Controversy over policies gave way to cooperation
May 20, 2007
PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — When Army Col. Michael J. Taliento Jr. made farewell remarks at a change- of-command ceremony Friday, he said there had been “no shortage of significant events” during his three years as commander at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek.
Taliento assumed command at Humphreys in June 2004 and found himself caught up in several controversies that put him at odds with South Koreans.
One of those came in August 2005 when Taliento put 12 local establishments off-limits, 11 for selling alcohol to an underage undercover soldier, and a 12th for an instance of suspected prostitution.
Angry local merchants reacted quickly, saying the move was unfair and overzealous.
They hung a large banner in the heart of the bar district, telling Taliento to return to his previous assignment in Afghanistan.
Trouble flared again about a year later, when in June Taliento put two clubs off-limits over allegations of underage drinking.
This time the local merchants called for Taliento to resign, shuttered their businesses for a week in protest, and staged rallies outside the camp.
Meetings ensued between the U.S. military, including Taliento and a one-star general, and the Pyeongtaek mayor and other local officials. The conflict soon was resolved.
“We faced some pretty significant challenges and we’ve faced some pretty emotional responses from the actions I’ve taken to enforce those policies,” Taliento said in an interview with Stars and Stripes last week.
“I don’t think I could tell you I was prepared to see banners go up, but I was prepared to face some significant feedback from the community,” he said. “And what manifested itself was a few individuals leading that engagement with those banners.”
Taliento said both Americans and South Koreans told him then that he was doing the right thing — to stay the course.
“It was reassuring from the aspect that the community understood that. The community embraced and was willing to get through a tough time with me. Because we knew we were standing on the moral high ground,” he said. “We knew that when you try to make change, you’re going to face resistance. You’re going to face a lot of hard times. And we got through it. We worked. We got through it with dialogue and communication, with the city, with the local merchants, and we moved on.”
A second, unrelated controversy was bitter, often violent, and nothing short of national in scope.
It arose over a South Korea-U.S. agreement that will see Camp Humphreys eventually triple in size by expanding onto nearby land.
Anti-U.S. activist groups from around the peninsula joined forces with local farmers to resist South Korean government efforts to move the farmers off the land. In 2005 they began a series of large-scale protest rallies in which demonstrators clashed fiercely with riot police.
Taliento said his main concern was the safety and security of the installation, its personnel and the South Korean police guarding the camp.
“Because almost for a couple of months, back-to-back there, we were almost under siege.” The tensions “forced me to place certain towns off-limits, transportation systems off-limits” to reduce the prospect of “Korean-on-U.S. soldier contact,” he said.
The July 10, 2005, rally stands out as one of the fiercest.
“It was one of the most violent and one of the most intense,” he said. “And it was the one demonstration that really got the installation involved in providing medical support to Korean police that were injured.”
Some demonstrators were actually able to enter the camp that day, he said.
But he said the May 4, 2006, South Korean operation to take control of the contested land was a well-executed turning point that moved the expansion forward.