Blackwater controversy raises concerns for United States, South Korea

By Dr. Arthur I. Cyr, Special to The China Post

Blackwater is bad news, currently quite literally. The firm, established in 1997, has evolved into one of the most prominent — and profitable — of a growing array of sizable corporations that provide military services, including firepower. The current controversy results from allegations that personnel opened fire and killed civilians in Iraq without defensible provocation.

The Iraq government responded by banning the firm from further operations in the country. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly apologized for the incident,and Congress has begun very visible hearings. These developments raise particularly important concerns for South Korea as well as the United States, given exceptionally close military partnership. The Korean War of 1950-53 defined not only this notably tight alliance but also the much more comprehensive American approach to foreign policy throughout the Cold War.

Private corporations supplying mercenary forces were not part of the equation. The U.S. relied on a military draft, supplemented by volunteers, until President Richard Nixon initiated the move to an all-volunteer military force in the early 1970s.

Extensive use of private contractors by the Pentagon did not begin until the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. At that time, the uniformed U.S. military outnumbered private contractors in the Gulf region by approximately sixty-to-one.

By contrast, in Iraq private security contractor personnel now outnumber the U.S. military. As the Blackwater controversy has revealed, these corporations provide heavily armed personnel who engage in direct combat. By contrast, the Republic of Korea has largely avoided reliance on contractors. Instead, the military draft has been retained and the established armed forces are uniformed and under direct government control. Arguably, this has been a crucial ingredient in South Korea’s dramatic transition from authoritarian regime to a democracy with popularly elected representatives, including the President.