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A US `invasion' of Korea - By Catherine Lutz | October 8, 2006


A US `invasion' of Korea

AS WORLD attention is drawn to North Korea's missile launches and nuclear program, many South Koreans are attuned to a threat much closer to home. They have watched a group of rice farmers in the small village of Daechuri near the city of Pyongtaek attempt to defend themselves against invasion by the US military. The farmers' struggle against expansion of a nearby US military base has become a rallying point for Koreans who see their country being further militarized and their security and chances for reunification put at risk.

In May, South Korean police and soldiers descended on a schoolhouse where rice farmers and their supporters were resisting eviction. The police bloodied heads, destroyed the school, and backhoed rice fields and irrigation systems to prevent spring planting. They were sent by the Korean Ministry of Defense, at the behest of the US government, to claim a large swath of land to expand Camp Humphrey . Already covering 2 square miles, the base is slated to swallow an additional 2,851 acres.

Part of a grand plan of global military base restructuring announced by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003, the Pyongtaek base is meant to take in soldiers and equipment from closing military installations near the de militarized zone and in Seoul. However, the bases' relocation to Pyongtaek is part of a plan to use the bases to strike at will anywhere in Asia and to contain China. It is this ``expeditionary" or aggressive role of the bases that is behind concurrent US negotiations with South Korea, seeking ``strategic flexibility" to use the forces based there throughout Asia. Such an agreement would change the original defensive purpose of the base. So it concerns people across the region, who see remilitarization, arms races, and intensified danger where the United States simply claims realignment. Recent US and allied military exercises off Guam, itself targeted for a massive US military buildup, were of unprecedented size, and North Korea's missile launch might be seen as a response to that provocation.

While the arguments for this restructuring suggest the United States and Korea are mutual and equal allies, Korea in fact remains a semi sovereign state under US control in many respects. Most strikingly, Korean troops come under the command of an American officer in wartime. US military plans in Asia, then, necessarily implicate the Koreans and draw them into conflict with their neighbors. Imagining China as the new national enemy is a process well underway in Washington, and the Koreans know all too well that their surgical twinning to US strategic plans will make them China's enemy as well.

All of this is playing out within the context of a difficult relationship between the more than 30,000 US soldiers based around Korea and the local citizens who see them as a source of prostitution, crime, and pollution. Koreans can point to two young girls crushed by US tanks in 2002, multiple rapes and rape-murders of Korean women, and a recent leaked report showing stratospheric levels of soil and water contamination at closing US bases.

In Daechuri, the farmers have been holding a candlelight vigil every night for the last two years in a Quonset hut on the school grounds, under the thunderous thut-thut-thut of US helicopters passing in and out of Camp Humphrey . Supporters have come in from around the country by the thousands, members of groups from across a wide range of Korea's civil society, still vibrant with an enthusiasm for the democracy they achieved only in 1987 after years of brutal dictatorship (armed and supported by the United States). While a majority of Koreans want to see the US military leave, powerful business interests, conservative Christians, and an older generation convinced of the value of the US presence continue to support Washington's military plans and Korean annual payments of at least $625 million toward their execution.

The justification for the US military buildup across Asia is the advance of political and economic freedom. The residents of Daechuri might be forgiven for being suspicious of such claims. Some of the village's oldest residents with whom I spoke last fall remember the Japanese evicting their parents for a military base during Korea's pre war annexation. The US Army took over and expanded the base in World War II, and now, for some, their third eviction in the name of a misconstrued vision of military rather than human security is imminent.

Halting the eviction of Daechuri's farmers would be a good first step toward demilitarizing the peninsula and the region. Their homes are being destroyed in the name of America 's citizens, and we have more power than anyone to reverse the escalating rhetoric and reality of arms in Asia by calling on the US government to halt its regarrisoning of Korea, Guam, and Asia-Pacific region.

Catherine Lutz, a professor of anthropology at Brown University and its Watson Institute for International Studies, is the author of ``Homefront: A Military City and the American 20th Century."

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