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UIJONGBU, South Korea — Several hundred South Koreans who work at U.S. bases in Area I protested job cuts announced earlier this week by U.S. Forces Korea, holding a Thursday afternoon rally at Uijongbu Station.

The workers, wearing headbands painted with slogans, chanted, sang, banged drums and waved banners to show their displeasure at plans to move 2nd Infantry Division bases and to highlight their claims for compensation if the bases do close and their jobs are eliminated.

Earlier this week, USFK announced that about 800 of the 2,900 Korean nationals working on Area I bases would lose their jobs; a peninsula-wide hiring freeze has been put into effect in an effort to place as many of those 800 as possible in open jobs throughout South Korea.

South Korean police stood guard at the nearby Camp Falling Water on Thursday but did not approach the protesters, who unfurled large U.S. and South Korean flags in front of the train station while their leaders had their heads shaved as part of the protest.

One of the protesters, Camp Red Cloud telecom technician Kwak Sang-hua, called it unacceptable that hundreds of South Korean workers likely would lose their jobs due to base closures in Area I.

“We are recommending that the U.S. Army should stay. North Korea is very dangerous. The South Korean army is not as powerful as the U.S. Army. We think North Korea will attack if they leave,” he said.

The change in force structure on the peninsula necessitates downgrading of the Korean workforce, U.S. officials have said.

In addition to plans to consolidate and relocate U.S. bases, American officials are pursuing a proposal to remove 12,500 troops from South Korea by the end of 2005.

Another protester, Kim Kyong- yu, who works in Area I’s Civilian Personnel Advisory Center, said the protest’s goal was to persuade the South Korean government to protect the workers’ jobs.

Neither the South Korean government nor the U.S. Army has provisions for compensating the workers, he said.

“Nobody wants to take care of us. If the government or 8th Army wants to reduce their force they have to provide us with some reimbursement for losing our jobs. If we lose our jobs we don’t have any alternative. We just go home,” he said.

According to a USFK press release issued Tuesday, some of the workers will get severance pay and others will be eligible for retirement pay.

But Kim said he is worried about how to take care of his wife and young children if he loses his job.

“I am 35 years old. In Korea if you are over 30 years old, it is almost impossible for you to get another job,” he said.

The job actions could begin as soon as next month, U.S. officials said earlier this week.

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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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