Migrants in a temporary processing facility in Donna, Texas, 23 as families and unaccompanied children are processed. Photo: Anadolu Agency/AFP

Reading a recent Washington Post article about Central American refugees along the Mexican-US border I came to this paragraph:

The influx has overwhelmed the government’s ability to safely shelter and care for the minors before delivering them to family members and vetted sponsors living in the United States, a challenge complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. Photos released Monday by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) showed teens packed into a South Texas tent facility operated by US Customs and Border Protection that was at 1,500 percent of its pandemic-rated capacity as of Sunday ….

[Emphasis added.]

Overcrowded processing facilities in Donna, Texas. Photo: Jaime Rodriguea/US Customs and Border Protection/AFP

The obvious need for President Joe Biden and his newly designated refugee border tsarina, Vice President Kamala Harris, to provide a lot more capacity and do so very soon made me think of North Korean defectors I’d met and interviewed, many or perhaps even most of whom told me of “speed battles” in which they’d participated.

The drill was and still is that when the ruler issues his urgent command you must drop everything else, assemble posthaste at a farm at planting or harvest time, at a factory or – the biggest, longest-term, most demanding cases – at a construction site. There you must put in very long hours rushing around, heedless of the damage to your body and mind, until the job is completed – before deadline, you’d better hope, if you know what’s good for you.

Big chunks of the North’s Korean People’s Army are mobilized to pitch in. State-employed entertainers show up to cheerlead with drumbeats and chants.

Kim Young Song (no relation to the ruling Kims), after his training in then-communist-ruled Czechoslovakia as an engineer and architect, worked in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, in the field of precast concrete and the standardization of buildings. “If you plan a few buildings at once, you can standardize materials use,” he told me. “I was in charge of saying which materials went where.”

From 1969 “I was involved in planning and building the buildings on one side of Chollima Street next to the Potong River,” Kim said, ticking off the names of showcase structures in a project that was close to the heart of founding ruler Kim Il Sung: the Choson Arts and Culture Center, the Chosun Documentary Movie Center, Pyongyang City Stadium. There were apartment buildings, as well, lining the street to provide the city a proper urban canyon.

Chollima Street in Pyongyang. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chollima Street was built for the fifth Party meeting in 1970. “Just for that meeting they made us construct 30 buildings of 10 stories each. We built them in 10 days. That epitomized construction in North Korea.”

So should Biden and Harris maybe just ask Kim Jong Un to ship the requisite number of North Koreans to Texas to do their speed-battle thing? Give the Supreme Leader a lot of face, with such a request, and – who knows? – they might become best buds, the way Kim and Donald Trump did for a while.

Kim could save the expense of provocations such as this week’s missile launches and, instead, they could talk about how to resolve their conflicting security concerns. Win-win, right?

From the standpoint of sound construction (among others) that might not be such a great idea. Chollima Street, Kim Young Song told me when I interviewed him in Seoul in 1993, “was the peak of construction activity.”

Kim Jong Il, the old ruler’s twenty-something son and future successor (and the future father of current ruler Kim Jong Un), had begun taking over the construction industry. “After that, it was downhill all the way.”

Indeed there have been a number of prominent cases since then of construction projects ruined by excessive speed and the seemingly inevitable corner-cutting that accompanies it. Kim Jong Il’s Ryugong Hotel – for which the time pressure factor was his father’s 8oth birthday in 1992 – at 105 stories remains the world’s tallest unfinished hotel.

Kim Jong Un has encountered rough going with his own current pet project, the new Pyongyang General Hospital. That speed battle rages on, having failed to meet last October’s deadline for opening.

Well, then, there’s always China, no slouch at speed battles as the 43-hour retrofitting of Beijuing’s Sanyuan Bridge shows. Why not ask America’s good friends the Chinese to lend a hand in Texas? Huh?

Oh, never mind.

Anyway, it occurred to me that America, after all, since 1942 has been able to boast of its own legendary tribe of specialists: the US Navy’s Construction Battalions, or Seabees. Once the original members began fighting and building their way across the Pacific to Japan, the term “speed battle” if applied to their work would have been no mere figure of speech.

I consulted with a Seabees career officer, a veteran of multiple tours in Afghanistan among other foreign climes who retired recently with the rank of commander (same as 007, but what he did was really construction). Could he envision his old outfit jumping into the fray?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although mine was a strictly unofficial inquiry, and the commander was not speaking for the Seabees, I’m afraid I’m going to have to rethink this notion of mine in view of his reply:

Honestly I don’t think it would make much sense. Could it be done? I’m sure there are ways, but it would require specific authorities and a request from DHS [Department of Homeland Security] to DoD [Department of Defense] for assistance and then it would be tasked through the Joint Chiefs to NORTHCOM [North American Command] to the service components for specific unit tasking.

There is a joint publication (JP 3-28, Defense Support of Civil Authorities) that lays out the doctrine for the military to provide support to other government agencies and organizations. However, most of the scenarios that we typically think about or plan for are events that would fall under the purview of FEMA [Federal Emergency Mangement Agency].

In recent years, with the efforts to secure the southern border, NORTHCOM has deployed personnel at the request of DHS. Here is a link to a press release from November 2018. I believe there was some early discussion about having the military build facilities to house migrants but DoD pushed back and the military support was more tailored to providing support for CBP/US [Customs and Border Protection] personnel and activities that would fall under counter-drug or counter-organized-crime efforts.

I never saw why DoD pushed back on the housing part, but I could imagine that DoD building, maintaining and securing a migrant detention facility could be seen as or quickly morph into law enforcement activity which would run afoul of the Posse Comitatus Act.

As far as other challenges go: When stateside, Seabees are limited to construction on base and the projects are often limited in size and scope to projects that provide some training value.

As far as legal impediments go, I can’t recall the specific reason (legal or governing instruction) behind the limitation but it is related to not having military personnel take work away from local contractors.

The reality is that if I received tasking for building a camp for detained personnel, I would contract it out. It would be faster and the private sector has a lot more capability available to provide support. USACE [US Army Corps of Engineers] would have the lead on any contracting actions and both the Army and Navy (NAVFAC) [Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command] have contingency construction contracting capability that requires near-immediate response from the contract holders.

These are the types of contracts we use to respond to hurricane damage on military installations. I would be surprised if DHS and/or FEMA did not have similar capability for emergency construction. I think the real limiting factors would be the funding. I seriously doubt that anyone budgeted for these additional facilities and I don’t see any supplemental budgets being passed for a while (and we already need them to provide funds for hurricane recovery).

So there you have it. I haven’t given you a solution but – admit it – you know more than you did when you started reading.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, in which the interview with the North Korean former construction official originally appeared.