatic - no sentiment for past sacrifices, and certainly no admiration.
Koreans don’t care how many goodwill events are hosted by USFK, how many classrooms American soldiers teach English in, or how many coal briquettes are handed out during the winter months.
Their focus has changed, and so too have their expectations - or to use military parlance, they are no longer concerned with tactical efforts, but instead, strategic ones.
The stationing of tactical nuclear weapons could potentially widen the divide that already exists between USFK and the Korean public and to a point that it may even cause irreparable harm to an already precarious security construct.
Policy makers need to keep in mind the events of 2002 when a United States Army tracked vehicle killed two young schoolgirls walking on the side of the road.
That event, and the subsequent USFK public relation snafus, resulted in the election of a president who was much less friendly to U.S. interests than his predecessor.
As a democratic and economically prosperous country, Korea will become increasingly less tolerant of Washington’s belligerence and disregard for the public opinion of everyday Koreans, especially with regard to the stationing of tactical nuclear weapons on Korean soil.
If this does not alarm Washington, then certainly the joint humanitarian maritime exercises between Korea and China, and recent overtures to China for closer military ties, should give pause to those who continue to make Korea-U.S. policy decisions in the shadow of the Korean War’s memory, and take for granted the existing alliance.
USFK is trying hard, and arguably doing the best it can, but unless policy makers in Washington take a closer look at the changing dynamics of Korea it will continue to make decisions that only make Koreans think a little harder about the true advantages of the existing alliance.
Sooner or later, they may even consider an alliance that is more beneficial to their long-term interests.
*The author, who previously served as a company commander for two years at United States Army Garrison-Yongsan in Seoul, is pursuing a Masters in International Peace and Security at Korea University Graduate School of International Studies.
By Brendan James Balestrieri