Just In Case: U.S. Has Plans for Americans to Flee South Korea

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Courageous Channel isn’t some new offering from your cable TV provider.

It’s the name of the regular Noncombatant Evacuation Operation exercise done by the U.S. military in South Korea to practice getting thousands of U.S. civilians out of the country in a hurry if it looks like war with North Korea is imminent.

Each spring, U.S. military dependents, non-emergency essential civilians and contractors do everything except board an airplane for such an eventuality. They’re told what to bring (“3 days food/water…30 days meds…limited cash $100-200”) and what to do about pets (“pets are considered family members…do not have priority over people…pets cannot be abandoned”). There’s even a handy video “to learn how to correctly employ the Infant Chemical Agent Protection System,” along with lots of other tips on what to do the day no one hopes ever comes.

“Each person,” the guidelines issued by U.S. Forces Korea say, “is allowed one airline carry-on & one check-in bag totaling no more than 66 lbs.” Don’t overpack for doom, in other words.

(PHOTOS: Scenes from North Korea’s Kaesong Industrial Zone)

Any evacuation decision would be made by the State Department in consultation with the Pentagon and other elements of the government. Such an action, U.S. officials said Thursday, would be politically difficult because it would telegraph the U.S. believes war is imminent, if not inevitable — a belief the South Koreans would no doubt like to minimize. A State Department official said there are “no plans to implement a noncombatant evacuation operation at this time.”

The most recent exercise took place last May. “This increased readiness will ensure the rapid and safe evacuation of our family members and other U.S. government-affiliated noncombatants in the case of a contingency, crisis or hostilities,” Drew Kim, the U.S. Army’s noncombatant evacuation operations – NEO — planner, said during the training. “The goal of this exercise is to train our soldiers in the execution of NEO and to familiarize 100% of our military dependents and other U.S. government-affiliated noncombatants on the registration and evacuation processes.”

Things are changing in the U.S. military’s approach to providing troops for the U.S. Forces Korea command  (whose website, mysteriously, has been down for a couple of days…and its public-affairs shop apparently hasn’t tweeted since…June). There are roughly 28,500 U.S. troops assigned to South Korea, consisting mostly of Army (19,000) and Air Force (8,000) personnel.

The U.S. military is in the middle of converting most of its one-year tours without families into three-year tours with families. More Americans in harm’s way if war breaks out — that’s bad news. But they’re also relocating thousands of troops and families further south, purportedly beyond the range of North Korean weapons (greater Seoul is only 35 miles away, and DMZ tours are available). That’s the good news.

(MORE: Is Kim Jong Un Driving North Korea to a Nuclear Dead End)

Army General James Thurman, the top U.S. commander in South Korea, told his Senate confirmation hearing in 2011 that moving U.S. troops south and concentrating them near major transit hubs makes sense:

Consolidation will also enhance the execution of noncombatant evacuation operations. By reducing the dispersion of transportation assets, movement times are reduced. By separating U.S. forces from initial wartime threats such as North Korea’s long-range artillery and its ground forces threatening Seoul, the vulnerability of these forces is reduced and their survivability enhanced.

U.S. troops are now scattered at more than 100 posts, concentrated around Seoul but stretching across most of South Korea. Over the next several years, the Pentagon plans on moving those troops to half as many bases, many clustered near the cities of Osan and Daegu.

The challenge of evacuating thousands of Americans 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 roughly 150,000 Americans now 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,” then-U.S. Army General Walter Sharp, commander of all U.S. forces in Korea, warned in 2009.

(MORE: Trying to Plumb the North Korean Mindset)

Sharp championed a plan to build more housing, schools and other facilities so that about 12,000 married troops will be able to bring their families with them to South Korea for three-year tours. He said he valued the stability and reduced stress offered by longer, accompanied tours, and the savings they’d generate by keeping troops in place longer. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of troops with command-sponsored families had risen from 1,800 to 4,500, where it remains due to a lack of housing, schools and other infrastructure needed to support more.

The U.S. move south can also been seen as a kind of retreat, giving the South Koreans more responsibility for their own defense. In 2015, the South Koreans are supposed to assume command any combat operations that might take place on the peninsula.

While the movement of U.S. troops further south in South Korea has been delayed due to a lack of funds, U.S. officials say it is going to happen. “We are moving out of this place, all right?” Thurman told a U.S. military gathering in Seoul in January. “Everybody thinking they’re going to be here for years and years to come, I think that’s not going to be true…in 2016, we’re going to be pretty much down there.”
Just three short years away.