SEOUL, South Korea — The commander of U.S. Forces Korea says the consolidation of the vast majority of American troops to regional hub bases south of Seoul is on schedule for 2016, despite hints to the contrary.
“We are moving out of this place, alright?” Gen. James Thurman told a community meeting last month at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. “Everybody thinking they’re going to be here for years and years to come, I think that’s not going to be true.”
Construction and preparations for the move at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek are “moving forward now, and I need everybody to understand that,” he said.
While elements of the move from Seoul and areas near the Demilitarized Zone could run into delays, the commander said, “In 2016, we’re going to be pretty much down there.”
Thurman’s comments provided a rare glimpse into the status of what are known as the Yongsan Relocation Plan and the Land Partnership Plan.
USFK has for the past nine months declined numerous requests from Stars and Stripes to provide an update on preparations for the massive move and detail what — if anything — is running behind schedule. Information has been essentially limited to occasional leaks by South Korean government and military officials and periodic features about ongoing construction of facilities at Camp Humphreys on the Armed Forces Network.
There are 28,500 U.S. troops stationed on more than 100 bases stretching from the DMZ south to the port city of Busan. Plans call for consolidating the troops onto fewer than 50 bases, with the majority stationed in regional hubs in the areas around Pyeongtaek/Osan and Daegu.
The vacated bases will be turned over to South Korea, and municipal officials in those areas have grown increasingly impatient because they have plans to develop the properties once the U.S. troops are gone.
For example, Dongducheon officials have complained about a media report that the U.S. military is lobbying to leave the 210th Fires Brigade behind at Camp Casey when troops are consolidated.
In nearby Uijeongbu, officials have expressed concerns about the Pentagon’s open-ended announcement in October that the 23rd Chemical Battalion was moving back to South Korea, initially to Camp Stanley in Uijeongbu, then to Camp Humphreys once facilities there are ready.
The massive move south is part of a multi-faceted plan to give the South Korean military a higher profile in the defense of its country. It is scheduled to take place after the 2015 transfer of wartime operational control to the South in the event that hostilities with North Korea heat up.
The construction of housing, schools and medical and recreational facilities on bases south of Seoul has long been considered a key element in the U.S. plan to allow more troops to bring along their families to South Korea, allowing for longer tours and greater stability among the ranks on the peninsula.
Servicemembers have historically served one-year unaccompanied tours here. In 2008, the military announced it planned to eventually make about half of the billets command-sponsored.
By 2010, the number of command-sponsored troops had more than doubled, from 1,800 to 4,400, but the influx of families has since stalled at about that level because the existing infrastructure on U.S. bases is maxed out.
Almost a year ago, Thurman told Congress that the Department of Defense could not afford tour normalization, and he was “content to remain at the currently authorized 4,645 command-sponsored families.”
In early January, USFK reiterated that in a statement saying, “Tour normalization is not affordable at this time,” leading to speculation there could be yet another postponement to the base consolidation plan.
The massive move was initially scheduled to happen in 2008, but the target date was moved to 2012, and eventually to 2016.
At the Yongsan community meeting in January, Thurman pointed out two units have already made the move south, or are in the process of moving.
“I keep hearing that we’re not moving and all that,” he said. “That’s not true. I need everybody to understand this place is going to move.”
Referring to a potential change to the original consolidation plan, he said a 200-person residual force will be left behind in the capital because, “Whoever’s in this job needs to stay here in Seoul.
“I do business in Seoul,” Thurman said, explaining that would be difficult if the USFK commander were based to the South, given that “every two or three weeks you get a crisis of sorts around here.”
“We’re working through that right now,” he said.
When the construction and expansion work is done at Camp Humphreys, planners are promising a base that is part college campus, part small town.
According to a video posted last summer on YouTube, most families will be within walking distance of schools and child development centers. The base’s central park area will feature a bicycle and pedestrian corridor.
“The downtown shopping area creates a familiar hometown feel,” according to the video. “Soldiers stationed here can experience all the comforts of home while protecting freedom in Northeast Asia.”
Seoul officials have said they are looking forward to developing the Yongsan Garrison property into a world-class park in the center of the city, akin to New York’s Central Park.
“It will have a major impact on the ecological and cultural aspects of the lives of Seoul’s residents,” an official with the city’s Urban Planning Department said.
In Pyeongtaek, an official with the city’s U.S.-South Korea Cooperation Department said residents are divided over the consolidation of American troops there given the economic boost it will give the city and the increase in crime that will likely accompany the move.
“I think half the people like the relocation, and the other half hate it,” he said.
Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.