South Korea’s excessive militarisation could do untold damage to the environment

By Harri Thomas


SOUTH Korean film director Bong Joon-ho made history last year when his film Parasite became the first non-English-language production to win the Best Picture Oscar. 

But less known outside of South Korea is his 2006 disaster movie, The Host, an eerily prescient fable for events that unfolded around the world last year.  

In The Host’s opening scene, an American military pathologist orders his Korean assistant to dump bottles of formaldehyde into a drain leading into the Han river, Seoul’s major artery, creating a largely unseen serpentine monster which infects people with a dehumanising killer illness. The story was inspired by an admission of chemical dumping by the American military in 2000.

South Korea, not unlike its northern neighbour, is still a highly militarised state. The environmental cost of this has long been overlooked by the US and national military. 

Yoon Sanghoon, Secretary-General of Green Korea United, an environmental think tank told Redaction Politics: “It’s common sense for polluters to remediate and pay clean-up costs for what they did.

“However, the US, throughout its 75-year deployment, has never cleaned up or paid costs for polluted soil, groundwater or chemical contamination.”

Of course, this isn’t a problem restricted to South Korea or the US military, but the concentration of military forces has shone a light on a previously hidden issue.  

Despite being the 27th largest country in the world in terms of population, South Korea’s military spending is the 10th highest in the world and has grown by 36 per cent in real terms over the last decade. 

More than 12 per cent of the government budget goes to the military, which is higher than the UK (4.5 per cent), US (9.4 per cent), and even Russia (11.4 per cent). The arms export market has ballooned, with sales increasing by 143 per cent from the period 2010–2014 to 2015–2019, taking it into the top ten of global arms exporters for the first time.

Added to the half a million-plus conscripts and volunteers (all men have to serve at least 18 months) that make up the active military, there are about 28,500 American troops on South Korean soil. This is the third-largest US deployment after those in Japan and Germany. 

The US has had a significant military presence on the peninsular since the Korean War (1950–53), but a major reorganisation has been underway in recent years. 

Many of the 80 US military bases have now closed – including the former headquarters at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul – and troops centralised into two major hubs: Camp Walker, next to the south-eastern city of Daegu; and Camp Humphreys, close to the city of Pyeongtaek, a 90-minute drive south of the capital.

When fully operational in 2022, the $10.8bn Camp Humphreys is set to be America’s largest overseas military base. 

Bruce W. Bennett, a defence expert at the RAND Corporation, highlighted a couple of problems with the new basing structure from a security perspective. 

Firstly, weakened communication between allies. 

Bennett told Redaction Politics: “When we were in Yongsan, up in Seoul, you had South Korean and American officers sitting side-by-side, every day, constantly talking, sharing information, sharing concepts.

“That doesn’t happen as much anymore and it’s just a lot more difficult. it doesn’t keep the alliance as close.”

And secondly, the target that Camp Humphreys presents to America’s and South Korea’s adversaries.

Bennet said: “We know North Korea has made Camp Humphreys target number one. 

“One nuclear weapon the size of the sixth nuclear test put off over Camp Humphreys will probably kill or seriously injure 30-plus-thousand people.”

But the reorganisation has exposed a more insidious risk. That of decades-long environmental pollution caused by the military, posing a danger to both public health and wildlife.  

Various harmful carcinogens, including petroleum-based total hydrocarbons (TPH), benzene, phenol, arsenic, and lead have all been found in soil and groundwater contamination in and around current and former military bases. In 2018, parts of one base were found to be contaminated with dioxin, a highly toxic chemical compound, at 10 times the legally acceptable standard.

But it’s still not clear who is going to deal with this.

However, a US State Department spokesperson said: “All United States Forces Korea (USFK) installation transfers to the Republic of Korea (ROK) government are done in accordance with Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) procedures as agreed to by the Alliance.

“Any installations returned to and accepted by the ROK government have been assessed by USFK as completed within the terms of the SOFA, and there is no further action required by USFK.”

The Korean Embassy in the UK was also contacted for comment.

Yoon said: “We understand security is for people to live peacefully together. Based on that notion, security that causes detrimental effects to the ecosystem is not genuine security.”

Director Bong foresaw this 15 years ago: a mysterious killer emerging as a result of reckless ecological abuse. The Host was a warning. 

This article was updated on March 4, 2021 to include the US State Department comment.


Featured Image: Pixabay

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