The planned withdrawal of more American troops from South Korea, also means the withdrawal of more South Korean troops from the American army. Say what? Yes, since 1950, South Korean troops have served, individually, in U.S. Army units. The South Korean soldiers, usually conscripts right out of high school, have to pass an English proficiency test to be eligible for the KATUSA (Korean Augmentation to the United States Army) program. Even then, there is a lottery to select, from among the many who are eligible, the young South Korean soldiers who will spend most of their 24 months military service with the American army in South Korea.
The KATUSAs remain part of the South Korean army, but report to American units and are given a job that would otherwise have to be performed by an American soldier. The KATUSAs are treated just like the American troops, living in the same barracks, eating in the same mess halls and getting the same medical care. However, there are South Korean officers and NCOs available for any disciplinary problems, and to administer pay and other personnel matters (like leave). But there are few disciplinary problems. The KATUSAs are usually smarter than the average 18 year old conscript and see service in an American unit as an excellent opportunity to improve their English skills, and learn more about Americans. This helps later on, in getting into college and/or getting a good job. Also, the living conditions are much better in the American army, and the work generally more interesting. On the downside, KATUSAs come to their American units right out of basic training, without any specialized training. So KATUSAs generally dont get any high tech jobs, and have to be trained for whatever work they do get assigned. But since most of the KATUSAs are good students to begin with, and ambitious, there are often opportunities to train them for some pretty complex jobs.
During the Korean war (1950-53), the KATUSAs also served as interpreters (even though most of them had to pick up English on the job) and intermediaries with Korean civilians encountered on the battlefield. This eliminated a lot of potential problems with civilians, and is a job KATUSAs still perform. Even after the war, American soldiers got to know more about the Korean people because they lived and worked with KATUSAs every day. Finally, theres the cost savings. Today, the average KATUSA is paid about seven dollars a month, less than one percent of what an American soldier is paid. Thus the use of KATUSAs has saved the U.S. Army several billion dollars over the life of the program. At its peak, in 1952, there were 27,000 KATUSAs. This leveled off to about 7,000 by 1970, and further declined to 4,800 today. As more American troops are withdrawn from South Korea, the number of KATUSAs will decline as well, and the program will disappear completely when the last American army leave.
Over half a million South Koreans have served as KATUSAs, and nearly all of them found the experience rewarding. As a result, there is hardly any South Korean who does not know someone who was a KATUSA, and thus knows Americans on a very personal level. While there has always been some anti-American sentiment in South Korea, one of the reasons the majority of South Koreans remain pro-American is the KATUSA program.
Integrating South Korean troops into American military units is not unique in American history. Its been done many times before, either officially, or unofficially.