Caught in the crossfire
By Sgt. Maj. (Ret) George S. Kulas
North Korea may not yet have the capability to deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere but it still may be suicidal enough to attack South Korea starting a conventional war on the peninsula. Such an attack, in its initial stages, would inflict a great amount of damage to South Korea.
If the North were to attack tens of thousands of American civilians (noncombatants), including military dependents residing in and around the capital city of Seoul, could very well be caught in the crossfire. A major dilemma for the U.S. is how to keep these Americans safe and/or evacuate them in the event of war.
Seoul is just 35 miles from the border, well within range of over 12,000 North Korean artillery guns which they have already positioned to strike from dug-in and well camouflaged positions. It's estimated that the North has the capability to fire, using rocket assisted projectiles, 500,000 rounds of both mortar ammunition and chemical weapons on Seoul in just the first hour of hostilities.
According to a recent simulation Seoul, with a population of 10 million and the 4th largest metropolitan economy in the world, would suffer 100,000 casualties in just the first few days of a conventional conflict. Many of these casualties could very well be American civilians.
For years the U.S. military highly discouraged dependents from accompanying military members on tours to South Korea. Most military personnel stationed in South Korea are there on unaccompanied (non-command sponsored) one year tours in which any dependents a military member decides to bring into country are not authorized government transportation to and from South Korea. These dependents also are not authorized government housing and are spread out to where they can find places to live in either Seoul or among the locals in South Korean towns and villages. In the past, having to fend for themselves, they were not even allowed access to military commissaries and post exchanges.
However, command sponsored dependents of military personnel serving longer tours have always been authorized transportation, government housing and access to all military facilities.
Even though, according to some strategists, tensions are higher now between North and South Korea than any time since the armistice the military is planning on allowing thousands more command sponsored dependents in-country.
Currently there are approximately 28,500 American military personnel stationed in South Korea. Between 2008 and 2010 the number of troops with command sponsored families rose from 1,800 to 4,500, where it is today. Plans are to raise this number by 2016 to 12,000 when the U.S. moves its troops farther South from Seoul.
With so many American civilian noncombatants in country the military has an escape plan named Noncombatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) for these civilians to evacuate the country in the event of hostilities. But certainly such a plan would be a difficult undertaking in a combat environment.
If hostilities do break out between the North and the South our military members will need to put all their efforts into their assigned duties. No doubt having spouses and children of some military personnel trapped in-country while combat operations are underway could be very detrimental to those military member's ability to concentrate on the mission at hand.
Hopefully, if and when hostilities in South Korea seem to be imminent, families of our military personnel stationed there and the tens of thousands of other American noncombatants in-country can successfully be evacuated before the first shot is fired. The trick may very well be in recognizing when "imminent" is for real.
George S. Kulas served as a Sergeant Major in the U.S. Army before he retired.