Local merchants angry about possible delays in Camp Humphreys project
PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — A possible five-year delay in plans to expand Camp Humphreys would prove devastating to Pyeongtaek’s economic prospects and trigger bankruptcies and business closings, outraged local business leaders told Stars and Stripes on Thursday.
Their anger followed Wednesday news reports quoting an anonymous South Korean official as saying the plan to shift U.S. forces from Seoul to Camp Humphreys by 2008 probably would be delayed until 2013.
“What the hell our government is doing now?” asked K.C. Lee, president of the Songtan Chamber of Commerce.
“Extending the relocation is not good,” Lee said. “We have to do some kind of demonstration in front of the Blue House,” South Korea’s presidential offices and residence.
Business leaders said they’re scrambling to strategize how to fight the prospective delay. “It’s a matter of living or dying,” said Lee Hun-hyun, chairman of Realtors Association for USFK in Pyeongtaek’s Anjung-ri section, “because a lot of people will have a severe problem financially.”
Camp Humphreys is set to triple in size by 2008 and become the U.S. military’s flagship installation on the peninsula — part of a South Korea-U.S. agreement to eventually shift U.S. forces from Yongsan in Seoul and points north to regional hubs in Pyeongtaek and the Daegu region.
After moving to those hubs, the U.S. military is to return to South Korea the installations it vacated.
U.S.-South Korean cost-sharing concerns were among reasons the Ministry of National Defense cited for the possible delay, as were construction timetable delays resulting from several large, violent, anti-expansion protests on lands slated for the project.
The relocation plan has set in motion a major surge in investment in Pyeongtaek over the past several years and spawned large-scale planning for regional economic development.
Corporations eyeing the Humphreys expansion and related growth have been buying up land for building high-rise housing developments, Lee Hun-hyun said. Potential investor losses would be worsened by interest payments on their investments, Lee said.
Precise figures were not readily available Thursday, but Lee said the equivalent of hundreds of millions in U.S. dollars have been spent buying land for high-rises.
He also said some investors have spent the equivalent of more than $250,000 on newly built houses for U.S. military families expected to come to the area.
“All of the investors, developers, have put money for the recent deployment of the U.S. troops in Pyeongtaek — that’s why they invested,” Lee said.
“Most people do not invest only their own capital,” he said. “They loan from banks or from their relatives or friends, and of course they have to pay interest.”
With no income coming in, investors will not be able to survive paying interest for years longer than first expected, Lee said.
South Korean government officials have hailed various grand-scale development plans for the region tied to the addition of new U.S. troops there.
Those plans foresee construction by 2008 of a high-speed “KTX” bullet-train station, major expansion of Pyeongtaek Port on the peninsula’s west coast, major development in public works and utilities infrastructure, and the startup of numerous small businesses in the Humphreys area.
Merchants, too, have been counting on the expansion to generate fresh business and lift them from what they’ve said has been two to three years of increasing financial strain brought on by fewer U.S. soldiers in South Korea.
Kim Ki-ho, president of the Anjung-ri Merchants Association in Pyeongtaek, said, “We can’t wait for five years. No make money, no pay the rent. How can we stand four, five years?”
U.S. Forces Korea officials would not comment this week on the possible delay in the Humphreys expansion project.