The New York Times reports that the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea is urging the Pentagon to allow service members to bring their families with them on tours of duty in that country.
According to the Times, the proposal by General B.B. Bell is “recognition that the military must do more to improve the quality of life for troops — and their families — if it hopes to retain personnel despite extended deployments overseas during a time of two wars.”
“General Bell’s concept, a reversal of decades of deployment policy for South Korea, also reflects a strategic assessment that troops are less vulnerable than they once were to attack from the North — and that such an attack itself is less likely today, given the enduring American presence as a deterrent and the growth in both the size and sophistication of South Korea’s armed forces.
Families of the American troops ordered to South Korea have generally not been authorized to accompany them, a decision based on an analysis that the North-South front was far too dangerous, and the regime in the North too unpredictable, to allow dependents to join troops there. That is in stark contrast to cold war-era deployments to Germany, when troops were allowed to bring spouses and children — even in the shadow of Warsaw Pact artillery and Soviet nuclear weapons.”
Bell’s rationale for the change is well-founded. With the demands of the GWOT, many troops are arriving in South Korea after 12-15 months of combat duty in Iraq, essentially giving them back-to-back “remote” tours away from their families.
In his interview with the NYT, General Bell cited the case of one young Army Captain, five months into a Korea tour, after a year in Iraq. The father of a 2 ½ year-old-child, the Captain has spent only eight months with his daughter.
“You know, we can do better than that,” Bell said he told the Captain.
Still, the policy change would come at a steep price. As the general readily admits, accommodating thousands of military families would require substantial investments in base housing, schools, medical facilities and other elements required to support a military community. Currently, less than 10% of the 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea are on “command-sponsored” tours that allow them to bring dependents.
According to General Bell, another 2,000 military families have moved to Korea on their own, to be with spouses or parents who are assigned there. While “non-sponsored” dependents are supposed to be barred from base facilities, the military has quietly accommodated them.
Truth is, there have always been a small number of military dependents in South Korea. In many cases, they are the Korean wives of U.S. service members, with the family support network (and language skills) to fit into the local culture and economy. A number of military members with Korean spouses volunteer for additional tours in that country, allowing their wives to remain near friends and family. It would be interesting to know how many of the 2,000 families cited by General Bell fit into that category.
From a security standpoint, we agree that the overall threat from North Korea has eased, and most Americans are now stationed well south of the DMZ. But the Land of the Morning Calm remains a dangerous place as long as Kim Jong-il holds power in Pyongyang, and his four million-man military is nothing to laugh at. And, with the rapid expansion of North Korea’s missile and WMD programs, all U.S. bases in the south are vulnerable to chemical, biological or nuclear attack.
As the Times observes, similar concerns existed in Western Europe, before the fall of the Soviet Union. But the Soviets were a more predictable adversary, and the geography provided a strategic depth that does not exist in Korea. Readers will note that neither General Bell (nor the Times) addresses the bottom-line issue for military dependents in South Korea—getting them out in the event of war.
Even in the days when there were only a handful of military families in Korea, the prospect of a Non-Essential Evacuation Operation (NEO) was daunting. Key installations—notably Youngsan Garrison in Seoul—were within range of North Korean artillery sites along the DMZ. Primary evacuation hubs, including Kimpo Airport near Seoul and Osan AB (35 miles south of the Korean capital) were also subject to enemy attack and saturation by air traffic.
Making matters worse, the close proximity of Pyongyang’s military reduces warning time for hostilities. A few years back the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) advised that warning notice for a limited North Korean thrust might be measured in hours, at best. Many NEO plans are based on advanced intel warning, allowing commanders to evacuate dependents (and other non-essential personnel) before the start of hostilities. Once the war begins, the safe evacuation of those individuals becomes a dicey proposition, particularly in a place like Korea.
That’s one more reason that General Bell’s plan strikes us as a bad idea. We fully understand his reasoning, and there’s no doubt that the troops returning from Iraq deserve more time with their families—not another “remote” assignment. But plunking down thousands of spouses and children in the middle of a potential war zone is a risky proposition, even in an era of a (slightly) diminished North Korean threat.
Besides, if the DPRK is really on its last legs--as some insist—then why should the U.S. taxpayer spend billions on infrastructure that won’t be needed 10 or 15 years down the road? The predicted demise of North Korea will, presumably, require a smaller American military presence on the Korea, one that won't require a U.S. Army division, two wings of combat aircraft, and thousands of support personnel. Moreover, plans for a large-scale, post-unification U.S. military presence in Korea—including dependents—would only stoke rising anti-Americanism in the region.
Finally, the argument for sending more military dependents to Korea seems to undercut one of the unstated benefits of the existing personnel policy. With family members back in the states, personnel on duty in South Korea could focus on the mission, maintaining the high degree of readiness needed to deter and, if necessary, repel a North Korean attack.
With more families in the ROK, commanders will have to give troops more time off and throttle back on their exercise schedules. Military members won’t complain, but at what point would concerns about family undercut training and preparation?
Commanders facing a very real North Korean threat have more important things to worry about than family housing, or the quality of the local DoDDS school. Similarly, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who might go into battle with minimal notice need to focus on their jobs, not worrying about how their spouses and kids will get to Kimpo—or survive a DPRK missile attack.
We have great respect for General Bell. His plan shows genuine compassion for the troops, their families and their well-being, concepts that some commanders give only lip-service. But, in our view, threat considerations and evacuation concerns still trump the idea of allowing thousands of military dependent to follow their service members to Korea. Good idea, but in the wrong place, and at the wrong time.
For the record, Your Humble Correspondent was a member of the Kunsan AB Class of 1992. The remote tour sucked, but I couldn’t imagine taking a wife and children to Korea, even at a base almost 200 miles from the DMZ.