Betting the Family in Korea

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For more than a half-century, most U.S. troops headed to South Korea for one-year tours without their families, over concern that a sudden war would trap spouses and children in the “sea of fire” the North Koreans promised to unleash if provoked. But over the past several years, that policy has come to an end — just as tensions in the region are again increasing. Are the estimated 4,600 dependents now in South Korea at undue risk, and — if war were to break out — how much of a distraction would their presence in a war zone be to the 28,500 U.S. troops on the peninsula?

U.S. non-combatants practice fleeing South Korea / Air Force photo

The problem is exacerbated by the tight confines of any war between the Koreas. The North has about 13,000 artillery tubes within range of Seoul and most of the Americans in South Korea. Any Korean war game that triggers martial tits-for-tats could suddenly erupt into full-scale war with thousands of U.S. military dependents in the crossfire. North Korea “has the world’s largest artillery force that is positioned as far south as possible and that can rain on Seoul today,” U.S. Army General Walter Sharp, the commander of all U.S. forces in Korea, said in 2009.

The issue is heating up as South Korean President Lee Myung-bak takes a tougher line with the North. He’s reflecting a shift in South Korean public opinion since North Korea sunk a South Korean naval vessel in March, killing 46, and shelled a South Korean island, killing four, in November. He has loosened the rules of engagement — making it easier for Seoul’s forces to respond militarily to aggression from the North — and has said the next North Korean military strike would require a “powerful counterattack.” On Dec. 27 he warned the nation in a radio address: “Fear of war is never helpful in preventing war.”

In light of the increasing banging of Korean war drums, is it time to halt — and maybe reverse — the flow of U.S. dependents to Korea? “Given the circumstances, accompanied Korean tours need to end now,” argues Craig Hooper, a naval scholar in San Francisco. “Get the dependents out, and get ’em out today. In Korea, full-bore modern conflict is always just a few artillery shots away.”

But Sharp, the U.S. commander, disagrees. “There is no reason that families should not be together here in Korea, one of the world’s most vibrant and dynamic societies,” he said Dec. 15. “Ultimately, the ROK-U.S. Alliance is a relationship between two peoples and by bringing more families to Korea I believe we will build stronger bonds between our countries.”

Sharp has championed a plan to build more housing, schools and other facilities so that all 14,000 married troops will be able to bring their families with them to South Korea for three-year tours by 2020. He likes the stability and reduced stress offered by longer, accompanied tours and their resulting greatly-reduced training requirements.

But the U.S. military has always been concerned about its ability to evacuate families if war breaks out. That’s why it’s moving Army units to a major post south of Seoul — away from North Korean artillery tubes — and close to a major transportation hub. It drills for such an eventuality twice a year, down to planning for what to bring (“3 days food/water”), what to do about pets (“pets are considered family members…pets cannot be abandoned”) and gas masks for adults, kids and infants.

But Hooper isn’t impressed. “Noncombatant evacuation plans are, at this point, unrealistic, underfunded and under-resourced,” he maintains. “Given North Korea’s propensity for chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry, America — and the rest of the region — is unprepared to handle wounded, contaminated, and possibly infectious refugees.”

As the South Koreans have resumed military drills close to the North, U.S. officials have expressed concern that the situation could quickly escalate. “If North Korea were to react to that in a negative way and fire back at those firing positions on the islands, that would start potentially a chain reaction of firing and counter-firing,” Marine General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said Dec. 16. “What you don’t want to have happen out of that is for us to lose control of the escalation. That’s the concern.”

Cartwright’s comments came 24 hours after General Sharp told that audience in a Seoul hotel that “there is no greater signal of our confidence in the importance and capability of the alliance than the presence of our families now and in the future.” Here’s hoping both Koreas see the gathering presence of American spouses, teen-agers, toddlers and babies on the peninsula as the ultimate in human shields.