Gen. LaPorte seeks camaraderie with S. Koreans
Stars and Stripes June 6, 2003
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Gen. Leon J. LaPorte will tell you there’s some bonding power in eating kimchi and hamburgers and drinking beer.
As part of his outreach efforts to the South Korean media, the U.S. Forces Korea commander invited members of the Defense Ministry press corps two weeks ago to Yongsan Garrison for a volleyball game. It was a small component of LaPorte’s Good Neighbor program, designed to improve relations with South Koreans.
“We want to cultivate the personal interactions,” LaPorte said. “We want to create a positive image.”
LaPorte, 56, is about a year into his tour here, but he’s no stranger to South Koreans. He served in Vietnam from 1969-70 as a captain alongside South Korean soldiers with the Tiger and White Horse divisions.
LaPorte’s strategy to educate the South Korean public about U.S. forces has been aggressive.
LaPorte said he had five media interviews set up over two days, rare face time for a man who would be in charge of all military forces in South Korea if war broke out on the peninsula.
The Korean media and USFK have battled in recent months, with U.S. spokesmen releasing statements that contradict local news reports.
Tensions between South Koreans and the U.S. military have flared over North Korea policy, accidents and crimes by U.S. soldiers, and the ever-controversial status of forces agreement — the rules that govern U.S. forces in South Korea.
Opposition to U.S. forces often comes from well-organized university students, who have staged sizable protests in Seoul and outside U.S. bases. They bolstered a sweeping anti-American movement that South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun used in December to power his election campaign.
USFK has little published information on the Internet in the Korean language, but that’s changing, LaPorte said. A company has been contracted to publish a Korean-language Web site devoted to announcing U.S. forces’ messages.
“In the past, we haven’t had a means of communication in Hangul on the Internet,” LaPorte said. “Now, we have developed this Hangul Web site.”
Bases have held open houses to allow ordinary Koreans to see what goes on at a U.S. military post, the equipment used — and the servicemembers who use it. U.S. units are working with orphanages, teaching English in Korean schools and working together with South Korean military units, LaPorte said.
USFK has even invited young Korean National Police officers onto base to use facilities and participate in sports days, LaPorte added. The policemen — most are around the same age as U.S. servicemembers — stand outside the gates of this base 24 hours a day in sometimes-miserable weather to provide additional security.
Last month, LaPorte hosted the Good Neighbor Awards ceremony, which honored five Koreans who have supported cooperation between the United States and South Korea. Framed photos of the five winners are on display in the hallway of LaPorte’s headquarters at Yongsan.
A hot line has been established for South Koreans who have questions or complaints about the base, LaPorte said. It opened about a month ago.
USFK has also stepped up efforts “to educate our servicemembers so that they can interact more positively with the Korean society,” LaPorte said. Soldiers have been encouraged to take part in unit activities with the South Korean community.
“We want as many people to get involved as possible,” LaPorte said. “There are great opportunities here.”