While U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wage an escalating war of words over Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program, the U.S. military is quietly transforming its forces on the Korean Peninsula, boosting their ability to defend against an attack from the North.
The centerpiece of the transformation is a sprawling new installation south of Seoul, where the majority of the roughly 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea are based, or soon will be. Camp Humphreys, 50 miles south of Seoul, is an American fortress on the Korean Peninsula—and the key to U.S. war plans.
In the case of open conflict with the North, Camp Humphreys “would enable the rapid deployment of augmenting U.S. forces to the [Korean military] and their expeditious projection to the forward area,” wrote Won Gon Park, an analyst for the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (PDF).
By air and road, U.S. troops would stream from Humphreys to the front line. Meanwhile, potentially hundreds of thousands of American and allied reinforcements would flow to the base before departing for the front. Gathering senior leaders at Humphreys should help to streamline wartime planning, Dr. Bruce Bennett, an analyst with the RAND Corporation, told The Daily Beast. “If you’re strewn out all over the peninsula, it’s hard to have a classified conversation.”
As recently as 2003, U.S. forces in South Korea were scattered across 174 bases. Arguably the most problematic was the Army garrison at Yongsan in Seoul, a fast-growing city of 10 million that lies just 30 miles from the border with North Korea—well within range of Pyongyang’s heavy artillery.
To escape urban congestion and reduce the garrison’s vulnerability to artillery, in 2004 the Pentagon brokered a deal with the South Korean government to expand Camp Humphreys—then a modest-size outpost—and concentrate U.S. troops and their families there. The military aims to cut its installations in South Korea nearly in half to just 96 by 2020.
The $11-billion expansion is nearly complete. A veterinary clinic, a dental clinic, and a food court opened in October. Camp Humphreys boasts new headquarters buildings, an airstrip, firing ranges, barracks, motor pools, communications facilities, schools, day cares, retail stores, several churches, and even a golf course.
At 3,500 acres, Humphreys is as big as a small city. The military projects the camp could soon house 36,000 troops, dependents, and civilian contractors.
The base is just a few miles from Pyeongtaek harbor and equally close to Osan air base, streamlining the flow of the reinforcements by sea and air. “The greatest utility of Camp Humphreys comes from the seamless employment of joint forces during contingencies thanks to the collocation of ground, naval and air forces’ installations,” Won wrote.
The ability to quickly ship in additional troops and their vehicles has become more important in the last year. The Army used to keep hundreds of tanks and other vehicles in storage in South Korea. If war broke out, several thousand soldiers from a U.S.-based brigade would leave behind their usual equipment and rush to the peninsula to activate the stored vehicles.
But the Pentagon decided it wanted to quickly expand its tank force without waiting for new vehicles to roll out of factories. In 2016, it shipped the stored vehicles to a base in Georgia and matched them up with an existing infantry brigade.
Now that unit has joined with other brigades taking turns deploying—tanks and all—to South Korea to bolster U.S. forces on the peninsula. Increasingly, the visiting troops pass through Camp Humphreys. “Even though we’re not on a war footing, so to speak, the operational tempo remains high,” Col. Patrick Seiber, an Army spokesman, told The Daily Beast.
But there’s a downside to concentrating so much military power at one facility. While Camp Humphreys is beyond range of North Korea’s cannon artillery, it’s still within range of the North’s rockets. Pyongyang recently named the base as its number one target. “Wherever you create a high-value target, you tempt the enemy to strike that,” Bennett explained.
Humphreys isn’t defenseless against rockets. The Army keeps Patriot air-defense missiles at nearby Osan air base. The ground-combat branch also stations long-range Terminal High-Altitude Air-Defense missiles around 100 miles south of the camp. At any sign of a major North Korean mobilization, the U.S. military plans to fly civilians off the peninsula and disperse combat units into the countryside.
Ironically, Camp Humphreys’ growing importance could raise the strategic stakes on the Korean Peninsula. In a recent op-ed, Bennett recommended that the United States respond with overwhelming force to any attack on the base. “North Korea should understand that if it does target Camp Humphreys, the United States may well respond by targeting the North Korean regime leaders.”