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Once a DMZ base buzzing with troops, now a place to pretend to be one

Buildings sit vacant recently on an overgrown area of Camp Greaves near Korea's Demilitarized Zone. The U.S. military vacated the base in 2004 and South Korean government officials plan to renovate the facility and use it for their 1st Infantry Division, an art center and a historical area where visitors will be able to stay for two or three days and get a taste of military life.

CAMP GREAVES, South Korea — If you look out from the overgrown north bank of the Imjin River, it’s easy to understand why U.S. Marines established a camp here during the Korean War, given its proximity to North Korea.

If you look past the paint chipping off the walls of the dilapidated Quonset huts, it is not hard to imagine how for 50 years that this base buzzed with activity with servicemen whose job it was to patrol the nearby Demilitarized Zone.

But, if you survey the renovation work now under way at this forgotten base, it may not be easy to envision how South Korean government officials plan, as early as this month, to turn part of Camp Greaves into a fantasy camp of sorts for Koreans who want to get a taste of military life. Another area eventually into a center for artists to create and display their work.

While this isn’t the first time a former U.S. military base in Korea has been converted for modern-day use, it may be one of the most creative repurposing plans.

And, with the U.S. planning to turn over dozens more of its bases to South Korea in the years ahead — as the number of its installations is reduced from more than 100 to fewer than 50 in connection with the 2016 consolidation of virtually all American servicemembers on the peninsula to clusters of facilities south of Seoul — base conversions may eventually become a cottage industry of sorts on the peninsula.

Records show the area around Camp Greaves was occupied by the 1st Marine Division during the Korean War in 1953. After hostilities ceased, Marines used the camp as a base from which to patrol the DMZ, placing the division’s Reconnaissance Battalion there in 1954. Over the years, a number of units have spent time at the border-area base including: the 1st Amphibious Tractor Battalion; the 3rd Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division; the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division; and various 2nd Infantry Division battalions including the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment. The Army closed up shop at the facility in 2004.

Today, the buildings of Camp Greaves — including a movie theater, gymnasium, dining facility and barracks — sit decaying and dormant, except for the work under way to renovate two buildings into lodging and office facilities.

In the years ahead, half the base property and buildings will be renovated and eventually occupied by elements of the South Korea Army’s 1st Infantry Division.

Gyeonggi Province plans to spend more than $40 million to turn the other half of Camp Greaves into a multi-faceted tourist attraction. Based on the number of people who already visit DMZ-area tourist attractions in the area, planners hope the renovated Camp Greaves will draw as many of 3 million visitors a year when the project is completed in 2018.

They hope Koreans and tourists from other countries stop by the base on their way to or from the nearby attraction-rich area in and around the DMZ.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye recently proposed the development of an “international peace park” somewhere along the DMZ. While that is unrelated to the work now under way at Camp Greaves, officials believe the number of annual visitors to the renovated base would increase considerably if the peace park was nearby.

Camp Greaves will be divided into three sections.

One, which will be off-limits to visitors, will be home to hundreds of South Korean 1st Infantry Division soldiers.

The second will be home to visiting and resident artists who will produce and display their work. For example, a former ammunition storage building will be utilized as an exhibition hall.

The remainder will be set aside for what officials are calling the “security experience zone,” where visitors will be able to tour restored buildings, and look at historical videos and photos.

For an additional fee, visitors will be able to get a taste of the South Korean military experience by spending two or three days living like a soldier. Among other things, officials say they will be issued uniforms, sleep in barracks, eat army food at a mess hall, wake up early for PT, learn military songs, practice throwing hand grenades and take part in shooting simulations.

Despite the ambitious renovation plans, those involved in the project are taking great pains to make sure visitors leave with a firm understanding of the sacrifices the U.S. military made here. While new buildings will be constructed, plans call for preserving and renovating as many of the existing structures as possible.

“Our goal is not to tear down the buildings, but preserve them in their original form because they possess great historical and cultural value, in our estimation,” said Lee Young Geun, a manager in the Gyeonggi Tourism Organization’s Tourism Development Department.

In addition, videos and photos of the U.S. military’s activities across the peninsula and in and around Camp Greaves will be featured once the gates open for tourists, and planners hope American soldiers might someday regularly visit the former base to put a face on the work done by their predecessors.

“Our basic purpose is preserving the heritage of the U.S. military, which came to help us,” said Kim Hyo Hyung, an officer with the Gyeonggi Province Office’s DMZ Policy Division. “By doing so, we may be able to inspire national security consciousness.”

While renovations are not expected to be finished until 2018, school children and others could start staying overnight at Camp Greaves and experiencing military life as soon as the barracks building being renovated is finished this fall.

“It will be a great way for them to experience army life in one night and two days, or two nights and three days,” Lee said. “It is going to make them more aware of what is involved being part of the military.”

Kim said a priority in planning for the “security experience” is making sure the citizen “soldiers” stay on base, given the fact that the southern border of the DMZ is less than two miles away.

“We will have to keep our eyes on the ball to prevent them from wandering away,” he said.

U.S. Eighth Army spokesman Col. Shawn Stroud said, “The 2nd Infantry Division welcomes the efforts … to preserve Camp Greaves as a cultural and historical site that can inspire a sense of pride and resolve in national security for the citizens of South Korea.”

Referring to the plans for the “security experience,” he said, “Although the 2nd Infantry Division has no plans to assign soldiers to the camp, the division has offered to provide historical photos to support the camp’s exhibit and will make efforts to support utilization of the facilities based on available resources and applicable laws and regulations.”

Stroud said 2ID officials are reaching out to its alumni associations to make sure they are aware – especially those who served here – of the project “to preserve and explain the significance of Camp Greaves and the (South Korea)-U.S. alliance that has maintained security here … for the past 60 years.”

rabiroff.jon@stripes.com

chang.yookyong@stripes.com

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