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SEOUL — South Koreans protested here Monday and Tuesday against U.S. Forces Korea, saying the U.S. military’s plan to clean up its current and former bases doesn’t go far enough to ensure toxic materials are removed from the land and facilities, according to one civic group, Green Korea.

The protesters criticized USFK commander Gen. B.B. Bell’s recent statements that environmental cleanup concerns could harm the alliance between South Korea and the United States, according to Go Ji-sun, spokeswoman for Green Korea.

About 100 people — including representatives from legal, religious, environmental and media groups — gathered Monday in the Insadong neighborhood in Seoul to protest, Go said. On Tuesday, a handful of people sat outside Gate 10 of Yongsan Garrison, USFK’s headquarters base in South Korea, raising similar issues.

USFK is handing over almost 60 bases to the South Koreans as part of a plan to restructure the American military here and centralize its command south of Seoul. Already, nearly two dozen bases have been given back to South Korea, though many still are being guarded by U.S.-hired local contractors until South Korea fully accepts the bases.

Current agreements require the United States to vacate the land and any infrastructure in place and to clean only areas that contain “imminent and substantial endangerments to human health and safety.”

Earlier this month, USFK presented its plan to go beyond that agreement by removing underground storage tanks, removing lead and copper left at former firing ranges, removing refrigeration and air-conditioning chemicals and other remediation techniques.

Environmental groups such as Green Korea have said that effort does not go far enough, especially when it comes to cleaning soil on the bases.

On Tuesday, a USFK spokesman declined to comment on this week’s protests. Earlier this month, Bell talked about the issue in an interview with Stars and Stripes.

“This is an area where, in my view, certain groups worldwide and in the Republic of Korea have decided to leverage this issue, potentially to create some distance, potentially, between the United States and Korea,” he said. “My sense is that the United States government has gone far beyond what one would consider appropriate given the value issue of the land, the utility of the land [that] is going to be accrued by the [Republic of Korea] government and the provisions” of the current agreement.

On Monday, Go criticized that statement. She also said the South Korean government shared the blame and that both countries should have open discussions about the environmental issues.

The next meeting between the two countries to discuss military issues, including the base handovers, is to be May 18, a USFK spokesman said. The Security Policy Initiative meetings typically have been closed.


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