Korean city irked by slow handover of vacated US base
By ASHLEY ROWLAND AND YOO KYONG CHANG | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 16, 2015
SEOUL, South Korea — Angered by the U.S. military’s continuing possession of a long-vacated base, a city near the North Korean border is taking steps to “show its will,” from canceling friendship activities to forcing troops to go to municipal hall to register their cars.
Dongducheon, home to the 2nd Infantry’s Camps Casey and Hovey, notified the military Jan. 9 that it would withdraw its staffer handling private vehicle registrations for troops from Casey on Monday, forcing them to travel to city offices about a mile away.
“It was the quickest and easiest measure we could take under the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and Korean domestic law,” the chief of a city office handling U.S. Forces Korea affairs said.
Dongducheon also plans to halt tours of the city for incoming 2ID soldiers and will no longer invite U.S. troops to take part in its annual Lunar New Year’s Day ceremony next month, he said. The city is also considering halting other friendship events with 2ID.
At issue is when U.S. Forces Korea will return Camp Castle, which it said closed in 2010, to South Korean control. The city says negotiations on the return that have been going on for several years have been postponed.
USFK said in a statement it is ready now to turn over 38 acres about 1.8 miles from city hall.
“Camp Castle will be returned as soon as the (South Korean) government agrees to accept the return,” the statement said. The command would not elaborate on why the handover has apparently stalled and referred questions to South Korea.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the two countries are currently discussing the handover of the base through Status of Forces Agreement channels including an environmental subcommittee, but the timing of the return has not been decided. The ministry did not provide further details.
Dongducheon had hoped to turn the vacant base into a university campus that city officials believe would bolster the local economy.
In a Dec. 20 letter to USFK commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, Mayor Oh Se-chang wrote that “the close relationship between Korea and the U.S. is facing a challenge at the moment” because USFK has not returned Castle, thus jeopardizing its development plans. He called reviving the local economy “the most important task I have been promoting since I became the mayor.”
USFK is scheduled to return a number of bases to South Korea in coming years as it consolidates the bulk of its troop presence to regional hubs, including Camp Humphreys in Pyongtaek, where a major expansion is under way.
Concerns about the threat posed by North Korea led Washington and Seoul to agree last fall to keep 2ID’s 210th Field Artillery Brigade at Casey after the relocation. The 8th Army said last month no decision has been made on whether other units will remain behind in Area I, which extends from just north and east of Seoul up to the Demilitarized Zone.
Approximately 5,900 soldiers are assigned to 2ID in that area.
Dongducheon has asked the national government for $2.7 billion in compensation to offset alleged damage to its economy and delays in its development plans caused by the lingering U.S. military presence.
Plans to indefinitely delay the transfer of wartime operational control from the U.S. to South Korea and to leave the combined forces headquarters in Seoul until the transfer occurs, also announced in the fall, have also contributed to uncertainty within South Korea about troop movements.
In his letter, Oh said delaying negotiations on the return of Castle, along with “aggressive sentiment” about the residual 210th Field Artillery Brigade forces, will increase anti-American feelings.
“If that happens, even I, who have been at the forefront of promoting friendship between Korea and the U.S., will face great difficulties,” said Oh, who could not immediately be reached for comment.
Dongducheon officials said last month the city is considering a large-scale protest and a nonbinding referendum on whether the U.S. troop presence should remain. Officials said Wednesday they are waiting for a response from the national government before moving forward.
City officials also expect to meet with representatives of several national ministries this month to discuss local concerns about the residual U.S. presence.