Elisabeth Schober’s new book Base Encounters: The US Armed Forces in South Korea is published this month. She is currently conducting anthropological fieldwork in South Korea, and sends us this dispatch, which explores the effects of violence, sexual or otherwise, that occurs around the extensive network of US military bases in the region.
The Korean peninsula has made it into international news again. Once Kim Jong Un’s regime threatened to destroy Manhattan with a hydrogen bomb on March 13 of this year, the annual Western media ritual of shining a brief light onto the complex and long-standing conflict between North and South Korea has fully kicked into gear. In early April, North Koreans added fuel to the fire by releasing another propaganda video, this time showing an attack on South Korea’s capital Seoul. A North Korean assault targeting US soil is a most improbable scenario, given the country’s absence of long-range missile capabilities. Strikes against the mega-city of Seoul, however, are within the realm of the highly unlikely, yet technically possible, events: the capital of South Korea, home to some 25 million people within its larger metropolitan area, is less than 60 kilometers away from the border with North Korea, thus well within reach of its opponent’s missiles.
Without fail, every year it is early spring that turns out to be prime time for such threats of annihilation and destruction coming from Pyongyang against Seoul and its Unites States allies. One of the reasons behind the timing of such war-crazed rhetoric from the North is at times overlooked: the annual joint military drills involving US and South Korean troops. This year’s exercises began on March 7 and will continue until the end of April, and with 300,000 Koreans joining 17,000 US military personnel, the ongoing drills are said to be the largest ever held. And while these megalomaniac displays of military might are certainly a reaction to nuclear and other missile tests conducted by the belligerent Democratic Republic of Korea on a semi-regular basis, they are also a key component of what US president Barrack Obama has termed the ‘pivot to Asia’: that is, the ongoing large-scale ‘rebalancing’ of US political and military interests away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific region, where China’s military rise is now to be held in check. This April, for instance, also sees an additional 10,000 Philippine and US troops joining forces in the annually held Balikatan-exercises on the Philippine archipelago. And last month, the U.S., India and Japan have also announced that they will hold joint naval drills in the South China Sea in the near future – a strategic area that, together with the Korean peninsula, is increasingly becoming a hotspot for the ongoing struggles over military hegemony in the larger region.