USFK Korean Employees Union Kangwon chapter representative Yi Un Song stands in front of a banner protesting plans to close Camp Page.

USFK Korean Employees Union Kangwon chapter representative Yi Un Song stands in front of a banner protesting plans to close Camp Page. (Seth Robson / S&S)

CAMP PAGE, South Korea — More than 400 South Korean Camp Page employees say they fear they’ll be left in the cold when the base closes early next year.

Camp Page, slated to shut down as early as March, is one of several U.S. Army bases near the Demilitarized Zone to be returned to the South Korean government over the next few months. The 2nd Infantry Division, which occupies Camp Page, also plans to pull out of six Western Corridor bases by the end of this year.

The camp closures mean hundreds of South Korean base employees are being shuffled to other bases throughout South Korea. Under a program the 8th Army instituted earlier this year, those employees have first priority to fill open jobs at other camps. Military officials said they are making every effort to keep as many employees as possible.

However, they said, unlike employees at other Area I U.S. bases, Camp Page workers lack the right to “bump” automatically to jobs at nearby U.S. facilities. The bumping system gives priority to workers with longer tenure or service in South Korea’s military; it allows workers from a closing installation to move into jobs occupied by more junior employees at another base.

Camp Page employees cannot bump because the base is in a separate “competition area” from other Area I camps, said Maggie Thomas, Camp Red Cloud’s Civilian Personnel Advisory Center director. The only exception, she said: Workers over 60, who can lose their jobs at other installations to make way for Camp Page workers.

In contrast, Thomas said, six Western Corridor bases closing by year’s end are in the same competition area as camps Casey and Red Cloud, two large bases to remain open.

Every effort would be made to find the Camp Page workers jobs at U.S. facilities, she said Nov. 1.

At the camp, in the picturesque Kangwon Province bordering the DMZ’s eastern half, employees have staged regular demonstrations to protest the closures.

Yi Un-song of the USFK Korean Employees Union said last week deciding to close the camp early next year shocked employees. “We expected it to close around 2011,” Yi said.

Most of the more than 400 South Koreans base employees would like to keep working for USFK, union officials have said — and if possible, to stay close to Chunchon, their hometown, which surrounds Camp Page.

But union officials have said Camp Page workers hold out little hope of getting Area I jobs because USFK already is seeking jobs there for 657 Western Corridor base employees. “When Camp Page closes we have no place to go except positions in Areas II or III,” Yi said.

Base workers believe they will fare poorly if they must compete in South Korea’s job market, he said. “We will have to have a lot of training,” Yi said. “The American system is very different from the Korean system. I have been working here for more than 30 years, since I retired from the ROK (Republic of Korea) Army. If I had to work at (Chunchon) City Hall I doubt I could make it.”

“The Korean government is not doing anything for us. The average age (of Camp Page base workers) here is around 40. They have high school children and children at university. They need the money,” Yi said.

In February, Camp Page community relations officer Song Hyon, 47, of Chunchon, would have worked 20 years at the base, in a variety of jobs.

Song, with a third-grader and a sixth-grader, said he badly wants to keep his USFK job and he does not relish moving to a hierarchical South Korean office environment.

“The work situation here is very comfortable. Everything is fair. If we work hard we get paid. It is really hard for a middle-aged person with the Korean job situation. Jobs are really hard to get,” Song said.

What base workers really want is for Camp Page to stay open, he said: “We want to stay here. Even after reunification (of North and South Korea) USFK needs to stay here.”

Thomas said 361 positions are being abolished at the Western Corridor bases but that the move has affected 561 employees, including staff at other installations who have been bumped down the pay grades to make way for more senior Western Corridor employees.

Many temporary employees and workers older than 60 are losing their jobs but no permanent employee, full time or part time, was forced out, she said. Also, 58 full time employees not offered other Area I jobs had the option of moving to other jobs outside the area, but some decided not to accept, Thomas said.

Employees who choose to take up jobs outside Area I will have their moving costs paid by their employer, she said.

A hiring freeze imposed throughout the Korean employee system in anticipation of the base closures will remain in effect with vacant positions held for the Camp Page workers, Thomas said.

Although Camp Eagle, the nearest U.S. facility, will have room for few Camp Page workers, it is hoped all full-time Camp Page workers will be offered jobs, she said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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