DAECHU-RI, South Korea — Thousands of South Korean riot police began moving into a contested farming village near Camp Humphreys in the predawn Thursday with a mission to oust activists resisting the expansion of the base.
At 4:30 a.m. Thursday, hundreds of police buses and other official vehicles were continuing to converge on the contested area in long convoys, red lights flashing slowly.
Squad after blue-clad squad of riot police carrying shields, riot batons and gas masks were making their way on foot along narrow roads jammed with official vehicles. Many squads had to halt for five minutes at a time to wait for vehicles ahead of them to move through.
By 5 a.m. first light began to break. Activists and residents barricaded inside Daechu-Ri Elementary School on the farmland braced for the deployment of the troops, who intend to clear them from the school.
As the sun rose over the rice fields of Daechu-ri, contingents of demonstrators who made their way into the area in support of the resistance were assembled near the school grounds chanting and waving placards.
Shortly after 6 a.m., some protesters began pulling at a portion of the Camp Humphreys perimeter fence and a plastic bottle was tossed from the crowd over the fence.
South Korean defense ministry officials on Wednesday said forces would be deployed, perhaps as early as Thursday; some activists had said they were fearful the government’s operation might even commence late Wednesday night or before dawn Thursday.
Air Force security officers at nearby Osan Air Base advised late Wednesday evening that Camp Humphreys was off limits. An AAFES taxi service official at Osan Air Base said Wednesday night that taxi service was shut down at Camp Humphreys. Calls to the taxi dispatch office at Camp Humphreys were not answered at 10:45 p.m.
Those barricaded inside the school include activists who have been leading a group of local farmers and other residents in resisting the planned Camp Humphreys expansion.
The U.S. base is slated to triple in size and eventually become the U.S. military’s chief installation on the peninsula under a U.S.-South Korean agreement.
The South Korean government bought 2,328 acres of farmland in 2005 for the expansion. Many residents have moved out, but others have refused to leave. The government recently sent them letters giving them until the end of June to move, officials said.
Meanwhile, farmers seeking to derail the expansion project have planted a new spring rice crop there in defiance of a government ban on farming the lands.
And several recent government efforts to halt the farming, evict the holdouts and fence off the area were thwarted when resisters scuffled with police, blocked government vehicles or otherwise hampered the government personnel.
South Korean defense officials told reporters earlier this week that the government would move as early as Thursday to clear the school grounds, stop the farming, erect fences and take other steps to wrest control of the area from the resisters.
South Korean defense minister Yoon Kwang-woong Wednesday told reporters the force would consist of unarmed military construction units as well as government-contracted civilian work crews and police.
Defense ministry officials also said Wednesday they remain willing to meet with local residents to review their concerns about money compensation and relocation aid.