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