2006 in review: In Korea, a pivotal year for building alliances
SEOUL — When historians one day look back at the decades-old U.S.-South Korea alliance on the peninsula, they’re bound to pick 2006 as a pivotal year.
Transformation issues topped the agenda, with South Korea battling protesters over more than 2,300 acres of farmland that are slated to accommodate U.S. troops who eventually will move south of Seoul. And the government finally accepted the keys to 15 closed U.S. bases after months of debate about what levels of environmental cleanup were required.
During meetings in Washington just weeks after North Korea claimed to have tested a nuclear weapon in October, the U.S. and South Korea agreed that South Korea would assume wartime command of its troops within the next three to six years.
But as 2006 wound to a close, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense cast some doubt on the timeline for the transformation of the U.S. military footprint in South Korea by stating 2013, not 2008, is a more likely target date for moving the troops.
The following is a summary of the top news stories throughout the year:
The longest-serving commander of U.S. Forces Korea, the Combined Forces Command and the United Nations Command — Army Gen. Leon J. LaPorte — passes the colors to incoming commander Gen. B.B. Bell. LaPorte, who took command on May 1, 2002, oversaw a period of tremendous change in the alliance, including the reduction of U.S. forces and bases.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Garry R. Trexler lets stand the sentence of 1st Lt. Jason D. Davis, who in 2005 was sentenced to two years in prison and dismissal from the Air Force in a high-profile court-martial that found him guilty of shaking down bar owners outside Osan Air Base while heading the 51st Security Forces Squadron’s off-base Town Patrol. Davis pleaded guilty to accepting cash and gifts from bar owners and maintaining illicit sexual liaisons with bar girls, among other charges.
An Air Force F-16C fighter based at Kunsan Air Base crashes in waters off Korea’s west coast. The pilot, Capt. Donald Siegmund of the 35th Fighter Squadron, ejects safely and is rescued by a South Korean air force helicopter. In October the Air Force discloses that a safety board investigation found that Siegmund had two chances to prevent the crash when his flight control system malfunctioned, but “because he did not follow the technical order procedures in a timely manner … he was not able to prevent the crash.”
An early morning fire sweeps through a corner of Yongsan Garrison, engulfing three buildings and severely burning three South Korean workers. In June, a South Korean woman, Kweon Jung-ja, is found guilty of the arson, telling investigators she found an open gate to a base adjacent to Yongsan shortly after midnight. Kweon is sentenced to two years in prison, which she will serve after being treated for mental illness.
A massive South Korean security force consisting of thousands of riot police ousts anti-U.S. activists from their makeshift headquarters near Camp Humphreys while South Korean troops seize control of a 2,328-acre tract of land slated for the post’s eventual expansion.
An Army sergeant found guilty of lying to his girlfriend about the fact he had a wife is sentenced to six months in jail. Sgt. Jin-hong Han originally had been sentenced to 10 months’ jail time for breaching a promise of marriage. He had promised to marry one woman while he was married to another. Han, a U.S. citizen who lived in South Korea until he was 17, paid a settlement of $21,500 to his wife in the case.
South Korea’s government accepts 15 closed U.S. military sites from USFK despite 18 months of wrangling over pollution concerns. Some are among the sites that South Korea says are polluted well beyond government ground and water pollution standards. USFK responds that the status of forces agreement requires it only to fix “known, imminent, and substantial endangerments to human health.” South Korea will receive 59 sites by the end of 2008, acquiring billions of dollars in infrastructure at no cost, USFK says.
AAFES taxi drivers end a 13-day strike in Area I and Area II. The drivers, who work for Worldcup Arirang Tourism Co., receive a small monthly raise and $105 in one-time bonuses, a far cry from their original demand of $105 more per month. AAFES considers hiring a second on-base cab company to avoid similar problems in the future.
The U.S. Army closes Camp Hialeah in Busan, a 133-acre site that had served as an important logistics base for the U.S. military for more than five decades. Closing the base also entailed closing the Pusan American School in June, ending its 46-year history.
Military members living off base learn they must buy American Forces Network satellite service to watch NFL football games. Games no longer are broadcasted on AFN’s Prime Pacific-Korea because about 50 South Korean cable companies intercept the signal and offer it as part of their paid service.
Military and school officials at Yongsan Garrison learn that a convicted sex offender is living in family housing. Carlton Discavage had properly registered with military police but it became clear that the military has no clear guidance about notifying neighbors in the situation. As of the end of the year, military authorities still were researching the issues.
USFK holds Force Protection status at Bravo following unconfirmed reports of a North Korean underground nuclear test. The United States and other governments later confirm the test, but say the detonation was weaker than the North Koreans had hoped.
South Korean and U.S. officials, attending the 38th Security Consultative Meeting in Washington, D.C., agree that South Korea will assume full wartime control of its own troops sometime between Oct. 15, 2009, and March 15, 2012.
An Army Patriot missile battalion completes its move from Gwangju Air Base to Camp Carroll in Waegwan. The U.S. military says the 2nd Battalion, 1st Air Defense Artillery Regiment’s stay in Gwangju was seen as temporary when it began in 2004.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awards a $29.7 million contract to a South Korean construction firm, clearing the way for the first work to begin on lands that are to become part of an expanded Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek.
A U.S. Air Force A-10 jet based at Osan Air Base accidentally drops a nonexplosive BDU-33 training bomb that tears a path through a South Korean factory. No one is injured. The wing halts use of the BDU-33s on its A-10 aircraft, saying the problem appears to stem from the aircraft’s delivery system. A wing safety investigation into the mishap is pending.
Military medical officials say a late-November bird flu outbreak in South Korea should be taken seriously but not feared. Meanwhile, South Korean authorities kill hundreds of thousands of chickens and ducks and hundreds of dogs and pigs where the potentially deadly H5N1 bird flu was discovered, about 150 miles south of Seoul near Kunsan Air Base. Three more outbreaks are discovered across South Korea by the end of the year.
South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense says the move of U.S. forces to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek from Seoul and points north probably cannot happen by 2008 as scheduled, and may be delayed until 2013. Among reasons given for the possible delay are concerns over how the United States and South Korea will split costs of the relocation project. Pyeongtaek business leaders vow to fight the prospective delay.