SEOUL — The United States and South Korea are considering installing “safety zones” around American military installations in an effort to improve the security of residents who live in their vicinity.
U.S. representatives introduced the idea last week in Seoul during a Joint SOFA Committee meeting discussion on U.S. military operations, and the proposal could gain traction because of the increased scrutiny on the South Korea government’s safety measures in the wake of a ferry accident that killed hundreds of teenagers.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that these buffer zones around U.S. Forces Korea facilities would protect residents from possible accidents, including those at ammunition dumps, although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the design of the zones had not been decided.
A statement issued late last week by U.S. Forces Korea said the zones are of “utmost importance.”
“The unrestricted growth of civilian businesses and residential dwellings in close proximity to some of our military installations could potentially pose considerable safety concerns,” the statement said.
The statement did not specify what those safety concerns were, but noted that “all U.S. and (South Korean) military units comply with multiple layers of safety procedures and protocols.”
A key safety protocol for storage sites is a “safety arc” that sets boundaries around critical infrastructure, USFK said. The command’s statement said the South Korean government is responsible for enforcing safety easements outside USFK installations. A South Korean official with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s SOFA team said the safety zones would help minimize the impact of unspecified “risk elements” and possible accidents on USFK facilities.
Neither USFK nor South Korea has released details about where the safety zones or arcs would be located, how wide they would be or when they might be put into place. Nor did they address whether the zones would lead to the displacement of South Korean residences and businesses, which are often clustered in “villes” near the entrance of some installations. For instance, a number of shops and eateries in the Songtan shopping district are situated directly outside one of the main entrances into Osan Air Base.
The proposed safety zones come as the South Korean government is under pressure to improve its oversight of safety issues after the April 16 sinking of the Sewol ferry, which left more than 300 passengers, many of them high school students, dead. The sinking has been linked to the improper securing of cargo, changes made to the structure of the ship and human error.
“We explained to the U.S. side that the issue of safety has recently become very important to us,” a South Korean government official told Yonhap.
The MOFA official said that while safety matters have become an issue since the sinking of the Sewol, the consideration of safety zones outside U.S. bases was not prompted solely because of the accident.
Both USFK and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the Joint SOFA Committee plans to study the matter closely.