- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2006

SEOUL — As overseas military bases go, the U.S. 8th Army’s Yongsan garrison is unusual. First is its location: in the center of Seoul, South Korea’s capital. Seen from the heights of Namsan, which means South Mountain, the base looks almost pastoral: a 630-acre oasis of green in the concrete desert of a city of more than 10 million.

Close up, it is even more idyllic, contrasted with the frantic bustle outside its gates. Its lawns, trees and venerable brick buildings give it the feel of a sleepy Midwestern college town. A base used mainly by rear-echelon troops, Yongsan lacks the purposeful commotion of combat infantry bases in the countryside.

First occupied by Chinese troops in the 1880s, it was garrisoned by Japanese colonial forces from 1910 until 1945. It has been held by U.S. troops ever since, making Yongsan (“Dragon Hill”) a symbol of foreign occupation for many Koreans. Consequently, the base is a frequent site of anti-American protests. South Korean riot police are stationed permanently outside the base.

Now, another battle is brewing, this time between the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun and Seoul City Hall about what to do when the Americans leave the base by December 2008.

“Yongsan has its heartbreaking history of a continuing presence of foreign military forces, including China and Japan, over the past 124 years,” Mr. Roh said Aug. 24 at a ceremony for its future development. “Besides, after liberation from Japanese colonial rule, we have relied on the United States Forces in Korea for our national defense.” The ceremony infuriated Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, a member of the conservative opposition Grand National Party who insists that Yongsan become a municipal park.

“The Ministry of Construction and Transportation has the authority to change the use of the land,” Mr. Oh told foreign reporters Monday. “The central government intends to raise money for the base transfer by selling land for construction purposes. That is what we cannot agree on.”

Moving costs

Though Mr. Roh also noted the need for a public park on the site, the Construction and Transportation Ministry has plans to set aside part of the base for commercial development. That would help pay for relocating the military base to Pyongtaek, south of Seoul. The costs of relocating its 6,500 U.S. servicemen and 8,000 U.S. civilians accompanying them — family members, defense workers, contractors and others — are estimated at $5 billion.

Even Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, has weighed in.

Apparently referring to a letter from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to his Korean counterpart, asking Seoul to increase to 50 percent its share of moving U.S. troops south, the communist government’s Korean Central News Agency said: “Through blackmail and coercion, the U.S. is now shifting its snowballing ‘maintenance expenses’ to the South Korean government.” The issue could end up in South Korea’s Constitutional Court.

“We are discussing the issue with the central government, nothing has been decided,” said Choi Hang-do, Mayor Oh’s spokesman. “The law has not passed parliament yet. A move to Constitutional Court is possible after that.”

The legislation on land use is expected to be deliberated next month in the Kukhoe, the national assembly.

Mr. Roh has had other clashes with Seoul City Hall. Mr. Oh’s predecessor, fellow opposition member Lee Myung-bak, led opposition to a move by Mr. Roh to relocate the South Korea’s administrative capital outside Seoul. After it was declared unconstitutional, that plan was reduced drastically.

Increasing efficiency

All U.S. personnel at Yongsan are scheduled to relocate to Pyongtaek, 50 miles south of Seoul, by December 2008; some units, including military intelligence, have already moved. Although U.S. troops may moan privately about leaving their cushy post in Seoul, the American business community supports relocation of the U.S. military headquarters, long a focus of anti-American demonstrations.

“It’s an anomaly. The city has grown up around the military facility,” said Tami Overby, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in South Korea. “It would alleviate pressure on U.S.-Korean relations to get them out of Seoul.”

The move is part of a general reduction of U.S. military personnel on the peninsula under global realignment plans. There were 37,500 in 2003; now there are 29,500, and the number will fall to 25,000 by 2008. The core infantry force — the 5th Infantry Division — has been reduced to a single combat brigade plus headquarters and supporting elements. Two 5th Division infantry brigades have pulled out.

“The great capabilities of the South Korean army have made us into a qualitative enhancer to the fight,” said David Oten, spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea. “We can have fewer numbers but a greater combat capability,” he said, citing upgraded weapons systems such as the latest Apache attack helicopters and Patriot missile batteries, as well as increased airlift and sealift capabilities.

U.S. bases throughout South Korea are being consolidated. Yongsan Military Reservation itself has been shrinking. One indication of the prestige of its location is the fate of its 77-acre golf course, which was returned to Seoul in 1992. The former fairway is now the site of Korea’s National Museum.

Cracks in alliance

The alliance itself is under pressure. U.S. conservatives worry that Mr. Roh’s demand for wartime control of Korean troops, which are now part of the U.S.-led Combined Forces Command, could undermine military effectiveness. Retired Korean generals have opposed the move, but Mr. Rumsfeld has said it could happen as early as 2009.

Other points of contention include cost-sharing and cleaning up bases being handed over to Korea — Korean activists say the Americans leave behind environmental damage. Another issue is a lack of range facilities for U.S. Air Force units as Korean authorities close bomb ranges in response to local complaints.

Never mentioned in official circles is another worry: a total U.S. withdrawal from Korea.

“It is a clear signal that the U.S. wants to curtail its commitment, and at the maximum, wants to walk away,” said Peter Beck, who heads the International Crisis Group, referring to Aug. 28 comments by Mr. Rumsfeld that the real danger from North Korea is as a [weapons] proliferator, rather than as an attacker of South Korea.

“There are high levels of frustration at the Pentagon with the Roh administration,” Mr. Beck said. “Roh seems to think Japan is a greater threat than North Korea, and that can’t be good for the White House.” Even so, not everyone in Itaewon, a housing and entertainment district adjacent to Yongsan popular among foreigners, is concerned about the move — or even convinced that it will proceed.

“They have been talking about the base move for 20 years,” said an American defense contractor. “It has never happened.”

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