It looks like the Korean left is upset because USFK sent a small unit of servicemembers to participate in the Yama Sakura exercise in Japan that concluded last week:
United States Forces Korea are for the first time carrying out joint exercises with United States Forces Japan and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. USFJ and Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces are currently engaged in Yama Sakura joint military exercises, which last from January 24 to February 5. Yama Sakura is an annual exercise conducted with the United States Army Pacific, USFJ and JGSDF; this year, the Eighth United States Army, which is stationed in South Korea, will join the exercise for the first time.
On Friday, the Asahi Shimbun reported that 150 troops from the Eighth US Army were taking part in joint exercises in places such as the JGSDF base in Itami, Hyogo Prefecture, from January 24. Earlier, in a press release issued on January, the Eighth US Army explained its role in the exercise, saying that it would “serv[e] the role as higher command for participating U.S. Forces.”
The reason the joint exercise between USFK, USFJ and SDF is drawing attention is its connection to the increasing of so-called “strategic flexibility,” which allows USFK to be deployed in other conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region in times of emergency. The US has been engaged in a project to merge its bases in South Korea and gather them in Pyeongtaek, in order to reorganize the USFK from a mere occupying force to an all-round expedition force. In March last year, it temporarily transferred 500 troops from the Second Infantry Division to the Philippines to take part in the “Balikatan” exercise.
This series of measures by the US is being taken with China in mind. Last year, the US Army announced plans to station 2,500 marines in Darwin, northern Australia, and deploy a top-of-the-line warship in Singapore. Earlier, it strengthened cooperation with Vietnam, sending warships to Cam Ranh Bay for the first time since its defeat in the Vietnam War in 1975, It has recently been holding discussions with authorities in the Philippines to increase its military presence there for the first time in more than 20 years. The US’s recent policy of slashing defense spending, too, sends an advance warning that “strategic flexibility” of USFK is to become a reality.
The current exercise demonstrates that the character of USFK is changing. Accordingly, the importance of the Pyeongtaek base, the closest base to Beijing, will continue to increase. Another reason the Yama Sakura exercise is drawing attention is that one of the participants is Japan’s SDF. Japan has been trying to strengthen the defensive alliance between itself, South Korea and the US, citing the threat of North Korea. The South Korean government has responded half-heartedly. Korean public sentiment is one thing, but there are dangerous aspects to increasing military ties with Japan from a military strategic point of view, too. The US is not in a position where it can keep ignoring Japan’s wishes. The Japanese government’s release of images of the joint exercise to the media on Thursday is not something to be overlooked either. Japanese media showed interest in talks held between South Korean, US and Japanese vice-defense ministers from January 30-31, but Korea’s Ministry of National Defense played down their significance.
Korea, in addition to striking a balance between the US and China, has been lumbered with the additional burden of maintaining an appropriate military relationship with Japan. [Hankyoreh via the Marmot's Hole]
Here is a note to the Hankyoreh and the Korean left, strategic flexibility of USFK is already a reality and has been for a few years since the 2nd Brigade 2ID was deployed off the peninsula to Iraq in 2004. USFK has also deployed forces to assist with natural disasters such as with the aftermath of the Asian Tsunami in 2005. Other units have participated in deployments and exercises off the peninsula as well over the past few years. However, with only one combat brigade on the peninsula there isn’t a whole lot of combat power on the peninsula to draw from even if the Pentagon wanted to more freely use forces stationed in South Korea. When the Korean left talks “strategic flexibility” they are just trying to continue the narrative that the US wants to use forces stationed in Korea to attack China with and draw South Korea into a war with China.