SEOUL — In a country where the U.S. military lives by the motto “ready to fight tonight,” the families of servicemembers in South Korea are asked always to be prepared to take flight at very short notice.
It is one of the realities of living in the shadow of North Korea, a country with a history of provocations and unpredictable behavior.
Therefore, all U.S. military families, Department of Defense civilians and contractors here are required to take part in the annual “Courageous Channel” noncombatant evacuation operation exercises. During this week’s NEO exercise, more than 20,000 were expected to go through the motions of how they would be processed off the peninsula in the event of hostilities with North Korea.
“The intent is to try and make this as smooth (a process) as possible, understanding that it would be different if this was an actual event,” 8th Army spokesman Lt. Col. Michael Sennett said.
Officials recognize the evacuation from South Korea of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans and citizens of friendly nations in advance of an attack from the North would be complicated, Eighth Army NEO planner Andrew Kim said.
“We all recognize it’s a very difficult mission,” he said.
“That’s why we rehearse these things,” Sennett said.
Officials dismissed the suggestion that the annual evacuation exercise itself might frighten U.S. military families stationed here.
“They’re certainly aware there’s a threat from North Korea, but I enjoy living in Korea and I think a lot of the soldiers and their families do as well,” Kim said. “I don’t think it’s a deterrent to (wanting to be) assigned here.
“It’s just part of being here and being prepared,” he said.
As Amanda Landrum prepared Thursday to go through the evacuation exercise at Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu with her family, she said she found the evacuation practice comforting.
“I think that it is a little reassuring that they have a plan for us in case we needed to leave,” she said.
During this week’s exercise, dependents were required to show up at “evacuation control centers” at a number of bases to have their NEO packets reviewed and make sure they have all the necessary paperwork to get them off the peninsula in the event of a U.S. State Department-ordered evacuation.
In an actual evacuation, dependents would then be taken to predetermined areas across the peninsula to wait for transportation out of the country.
There are 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, along with more than 100,000 other American citizens.
Kim said that in planning for a possible evacuation, “We really don’t know who we’d have to evacuate … (but) our planning figure is 220,000.”
The biggest challenge, he said, that has been demonstrated by the annual exercise is communication – “Getting the information out … What they need to know. What they need to bring. What’s in the NEO packet.”
Nevertheless, Kim said, the exercise benefits all involved.
“(It’s) basically a rehearsal in the event that an actual evacuation has to happen. The second thing is for them to have that confidence in our soliders … assisting them through the process.
“Granted, it’s not chaotic like it would be in a real world situation,” Kim said. “But, for them to actually see, ‘O.K. there’s a plan, our soldiers have prepared’ … so it gives them some kind of confidence that in the event of an actual evacuation, as long as they’re ready, the soldiers are ready as well.”