SEOUL, South Korea — Business realities are providing a clearer picture of how the timing of the U.S. military’s consolidation and relocation project is shaping up.
U.S. Forces Korea, citing “operational security,” has released few details about the pace of construction and the timing of unit moves that are keys to the long-delayed plan to shift the vast majority of American troops away from Seoul and the Demilitarized Zone to regional hubs in the southern portion of the country.
But AAFES — the Army and Air and Exchange Service — has detailed plans for its Korea facilities over the next three years. While the moves are dependent on USFK’s progress and still could change, they give an idea of how the bigger moves will play out.
Store consolidations and closures are largely planned to begin in 2015 “when the starting gun fires for the military to move,” said Stanley Young, AAFES general manager for the Korea Capital Exchange in Area II.
Because the exchanges are driven by sales, “as the individual bases begin to close and move troops, that’s when we’ll react to it,” he said.
The expansion of Camp Humphreys — described as the U.S. military’s biggest construction project since the Panama Canal — will reduce the American forces’ footprint in South Korea from more than 100 installations to fewer than 50. According to AAFES, the relocation will eventually increase the population of Humphreys from 7,000 to more than 44,000.
The relocation, originally scheduled to take place in 2008, was postponed to 2012 and later to 2016. While USFK insists it will be ready to finish the moves on schedule, recent issues with the new high school on Humphreys raise concerns about delays.
For now, the Yongsan Garrison PX, the largest on the peninsula, is expected to close and return to South Korean control in December 2016 or January 2017. As troops move to Humphreys in 2015 and smaller stores at Yongsan close, AAFES will consolidate its operations inside the current exchange, with its 40,000 square feet of retail space.
Meanwhile, new facilities at Humphreys are scheduled to open between June 2014 and November 2016. The grand opening of a new post exchange, with 135,000 square feet of retail space, is scheduled for November 2016, though efforts are under way to move that date forward, Young said.
The AAFES “end state” plan for the peninsula, now projected for mid-2016, includes fewer but larger AAFES facilities, including 77 at Humphreys.
USFK commander Gen. James Thurman said in January that some delays in the Humphreys move were possible, but “in 2016, we’re going to be pretty much down there.”
A new elementary school just opened at Humphreys this month, and the military broke ground in July for a $324 million operations command center at the base that is expected to house about 850 personnel by 2016. But the opening of the new high school there has been delayed by unspecified problems and may not happen until mid-year.
As of May, only 53 percent of the expansion work at Humphreys had been completed, according to South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense-U.S. Forces Korea Relocation Office, the agency overseeing Seoul’s portion of the project. USFK has said the remaining 47 percent of construction will be completed at a pace of about 15 percent each year, “assuming the two governments continue with (their) close collaboration.”
USFK has said the relocation will cost $10.7 billion. A South Korean defense official has said the U.S. is paying for about $6.3 billion of that price tag, with South Korea paying for the rest.
In addition to a new PX, Humphreys will eventually have four mini-malls, with fast food, barber shops, laundry and dry cleaning services and a new car sales facility. The existing PX will eventually be turned into one of those mini-malls, Young said.