This post is a guest contribution from H.A. For professional reasons, the writer is using a pseudonym.
The Pentagon is responsible for a few million people, so it’s understandable if they fail to account for some of those people some of the time. However, according to staff in the Statistical Information Analysis Division of the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC), the Department of Defense has refrained from publishing even an estimate in its quarterly 309A reports of how many military personnel are in South Korea due to “sensitive and political reasons.” As stated on its website, DMDC is “the Department of Defense’s human resource information source” and “the authoritative source of information” on people in DoD. So, it’s odd that since March 2009, DMDC has simply reported zero for South Korea, with the comment “figures not available.”
While relatively simple tasks, such as counting up the number of employees, can become complex in extremely large organizations, in the Pentagon they can become political as well. The DMDC states that there had been complaints that DMDC was inaccurately reporting the total personnel in South Korea by a number of thousands. The critics requested that the number either be changed to what they claimed was the correct number or not be reported at all. DMDC chose the latter, perhaps because they were unwilling to conform to a figure they believed to be incorrect. They now report their number for South Korea within the “Undistributed” category, which is for personnel in a transient status or in classified locations. More than 10 percent (167,343) of active duty personnel are now listed in “Undistributed,” up from 3,690 in September 2001.
Media and organizations such as the Congressional Research Service use the number 28,500 for military personnel in South Korea, which is likely too high. In late 2004, the United States and South Korea agreed to reduce U.S. forces by 12,500 to 25,000 by the end of 2008. Subsequent DMDC reports reflect this policy, and, by March 2008, DMDC reported the number of personnel at 26,339. However, in April 2008, the two countries agreed to pause the drawdown at 28,500, a number that referred to the available “slots” for U.S. Forces Korea (USFK). Since then, Korean and U.S. media have repeated the 28,500 number. Nonetheless, DMDC reported continued declines through the end of 2008. In its last reported count (December 2008), before the line was mysteriously zeroed out, DMDC listed 24,655 military personnel in South Korea. So, what could explain the dispute over the numbers?
One possibility is that DoD deployed personnel from USFK to the Iraq or Afghanistan theaters and didn’t want them counted in South Korea. But throughout 2008, DMDC lists that figure for South Korea as 100, not enough to account for the supposed discrepancy of thousands. Another possibility is that it was a simple disagreement over the most accurate number, and DMDC decided it wasn’t worth the bureaucratic hassle to fix it. A less charitable explanation is that USFK doesn’t want the Koreans to know how many troops are there. During discussions in 2008 that led to the latest Special Measures Agreement, which outlines Korean burden-sharing requirements, Seoul officials complained that USFK was shortchanging South Korea’s contribution, but couldn’t get the data to prove it. “We can’t calculate the proportion exactly because the USFK refuses to reveal total costs for stationing its troops here,” said one official.
Whatever the reason for cloaking the number of personnel in Korea, it is indicative of the obstacles that impede full understanding of the cost of U.S. deployments around the world. Such was on display at a congressional hearing in July 2010 of the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Chairman John Tierney asked the expert witnesses, “Can any of you tell me the number of bases that the United States has overseas and consequently the number of military personnel that we have in those bases?” Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives offered an estimate of 873 bases and over 350,000 personnel overseas. The other witnesses, admitting they didn’t know, deferred to Conetta’s numbers. In response, Chairman Tierney said he asked because he had already requested those numbers from the Pentagon, and “they don’t have them. … It makes you wonder how they can budget and control for those people in those bases and those materials that are in all of those places.”
In the end, no matter how many military personnel are in South Korea, the real mystery is why they’re there at all. As fiscal pressures mount, perhaps those troops will come home and we won’t have to wonder how DoD budgets for people they can’t count. But don’t hold your breath.