As exercise at DMZ begins, area residents say relations with U.S. are better
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — The camouflaged U.S. Army vehicles that roll through Yi Byong-sop’s small village near the Demilitarized Zone sometimes shut down traffic, but most of the time he and others are tolerant.
“We fully understand that we are living near North Korea, and we can only live comfortably when an ally like the United States is stationed here,” Yi said Tuesday.
As 5,000 2nd Infantry Division soldiers, 200 tracked vehicles and 50 helicopters swarm the countryside this week for an exercise that runs through Wednesday, South Koreans say relations with U.S. forces are improving.
That is, as long as soldiers clean the dirt off the roads, don’t crash into houses or run over the bright-red peppers drying on the roadside. It’s an annual conflict: farmers versus soldiers on narrow country roads where one-eye buffalos — small field tractors — meet American M1A1 tanks.
This year, the division invited 60 leaders — many from communities of just a few hundred — to Camp Casey’s 2nd Brigade Partnership Dinner and Exercise Brief on Sept. 16. The brief informed them of the division’s plans for the exercise, dubbed Strike the Army Readiness Training and Evaluation Program.
“They seemed to appreciate the time and the opportunity to ask the commander himself what was going to be happening,” said Maj. Tamara Parker, division public affairs officer. “It was good because our commander had a chance to hear what the community leaders were thinking — talk face-to-face, basically.”
Division leaders told the community leaders they’d avoid convoying during peak traffic hours, close off maneuver training areas during simulated battles to prevent accidents, use Korean National Police escorts to manage traffic flow, avoid two-way military traffic on civilian roads and rehearse convoys beforehand.
It’s all part of an effort to prevent another fatal tragedy such as in June 2002, when a tracked vehicle ran over two Korean schoolgirls. The incident set off a spate of occasionally violent anti-American protests and apologies from top U.S. military commanders, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea and even President Bush.
Parker said most of 2nd Brigade’s movements during the exercise will be at night when most children are indoors. “We are trying to do what we can on our side, and at the same time be able to accomplish our mission” to be combat-ready within hours, she said.
Yoon Hong-roh, village chief of Tongyi-ri, a mere seven miles from the DMZ, said relations with the U.S. military are getting better. Vehicles traveling through his neighborhood don’t speed as much as they used to, he said, and local police have been present to help residents.
But incidents still happen, such as in May when a U.S. vehicle bumped into a house. Residents called the 2nd ID, Yoon said, but a community relations officer never came to see the damage. It wasn’t so much about money, he said; “we just needed a simple apology.”
“I fully understand their training, so I know we can’t complain, but when some kind of accident happens I want them to come here immediately and apologize for what they have done.”
Yi said he’s seen less damage from the U.S. military though his area is highly trafficked. But the process of getting money from the Army for damages is still rough, he said. Kyonggi Province — home to most of the villages the U.S. Army traverses — opened an office earlier this year where South Koreans can voice their concerns about co-existing with the U.S. Army or get help filing a claim.