SEOUL – South Korea plans to build accommodations for U.S. servicemembers on one of the Yellow Sea islands near the disputed maritime border it shares with North Korea, but officials from both countries insist there are no plans to permanently station Americans there.
“The Republic of Korea is building a transient barracks for the (South Korean) Marine Corps on (Baengnyeong) Island for use during training or in a crisis,” U.S. Forces Korea spokesman Jason Chudy said Monday. “It could also be used as temporary billeting for any U.S. forces training with our (South Korean) counterparts on the island, which increases our readiness and strengthens our alliance.
“There is no plan for the permanent stationing of U.S. forces on the Northwest Islands,” he said.
Baengnyeong Island is west of Yeonpyeong Island, which almost a year ago was shelled by North Korea. That attack left four South Koreans dead – including two civilians — and prompted a series of changes aimed at making sure the South is better prepared to respond to any future provocations from the North.
In the wake of last year’s Yeonpyeong attack — and North Korea’s sinking of the warship Cheonan in the Yellow Sea, which killed 46 South Korean sailors —the South’s government and military officials were roundly criticized in the media for responding with little more than token resistance and rhetoric.
In the aftermath, the South Korean military was restructured with the creation of the Northwest Islands Defense Command, which reports directly to the chairman of the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and is tasked with defending the South’s five westernmost islands from attacks by the North.
The South Korean military said it also has increased its manpower, firepower and equipment on and around the islands. For example, helicopter hangars will reportedly be built on Baengnyeong Island to accommodate an undisclosed number of attack helicopters.
South Korean military officials said Monday that barracks capable of accommodating up to 160 U.S. servicemembers will be built on Baengnyeong, with a projected completion date of 2013.
“They … will live there when they come to the island for exercises,” a South Korea Ministry of National Defense official said. “They have stayed in tents in the past. If there are no drills, the South Korea Marine Corps will stay there.”
A variety of experts on the two Koreas have suggested in recent months that the Northwest Islands are a likely location of future military conflict between the North and South given their location and history.
The North has long disputed where the maritime border between the two countries was drawn in the wake of the Korean War, suggesting it should be farther to the south. In addition, the five westernmost islands are actually closer to the North Korean mainland than the South’s.
Adding to the potential for armed conflict is the new shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach being taken by the South Korean military on and around the islands.
That more-aggressive approach was on display June 17 when two South Korean marines mistakenly fired 99 rounds from a Byondong Island guard post at an Asiana Airlines plane enroute to landing at the South’s Incheon International Airport.
No one was injured in the incident, and the marines were not reprimanded for their actions because officials said they had followed the new rules of engagement.