The United States and South Korea will create the first-ever binational military division, says the South Korean Defense Ministry.  According to its announcement on September 4, US Forces Korea Commander Curtis Scaparrotti and South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Choi Yun-hee recently agreed to form a combined military division tasked to carry out wartime operations.

The combined division, to be organized in early 2015, will include soldiers from the US Second Infantry Division as well as a South Korean armored brigade.  The combined division’s joint staff, composed of equal numbers of US and South Korean officers, will be headed by a US commander and a South Korean deputy.

During peace time, the South Korean brigade will perform its routine duties under South Korean chain of command and join the US Second Infantry Division for combined exercises as necessary.

During wartime, the combined division will reportedly carry out special operations, including civil military operations (minimizing civil interference) and seizing North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

Second Infantry Division – Still Slated to Pull Back from DMZ

The idea of forming a combined division was first raised as part of an overall US base relocation plan slated for completion by the end of 2016.

In accordance with a 2004 agreement, Seoul and Washington have been working to relocate the US military headquarters at the sprawling Yongsan Garrison in the heart of Seoul, as well as the Second Infantry Division in Dongducheon and Uijeongbu near the DMZ to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul.

In early 2012, then-South Korean Army Chief of Staff Kim Sang-ki is said to have proposed to then-US Eighth Army Commander John D Johnson to keep the US Second Infantry Division near the DMZ in the northern region of Gyeonggi Province. That discussion stalled, however, due to vocal opposition from local residents.

The idea resurfaced in late 2013 when USFK Commander Scaparrotti raised the possibility of stationing a joint division north of the Han River even after moving the Second Infantry Division south to Pyeongtaek.  “In terms of the residual in what we call Area I (north of the Han River), there may be a need operationally to leave some residual in those areas just for proper defense and response,” Scaparrotti said at a press conference at the Yongsan Garrison in November 2013.

The Second Infantry Division is tasked with defending the South until US reinforcements arrive on the peninsula in the event of a North Korean attack.  If it remains near the DMZ, where it’s vulnerable to North Korean attack, notes Kim Yeol-su, Professor of International Politics at Sungshin Women’s University, “It can act as a tripwire for the deployment of additional forces from the US continent.

In response to speculation that the formation of the combined division aims to allow some US soldiers to remain north of the capital, the South Korean Defense Ministry assured there is no change in the ongoing plan of relocating all USFK bases south of Seoul.  “The Second Division and the headquarters of the envisioned joint unit will be based in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul.  After the relocation project is completed, they will then be moved to Pyeongtaek altogether,” said the Ministry.

Local Residents Demand Land Return and Clean-up

The Gyeonggi Provincial Assembly reacted to news about the combined division by introducing a resolution opposing it being based in Dongducheon and demanding compensation for damages incurred by the city as a result of long-term US base presence.

28 assembly members introduced ‘Resolution to Oppose the Basing of the US-ROK Combined Division in Dongducheon and Demand Compensatory Measures for Damages’ on September 10.

The resolution’s introduction betrays just how much hardship the city of Dongducheon, which provides 42.5% (40.63 sq km) of its land for USFK use, has endured in the name of national security for the past sixty years.

It also shows the city’s impatience with repeated delays in the USFK’s plan to return the land to the city as part of its relocation plan.  “According to the 2002 Land Partnership Plan between the United States and South Korea, US bases in the northern region of Gyeonggi Province including Uijeongbu an Dongduchen should have been relocated to Pyeongtaek and other areas south of Seoul by 2011, but that plan has repeatedly been delayed,” the resolution states.

Dongducheon’s local economy, which has historically relied on the presence of US bases, has been hollowed out by the gradual relocation of US troops to Pyeongtaek.  But development projects aimed at providing an economic alternative have been on an indefinite hold due to repeated delays in the completion of the relocation and return of the land formerly used by the base.

The resolution demands a firm deadline for the completion of the US base relocation, as well as a plan for environmental clean-up, including clarification on how much it will cost and who will pay.

South Korea may become Entangled in US Quagmires

News about the combined division comes at a time when the United States is considering the deployment of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in South Korea.  Yonhap News reported earlier this month that the United States has concluded its survey of candidate sites for its missile system in South Korea and is likely to make a final decision before the US-South Korea Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), an annual bilateral defense ministers meeting, scheduled for October.

Blue House National Security Chief Kim Kwan-jin and White House Security Advisor Susan Rice, who met in Washington this past weekend, are said to have discused the issue of THAAD deployment in Korea, as well as the delay in transfer of wartime operational control (ops-con), ahead of next month’s SCM.

The creation of the combined division, along with THAAD deployment and delay in ops-con transfer, integrates the South Korean military deeper into US plans for hegemonic control in the region and further solidifies South Korea as a permanent US garrison.  The more South Korea becomes entangled in the US system, however, the harder it will be to extricate itself from US subordination and potential US quagmires in the future.