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South Koreans debate need for U.S. presence

This is the second day of a two-day series exploring the South Korean population’s perception of the U.S. military presence.

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SEOUL — As they chatted over pricey cups of coffee on the top floor of Seoul’s ritzy Shinsagae department store, Kim Eun-jun and her girlfriends were barely two miles from the largest U.S. military base in South Korea, but they were a world away.

All in their mid- to late-30s, the women said they rarely think about the thousands of U.S. troops stationed at the base in the heart of the city.

“We aren’t the generation that went through the war,” said Kim, a 35-year-old translator. “That may be the reason we don’t care or worry about national defense issues.”

For more than six decades, the U.S. military has been a fixture in South Korea — after the Japanese occupation ended in 1945, during the Korean War, and as a deterrent against an attack from North Korea since then. Now South Korean’s new president is meeting with President Bush in the United States and he may ask that the U.S. pause its downsizing in South Korea.

South Koreans’ opinions about the U.S. troop presence range from gratitude to indifference and, sometimes, resentment over what they see as arrogant behavior.

Although Kim said she rarely sees U.S. soldiers in Seoul, she has a largely negative image of them: impolite, even though they’re visitors in a foreign country and should be on their best behavior.

“They act like they’re masters of this nation,” she said.

Other South Koreans, however, strongly support the U.S. troop presence.

“They are indispensable,” said Kim Jong-jin, a 56-year-old custodian at Seoul’s upscale Hyundai department store. “The younger generation doesn’t know how provocative and cruel North Korea is.”

Americans and South Koreans often view the U.S. presence here differently, said Catherine Lutz, a Brown University professor who studies the relationships between military bases and the communities that host them.

Americans don’t realize how important reunification is to South Korea, and they don’t know how much South Korea contributes toward keeping the U.S. military here or what the United States gains in return — a continued foothold in a key spot in Asia, she said.

“They see U.S. bases as simply security gifts to Korea,” Lutz said in an e-mail to Stripes.

Organized opposition

Civic groups that oppose the U.S. presence have varied reasons for doing so — environmental damage at bases, deaths and rapes at the hands of soldiers and a feeling of loss of sovereignty about the planned expansion of Camp Humphreys, Lutz said.

Many younger South Koreans see that expansion as evidence that the United States is less concerned about defending South Korea than increasing its offensive posture against China and other Asia countries, she said.

“Social movements against the bases … are especially upset about a lack of respect they feel coming from the U.S.,” she said.

USFK spokesman Col. Franklin Childress said Thursday that the command has worked to establish relationships with the South Korean people, not just the country’s military leaders.

Those efforts include expanding USFK’s Good Neighbor program, a community outreach effort,and requiring incoming troops to complete Web-based training on cultural awareness and good behavior before they arrive in South Korea, Childress said.

USFK commander Gen. B.B. Bell also is pushing to extend the standard one-year tour in South Korea to three years, which would give troops more time to immerse themselves in the country and develop deeper relationships with South Koreans, Childress said.

“A lot of servicemembers don’t get out and experience the Korean people and the Korean culture the way we want them to,” he said.

Yu Young-jae, 48, policy director for Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea, a well-known civic group with about 1,300 members that opposes the U.S. military presence, said the United States is looking out only for itself by being in South Korea.

“Their ultimate goals are to command supremacy in the world and worldwide military domination,” he said in a telephone interview.

Yu said the number of South Koreans who want to see U.S. troops leave is steadily growing, although college students — typically the most radical anti-American groups — are more focused now on getting jobs in a weak economy. But they are angered at what they see as unfair treatment from the United States, he said.

“I see them as having potential to demand a more equal relationship,” he said.

Staying — for now

Some experts say older Koreans traditionally have supported the U.S. military presence, while people of younger generations who didn’t live through the Korean War or the lean years afterward have opposed it.

But most of the Koreans — young and old — interviewed for this story said the U.S. military should stay until South Korea is capable of defending itself, which many think hasn’t happened yet.

Many said they want the United States to stay because of the growing threat from other Asian countries, not just North Korea. Particularly worrisome is communist China, which is rapidly expanding its military.

“If you look at the Korea army, it’s mainly based on infantry and those traditional weapons,” said Kim Chul-min, a 22-year-old university student who will enter the South Korean military as an officer next year and thinks the U.S. needs to be here. “The U.S. Army has many more specialized weapons and intelligence systems, which is very important in current warfare.”

Most South Koreans who live outside Itaewon, the entertainment district adjacent to U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan in Seoul, said they rarely see or interact with U.S. soldiers. They base their impressions from South Korean news reports about soldiers getting arrested for sexual assaults or beating taxi drivers.

Han Seo-hee, 24, said she wants U.S. troops to leave after the two Koreas reunify, which she thinks could happen in 30 or 40 years. But for now, South Korea’s military isn’t strong enough to defend itself against the North. She said she’s afraid of U.S. soldiers.

“I think they behave very carelessly and rudely, without respect,” she said. “Maybe it’s because they’re not being punished for what they do, and they feel entitled to do it because they are protecting us.”

Business perspectives

Although he thinks having the U.S. military in South Korea is a “necessity,” Cheon Byung-il, 42, a planning manager for the Doosan Group, said military installations in Seoul are keeping the city from developing, and that includes Yongsan Garrison in the heart of the city.

In particular, he doesn’t understand why the U.S. military needs the Far East District Compound — a tiny installation housing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — a block away from his office in Dongdaemun, one of the city’s trendiest shopping districts and priciest real estate areas.

Oh Hae-sik, 36, manager of Geckos, a bar in Itaewon, said U.S. troops used to drink heavily and fight with staff and other customers. That changed three or four years ago, though he doesn’t know why. Now, he said, English teachers from Canada, the United States, Ireland and Australia are the rowdiest customers.

“I don’t know why they’re turning into the good guys at the bar,” he said of the military.

“We are beginning to love serving them.”

Yoon Eun-seok, 45, worries his tailor shop in Itaewon has lost money in the past few years because of the declining number of troops.

“We have a stake in their presence here,” he said.


The U.S. military in South Korea ...

June 25, 1950: North Korea invades South Korea; about 500 U.S. military advisers are on the peninsula

June 30, 1953: U.S. troop wartime presence spikes at 326,863

July 27, 1953: Armistice is signed, and U.S. begins military drawdown

1959: 49,827 troops

1960s: 55,000-63,000 troops

1970 to 2003: Troop level drops from 52,000 to 41,000 in 1971 and ranges from 34,000 to 45,000 over the next three decades

1970 to 2003: Troop level drops from 52,000 to 41,000 in 1971 and ranges from 34,000 to 45,000 over the next three decades

March 26, 2008: USFK has billets for about 28,000 troops but plans to reduce to 25,000 by end of the year

Source: U.S. Forces Korea and the U.S. Statistical Abstract

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