PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — Earlier this week in the furrowed rice fields near Camp Humphreys, South Korean engineer troops were busy putting in razor wire barriers and digging trench obstacles on a sprawling tract of government-owned farmland.
The work began after the South Korean government carried out a massive security operation May 4 to wrest the 2,328-acre expanse from anti-U.S. activists. The activists oppose a South Korean-U.S. plan that earmarks the land for Camp Humphreys eventually to expand into the peninsula’s biggest U.S. military installation.
South Korean troops quickly are turning the area into a defensive zone replete with concertina wire, water-filled trenches, and broken, muddy terrain.
It’s in sharp contrast to just weeks ago. Protesters had thwarted several earlier government attempts to evict them and take control of the land. They’d attacked police, blocked government vehicles and, when work crews poured concrete into irrigation channels, they later took the concrete out.
In April, officials said they would allow holdout residents to stay in Daechu-ri until the end of June. There, thus far, they remain.
After the May 4 security operation, a South Korean government official was asked what would unfold between now and the end of next month.
“I don’t know. You don’t know. Nobody knows. Only God knows,” the official answered on condition of anonymity.
The official also said the Camp Humphreys expansion project was assured of success because of the South Korean government’s efforts since the security operation. In the short term, however, there appear to be several reasons for uncertainty.
While the government has moved quickly to fortify its new military zone, its conflict with the activists may be far from over.
Edgy residents or their activist supporters last week stood blocking a road a few yards from the former elementary school grounds.
Add to that the willingness of thousands to travel to Daechu-ri from other cities for rallies against the expansion project.
For example, a South Korean government official said a massive protest rally in Daechu-ri was expected to draw 10,000 or more. South Korea’s top police official has said the rally — which was denied official permission — could spell “fierce violence.”
While how long the controversy will last remains unknown, there are indications the government’s plans may prevail.
“The very simple reason is that the government has already decided to control” the situation “very tightly … and I think that’s a good sign,” Hyun In-taek, an international relations professor at Korea University in Seoul, said Thursday.
“I think the protest will continue, not several days, not even several months but probably even … one year or so,” he said.
And Yonhap news agency reported that in a South Korean government poll, 81 percent objected to protesters’ May 4-5 use of violence against security forces.
Polled on whether the U.S. military should pull out of South Korea, 74.5 percent said it was too early for such a pullout; 22.2 percent favored a pullout.
And asked to rate the importance of the U.S. military presence in South Korea, 32.7 percent said “very important,” 49.7 percent said “somewhat important,” 14.3 percent said “not very important,” and 2.3 percent said “not important.”
Hyun said, “Even if their protest will continue in the coming weeks or months … the majority of the Korean people will not support them.”
Activist leaders Father Mun Jeong-hyeon and Kim Yong-han could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.