BASE ENCOUNTERS: The US Armed Forces in South Korea

Citation metadata

Author: Grace M. Cho
Date: June 2018
From: Pacific Affairs(Vol. 91, Issue 2)
Publisher: The University of British Columbia - Pacific Affairs
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,046 words
Lexile Measure: 1610L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

BASE ENCOUNTERS: The US Armed Forces in South Korea. Anthropology, Culture and Society. By Elisabeth Schober. London: Pluto Press, 2016. xv, 214 pp. (Maps, B&W photos.) US$34.00, paper. ISBN 978-0-7453-3605-3.

In July 2007, I travelled with a group of Korean Americans to Pyeongtaek, South Korea to meet with a group of elderly farmers that had been displaced by the expansion of Camp Humphreys, a nearby US military base. Prior to the meeting, one of the activists who had fought alongside the elders to protest the seizure of their ancestral lands gave us her perspective of the problems of US militarism: not only was South Korean sovereignty foreclosed by the permanence of troops on the peninsula and the consolidation of bases, but American soldiers were no longer confined to the areas around the bases. Thanks to the extension of Seoul's mass transit, these rowdy Americans were territorializing Korean land in new ways, bringing crime and delinquency with them.

This activist's statement captures the political backdrop against which Elisabeth Schober sets her anthropological exploration of the frictions between the American military and South Korean civilians since the 1990s. Drawing on the work of scholars who study the US military empire, such as Katharine Moon, Cynthia Enloe, Catherine Lutz, and Seungsook Moon, Schober provides an excellent overview of the ways in which the neocolonial relationship between the US and South Korea has affected local women, as well as the history of South Korea as a quintessentially militarized capitalist society. Through the concept of "violent imaginaries" she shows that South Korea's subordination to the US is at once real and imagined.

Framing her analysis through Marshall Sahlins' notion of "structural amplification," the metamorphosis of an individual act into the symbol of a structural problem, she focuses on several high-profile incidents involving US troops, such as the infamous 1992 murder of a sex worker named Yun Kum-i by one of her soldier-clients, the 2002 vehicular killing of two schoolgirls by an American military tank, and the 2007 rape of a 67-year-old woman by an American soldier carousing in the Seoul neighbourhood of Hongdae. In each case, the images of the crimes were heavily mediated and deployed by the "nationalist left" in an attempt to reclaim Korean territory. Schober argues that these images then took on a collective psychic life beyond the incidents themselves, and violent imaginaries became an everyday social practice among South Koreans. In one particularly memorable example, Schober shares an anecdote of a school teacher recounting the gruesome details of Yun's murder to a class of ten-year-old students. The result of this social practice has been that "the contentious figure of the violent U.S. soldier will not go away" (9).

At the centre of this "violent imaginary" is a triad that involves a criminal soldier, a female victim, and a place of ill repute. Schober looks at three such places: the camptown, or "ville," surrounding the US base, the entertainment district of Itaewon (previously the only neighbourhood in Seoul that drew American soldiers), and Hongdae, an artsy, left-leaning college neighbourhood that has been undergoing rapid commercialization and is now a popular destination for Americans. In each locale, Schober exposes the tensions not only between Koreans and Americans, but also between the simple narrative of the predatory American soldier versus the hapless female victim and the more complex dynamic in which the actors are, in some ways, similarly situated. The soldiers and camptown women are both workers in a militarized global labour market; American soldiers and Korean women are both seeking a good time when partying together in Hongdae.

The chapter on Hongdae was the most illuminating one for me. It shows how the expansion of Seoul's subway system, combined with Hongdae as a party destination, has provoked old anxieties about foreign contamination and the need to control and contain it. While conservative Koreans had always blamed the liberal climate of Hongdae on corrupting foreign influences, the arrival of American soldiers on the scene raised public concerns to a new and hysterical level. The derogatory term "yanggongju" (Western princess), which had previously referred to camptown sex workers, began to be used against the women who partied with Americans outside the context of either commercial sex or the military base. In this chapter, as well as in the chapter on Itaewon, we also see multiplicity in spaces that attract foreigners, and therefore, the possibility for unlikely alliances.

One area of Schober's analysis that is under-researched, however, is the relationship between different South Korean protest movements. Schober assumes that anti-American base activists do not also critique the South Korean government, as she characterizes Hongdae punks as "exceptional in that they are strongly concerned with how to circumvent, contest, and subvert both home-grown and foreign forms of militarism" (169). The anti-base movement has had a strong alliance with the labour movement, which was actively involved in the struggle against Camp Humphreys' expansion. Although the brutal and tragic deaths of Korean civilians at the hands of US soldiers sparked anti-American protests, as Schober correctly noted, there is a deeper protest culture among South Koreans that is often directed at their own government, as evidenced by the massive and sustained protests leading up to the ouster of Park Geun-hye in 2017.

Also, rather than characterize the perception of Americans as having suddenly shifted in the 1990s, it's more accurate to say that South Korean sentiments towards the US military presence are, and always have been, ambivalent. While 1992 was a watershed moment, the image of the murderous American soldier has been part of the Korean imaginary since the Korean War, albeit far less mediated, and the disdain for American foreignness dates back to the inception of the South Korean nation, when Syngman Rhee created social policies designed to exclude half-American children and their Korean mothers from civil society.

Base Encounters is an important addition to the literature on US military bases in Korea in that it significantly updates the previous research to include issues of transnational labour in South Korea's militarized sex industry, and it looks at new "place-making projects" in urban entertainment districts, in which American soldiers are just one set of many actors.


College of Staten Island, New York, USA

Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A581025172