US military base in South Korea mired in corruption scandal
During the construction of Camp Humphreys, the largest US military base on foreign soil, a South Korean conglomerate is reported to have paid nearly $3 million in bribes in order to gain lucrative contracts.
The expansion of Camp Humphreys in South Korea is one of the most extensive construction projects in the history of the US military. After its expected completion in 2020, the base, located 70 kilometers (40 miles) south of Seoul, will be the largest overseas US military installation in the world.
Humphreys will eventually be home for up to 42,000 US military personnel, and a small piece of America is being constructed there so they won't get homesick. These comforts of home include dozens of US fast-food chains, a golf course, water park and a football stadium.
Under a US-South Korea defense deal known as the "Special Measures Agreement," South Korea is paying the majority of the $11 billion (9.2 billion euros) cost of Humphreys' expansion. It is a potential goldmine for South Korean development firms, and it was recently revealed that a major South Korean development group paid a former US Army official for access to lucrative contracts.
On Friday, South Korean prosecutors in Seoul raided the offices of SK Engineering and Construction, an affiliate of South Korea's third largest conglomerate SK Group. They collected hard drives and documents with information on SK's construction contracts at Humphreys in connection with their investigation.
SK has constructed multiple buildings on the base, along with building road, water and power networks.
According the US Department of Justice, between 2008 and 2012, Duane Nishiie, at the time a contracting officer for the US Army Corps of Engineers, and a former Korean Ministry of Defense official, Seung-Ju Lee, were charged with multiple crimes related to directing over $400 million (337 million euros) worth of contracts to SK in exchange for $3 million (2.5 million euros) in bribes. Prosecutors accuse the two of concealing the funds in bank accounts run by Lee.
Nishiie left the army in 2012 to become a lobbyist seeking US defense contracts. Both Nishiie and Lee were indicted in September 2017.
The Humphreys corruption case is just the latest case to hit SK in recent years. In 2013, SK Chairman Chey Tae Won spent two years in jail for embezzling over 45 billion won ($42.24 million, 35.5 million euros). After his release in 2015, he was put back in control of SK.
In early June 2017, North Korea test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time. Testing an ICBM marked a major military achievement for Pyongyang and a serious escalation of tensions with the United States and its allies in the region, particularly South Korea and Japan.
Trouble with warheads
At the time, defense experts said the ICBM could reach as far as the US states of Alaska and Hawaii. However, it was unclear if North Korea can field an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead on its cone that could survive reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. North Korean state media claimed the ICBM was capable of carrying a "large, heavy nuclear warhead" to any part of the United States.
Pyongyang's nuclear tests - six times and counting
The ICBM is believed to be a step forward in the North's nuclear program. Despite pressure from the international community, Pyongyang has made no secret of its nuclear ambitions. Alongside its ritual ballistic missile tests, North Korea has conducted nuclear tests on at least six occasions, including one in September 2017.
US running out of patience?
Responding to the first ICBM test with a show of force, the US and South Korean troops on conducted "deep strike" precision missile drills using Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and the Republic of Korea's Hyunmoo Missile II. In April, the US sent its Carl Vinson aircraft carrier towards the Korean Peninsula, saying it was taking prudent measures against the North.
Testing the boundaries
Ignoring international condemnation, Pyongyang test-launched another rocket on July 28, 2017, just weeks after its first ICBM test. In both of the tests, North Korea used Hwasong-14 missile, but the second one reached a higher altitude and traveled a larger distance than the first one, according to the state media.
Whole of US within range?
Pyongyang conducted its third test November 29, using a newly developed Hwasong-15 missile. US, Japanese and South Korean officials said it rose to about 4,500 km (2,800 miles) and flew 960 kilometers (600 miles) over about 50 minutes before landing in Japan's exclusive economic zone off the country's coast.
One of the world's largest militaries
Apart from a developing missile and nuclear program, North Korea has a powerful army with 700,000 active troops and another 4.5 million in the reserves. It can call upon almost a quarter of its population to serve in the army at any given time. The North's bloated army is believed to outnumber its southern neighbor's by two-to-one.
According to the 2017 Global Firepower Index, the North has, as part of a far-reaching arsenal, 458 fighter aircraft, 5,025 combat tanks, 76 submarines, and 5,200,000 total military personnel. The picture above from 2013 shows leader Kim Jong Un ordering strategic rocket forces to be on standby to strike US and South Korean targets at any time.
Enemies all around
Alongside the United States, Pyongyang views its neighbors South Korea and Japan as its two other main enemies. North Korea has used US military exercises in the region as means of galvanizing its people, claiming that the exercises are dress rehearsals for an impending invasion.
Huge, colorful demonstrations of military might
Every year, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and citizens roll through the streets of the capital Pyongyang to take part in the North's military parades. Preparations for the rallies often begin months in advance, and the parades usually mark important anniversaries linked with the Communist Party or Kim Jong Un's family.
US unwanted guests?
The US military has around 28,500 personal stationed in South Korea. The US is currently in the process of a historical move. After decades, the US base Yongsan in the heart of Seoul is being closed. While serving as a more attractive location for US military, Camp Humphreys is also not in direct range of conventional North Korean artillery.
But the US military presence in South Korea is a constant source of tension. Aside from the costs to taxpayers, the massive transfer of troops has had environmental consequences. On Wednesday, an environmental report was published that revealed heavy pollution of groundwater near the base at Yongsan. A test identified a level of the carcinogen Benzol, 700 times the accepted limit.
The heated rhetoric between US President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has also put a spotlight on the US military's presence in South Korea. Trump's fighting words and the installation of THAAD missiles has agitated many South Koreans, and there have been massive protests in recent months.
According to the Diplomat, the US Army refers to Humphreys as "the largest power projection platform in the Pacific."
If the SK bribery scandal will affect the continued expansion of Humphreys remains to be seen. But it is clear that no matter who puts up the money for buildings, the US military will be in South Korea for the foreseeable future.