US military in Korea poised to conduct evacuation if called on
SEOUL — Should hostilities ever resume on the peninsula, U.S. military officials say one of the first orders of business probably would be to coordinate an evacuation from South Korea of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans and other foreign nationals.
Just don’t expect the massive undertaking to run like clockwork, they warn, especially if the operation is conducted while missiles are flying and tanks are rolling.
“Is it going to be perfect? No,” Eighth Army noncombatant evacuation operations action officer Capt. Jackie Johnson said. “So, do we expect to get publicly embarrassed a little bit? Oh yeah, because we always do. But we’re gong to do the best we can, and we’ve got a plan to do it.”
A long-scheduled U.S. Forces Korea exercise to practice evacuating noncombatants was supposed to start Thursday and run through this weekend. But the annual Courageous Channel drill was cancelled earlier this week “to avoid the appearance that it was scheduled in response to the March sinking of a South Korean warship or the subsequent investigation,” USFK said in a statement Tuesday.
Eighth Army spokesman Lt. Col. Jeff Buczkowski said moving American civilians and others off the peninsula in a real emergency “would dwarf any previous evacuation,” and those in charge would be prepared to expect the unexpected.
“If we plan on using a certain train, and they blow that train up, then we have to use another one,” he said during a briefing with a Stars and Stripes reporter who was going to participate in the cancelled drill that would have involved as many as 10,000 American civilians.
Most would have been given an idea of how their paperwork would have been processed at designated assembly points or evacuation control centers, but a small number of volunteers would have been taken all the way to Japan by boat as part of the dress rehearsal.
U.S. military officials said actual evacuations could be ordered due to natural disasters, rising tensions, political instability or the resumption of hostilities with the North. They said any evacuation would be ordered by the U.S. Embassy in South Korea and could range from a “voluntary departure” to a full-scale evacuation coordinated by the Department of Defense.
There have been about 15 such State Department directed evacuations around the world over the past 60 years, the most recent being from Haiti earlier this year in the wake of a devastating earthquake there. In 2006, about 15,000 U.S. citizens were evacuated from Lebanon due to violence there. In 2004, heightening fears of terrorist attacks led to the evacuation about 650 Americans from Bahrain.
Despite recurring tensions between the two Koreas, American citizens have not been evacuated here since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.
There are about 109,000 U.S. government and private civilians living in South Korea, and nearly 44,000 people from a half-dozen countries have evacuation agreements with the U.S., according to government figures.
“But, if something happened, more could jump on the bandwagon” and ask the U.S. for help evacuating its citizens, Buczkowski said.
“All of a sudden we could find ourselves with an additional 50,000 people from somewhere else. It could grow … (and) it‘s a huge operation already.”
In the event of a full-scale evacuation, officials said, people would be directed to assembly points and evacuation control centers, where they would have to prove through the appropriate paperwork that they are eligible for evacuation off the peninsula.
They would then be taken to relocation centers primarily located in the southern region of South Korea, where they would await transfer to a seaport or airport and a ship or airplane to take them ultimately to one of 16 repatriation centers in the U.S. or their home country.
Those evacuated would be subject to baggage weight restrictions, and they would be told to expect to endure days living under “austere conditions,” officials said.
“We can’t promise we’re going to put them up in the Hilton,” Johnson said. “It may be on a cot in a tent.”
Getting evacuees from one point to the next will be the wild card, officials said.
South Korean authorities have plans for keeping roads clear and using the nation’s train systems to move people during a crisis. And, the U.S. military has standing contracts with private companies to provide air and sea transportation in the event of emergency.
“That really is one of the constraints — the number of ships and planes,” Buczkowski said. “If we had unlimited resources, we would put (the evacuees) on as soon as they got there. But, we don’t have ferries standing by just in case.”
“We hope for the best and plan for the worst,” Johnson said.