By Christine Ahn and Hyun Lee
At 4 am on September 24, an intoxicated U.S. soldier based at Camp Casey in South Korea broke into the dorm of a high school student, threatened her with a weapon and repeatedly sexually assaulted her. Due to the extraterritoriality of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the South Korean and U.S. governments, Seoul must issue an arrest warrant to the U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK) to transfer the soldier to face Korea’s criminal system.
This tragic incident presents a critical opportunity to question why, after 66 years, 28,500 U.S. troops still remain on 87 bases and installations on the Korean peninsula and whose security they are safeguarding. The same questions are being raised in Okinawa and Guam, islands in the Asia Pacific with large U.S. bases.
Although the economic crisis facing America has called into question the bloated military budget, it is the first time in U.S. history that Congress is discussing the prohibitive costs of U.S. bases. Given growing popular opposition throughout the Asia Pacific to the ongoing presence of U.S. bases, the time is now to seize this rare political window to close down U.S. bases worldwide.
High Cost of U.S. Bases to People of Asia Pacific
As in the past, the USFK will attempt to call the rape another case of a bad apple, when in fact U.S. troops in Korea have a long history of committing heinous crimes against Korea’s civilian population.
In 1994, South Korean civil society began to mobilize after U.S. soldier Kenneth Markle brutally murdered 27-year old Yoon Keum E. whose bloody body covered with white laundry detergent was found dead with an umbrella shoved up her anus and two beer bottles in her womb. This unspeakable violence forced the Korean people to question the so-called protection provided by the U.S. military and the unequal SOFA arrangements, which enables soldiers to act in impunity.
According to the National Campaign for the Eradication of Crimes by U.S. Troops in Korea, U.S. soldiers have committed tens of thousands of crimes against South Korean civilians since the beginning of its military occupation in 1945. According to South Korean National Assembly member Kim Tae-won, 377 U.S. soldiers were arrested for committing crimes in 2011 alone. Since 2008, the number of rapes doubled, and thefts and assaults tripled.
But it’s not just interpersonal violence Koreans endure. U.S. bases have also borne significant social and environmental costs. In 2006, after nearly a 1,000-day long struggle, the South Korean government demolished the homes and fertile farmland of elderly rice farmers in Pyeongtaek for the expansion of Camp Humphreys. This past May, three U.S. veterans confessed to dumping barrels full of Agent Orange in an area the size of a football field at Camp Carroll. Today, Gangjeong farmers and fishermen on Jeju Island are fighting to save their village from becoming a naval base that will stage Aegis destroyers linked to the U.S. missile defense system.
Unfortunately, sexual violence and crimes committed by U.S. troops against civilians haven’t been restricted to South Korea. Okinawa, a prefecture of Japan, has also borne similar costs due to the ongoing presence of U.S. military bases. Although Okinawa accounts for only 0.6 percent of the entire land area in Japan, it is home to 74 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan. Women for Genuine Security estimates that 37 U.S. bases and installations in Okinawa house 23,842 troops and 21,512 family members.
According to Suzuyo Takazato of Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence, from 1972 to 2005, U.S. soldiers committed over 5,500 crimes against civilians, although many Okinawans say the number is actually much higher because women and girls rarely report crimes such as sexual violence. Only some 700 U.S. soldiers have been arrested. Since U.S. troops first landed on the island, Okinawans have been demanding their removal. In 1995, the resistance gained steam after three U.S. servicemen abducted and raped a 12-year-old girl.
In 1996, Tokyo and Washington agreed that the United States would return the land used by the Futenma Air Force base and build a replacement facility in Nago City’s Henoko Bay. But Okinawans have opposed this plan through every democratic means—elections, referenda, rallies, and public opinion polls. In 1997, Nago citizens voted in a referendum opposing the construction of the new U.S. base. In a May 2010 poll, 84 percent of respondents opposed this move, which would destroy Henoko’s ecological preserve. And recently, Nago’s 60,000 people elected a mayor who strongly opposes the base.
Given the fierce opposition to the base relocation, the Japanese government signed a deal in 2006 with Washington to transfer 8,000 U.S. marines and their families from Okinawa to Guam, or Guahan in its native language Chamoru, at a price of $27 billion. According to Lisa Natividad of the Guahan Coalition for Peace and Justice, the infusion of these additional marines, their families, and support workers to Guam’s population of 170,000 would grow the island population by 30 percent. “It will double the existing military presence on the island and will eclipse the Chamoru population,” says Natividad.
Since the announcement of the military build-up, Guahans actively led grassroots public education campaigns on the consequences to their culture and environment. Their organizing has begun to pay off. According to Natividad, the Pentagon received an unprecedented 10,000 comments of concern in 2009—6.5 percent of Guahan’s total population—about the planned Guam military build-up. Two civil society organizations—We Are Guahan and the Guam Preservation and Historic Trust—have filed a lawsuit to prevent the use of Pagat village as a live firing range.
Cost of U.S. Bases to America
For the first time in history, the call for closing bases and shifting priorities may actually have the ear of lawmakers on Capitol Hill as they cope with the nation’s intensifying budget crisis and take the unprecedented step of putting the Pentagon budget on the chopping block. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) proposes to save $69.5 billion by reducing military personnel overseas in Europe and Asia. This recommendation, originally made by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, is aimed at reducing “the military personnel stationed at overseas bases in Europe and Asia by one-third.” Senator Coburn also recommends canceling the deployment of 8,600 U.S. Marines and their 9,000 dependents to Guam from Okinawa. To realign U.S. troops in Japan, Okinawa, and Guam would cost $27 billion.
The Sustainable Defense Task Force also proposes to cut military personnel and bases by one third in Europe and Asia and projects savings of up to $80 billion. “On the Korean peninsula, the gap between adversary and friendly conventional capabilities has grown much more favorable,” it states in Debt, Defense, and Deficits – A Way Forward, released June 2010. “Also, U.S. capacities for long-range strike and for effective rapid deployment of forces have grown greater, reducing the crisis response requirements for troops on the spot.” The Task Force does not view China as a military threat to the United States. Rather, it says, China’s integration into the regional economy means “Beijing does not seek to fracture its relationship with the United States.” It also sees Taiwan and the Mainland as “strongly interdependent economically.”
In May, three ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee—Senators Carl Levin (D-MI), Jim Webb (D-VA), and John McCain (R-AZ)—called on the Pentagon to “re-examine plans to restructure U.S. military forces in East Asia” because they were “unrealistic” and “simply unaffordable in today’s increasingly constrained fiscal environment.” Their recommendations include putting on hold plans to expand Camp Humphreys in Pyongtaek, South Korea to support tour normalization, scrapping the relocation of Futenma in Okinawa, and scaling back plans for base expansion in Guam. “The proposals would save billions in taxpayer dollars,” stated the letter from the Senators. Last month, during Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s confirmation hearing, Senator Levin asked whether the closure of some bases and bringing home U.S. troops was on the table. Carter responded that indeed, it was “on the table.”
Time to Link Arms
The struggle of farmers and indigenous people against U.S. bases in Guam, Okinawa, South Korea, and elsewhere, and the struggle of working people for jobs, healthcare, and education here at home are opposite sides of the same coin. The vibrant energy and creative talents of our nation’s youth are needed here to build hospitals and schools and revitalize local communities, not on unpopular bases abroad that displace indigenous populations.
It’s time to link up our demands – shut down bases abroad and create jobs here at home. Although oceans apart, we have more at stake in each other’s struggles than we may think. And Washington’s budget debate provides an opening for us to link arms and demand a change in the nation’s priorities.
Movements for peace and economic justice across the Asia Pacific are strengthening their ties by organizing two important convenings: “Peace in Asia and the Pacific: Alternatives to Militarization conference in Washington, DC on October 21-22; and Moana Nui: Pacific Peoples, Lands and Economies gathering from November 9-11 timed with the APEC Summit in Honolulu, Hawaii.
In the long term, the U.S. peace and social justice movement must press to change the fundamental mission of the U.S. military around the world. For now, we can start by impressing on the U.S. public and policymakers the urgency of people’s struggles against U.S. bases abroad as well as the high cost of maintaining them and what that means for the American people.
Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Christine Ahn is the executive director of the Korea Policy Institute and a member of the Global Campaign to Save Jeju Island. Hyun Lee is a member of Nodutdol for Korean Community Development and a contributor to FPIF.