Across Border From North Korea, A Visit To The Quiet Heart Of US Power In Asia

The largest US military base in Asia is Yongsan, in the South Korean capital. Long considered a plum and relatively safe posting, there is new uncertainty in the face of an untested new leader in North Korea, and growing US interest in containing China&am

A South Korean navy sailor and US army soldier at Yongsan (Joint Chief of Staff)
A South Korean navy sailor and US army soldier at Yongsan (Joint Chief of Staff)
Ilaria Maria Sala

SEOUL - Every Sunday, the soldiers of the American military base of Yongsan, in the South Korean capital, are authorized to trade in their uniforms for civilian clothes. On one such Sunday earlier this month, Sergeant Harding, who works at the base newspaper, The Morning Calm, was waiting in front of the gate in a holiday sweater studded with Christmas pins, one of which read "Free Hugs."

After a quick inspection at the checkpoint, we were admitted to the largest American base in Asia, which houses a total of 28,000 people, including 20,000 soldiers.

Yongsan was opened after the armistice that ended the Korean War (1950-1953), and split the peninsula into current archrivals North and South Korea.

While today the West sees China as an economic rather than a military rival, back in 1953, the Korean peninsula was militarized, the Cold War was gaining steam, and Yongsan was established to be the second largest American base in the world, as a deterrent against any eventual North Korean ambition to attack the South again.

Pyongyang is the capital of a nation that feels amputated, and survives pushing its people to believe that their weapons will help to reunify the entire peninsula.

On the other hand, South Korea lives in a sort of luxury limbo thanks to the US military presence and seems not to think too much about reunification. Its economy is strong and its popular culture is a force across Asia.

And so then, there is Yongsan: its gate is the border between Korea and a small American town. Inside the base, you find Starbucks, Burger King, and a poster announcing the forthcoming New Year's Eve party that will feature the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Not everyone at the base aspires to a 100% American life. Colonel Andrew Mutter, spokesman of the Eighth Army in South Korea, says that he enlisted "to see the world." Many soldiers at the base say that an assignment in Seoul is one of the best, given that the situation is relatively calm, and combat risk is low. "Not that North Korea is stable, but it is compared to the duration of the missions," explains Mutter.

Just a few Korean vegetables

Yongsan is a family-friendly base, which helps to keep the soldiers in good spirits and reduce troubles with local girls. There are schools, kindergartens, churches of various faiths, playgrounds, sport fields, a television station, a radio station, restaurants, movie theatres, shops, and grocery stores. "We are sponsored by the Congress," says Donald Bailey, director of the military store. "We sell only American goods. Only a small percentage of the vegetables are Korean." The store's shelves are lined with jars of peanut butter, cans of Coca-Cola, bags of Lays potato chips. Only U.S. dollars are accepted.

At the end of November, President Barack Obama announced the project to open a Marine base in Darwin, Australia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated on several occasions that the United States "is returning to Asia," to reflect major political and economic shifts across the globe.

In recent months, Clinton made a historic visit to Myanmar where she met Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and the United States reinforced its presence in Japan.

Analysts say Washington is reacting to growing Chinese power and leveraging the anxiety that the military strength of China is provoking in its neighboring countries. In Yongsan, there is little talk of geopolitical strategy. "I don't think, I execute," says a soldier. "We just follow the decisions made at the top." Says Colonel Mutter. "Our mission in South Korea is, ‘Deter aggression. Fight tonight."" Mutter adds: "Obviously we do this with the help of South Korean troops, which are the best I've ever served with. Disciplined. Well trained."

To oppose 1.2 million North Korean soldiers, Seoul has 655,000 men ready to fight and 300,000 reservists. For 61 years, the same standoff has persevered, and there are no indications that it is set to end.

As for Yongsan, the base will soon be moved to the center of Seoul, further south. The stability of North Korea, despite its isolation and economic troubles, depends on the military deterrent of South Korea. In the meantime, China keeps an eye on an American military in the region that is not-so-quietly growing stronger.

Read the original article in Italian

Photo - Joint Chief of Staff

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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