Soldiers say they receive warm welcome from South Koreans
This is the second day of a two-day series exploring the South Korean population’s perception of the U.S. military presence.
SEOUL — On a recent weekday evening, Pfc. David King was one of just a trickle of U.S. soldiers strolling through Itaewon, the bar and restaurant district outside the Army’s Yongsan Garrison in Seoul.
And that’s a shame, the 22-year-old said.
Whenever he goes off post — especially outside of Itaewon — he gets a warm welcome from South Koreans, who he believes support the U.S. military presence here.
U.S. troops sometimes get a less-than-friendly greeting in Itaewon, he said, because South Koreans there see the troops at their worst — looking for women and cheap drinks. But for the most part, South Koreans seem to like them.
“Some of them do, and some of them don’t. Of course, some people don’t like us in any country we’re in,” said King, 22, who has been stationed at Yongsan for seven months.
Senior Airman Katie Gutierrez, 22, can speak directly to that feeling.
She said she’s been warmly welcomed — even hugged — by South Koreans during her first month at Osan Air Base.
“All I can say is that they do seem overly friendly, and it seems that they like us here,” she said. “Which is really good to know, because I came from Italy, where they seemed ... like they didn’t want us there. But here it seems opposite. They’re just very accommodating.”
Pfc. Chad Smith, 21, said troops get especially warm welcomes outside Seoul, where foreigners are a novelty.
“If you go to a Korean area of town, where it’s nothing but Koreans and no Americans, they like you,” said Smith, who has been in South Korea for eight months. “They’re always waving and saying hi.”
U.S. troops interviewed for this story said they get a bad reputation because of a small number of troops who get in trouble.
“You pick up the paper — every other week or so it’s some kind of scandal going on or somebody’s being assaulted, rapes,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Boyd Neckerman, 33. “Unfortunately, that kind of negativity’s going to get out.”
Now at the end of his second one-year tour at Osan, Neckerman said he’s had only positive exchanges with South Koreans.
Sgt. Roger Conklin, stationed at Camp Red Cloud, said it’s the younger generation in Seoul that doesn’t seem to accept the U.S. military. Older South Koreans, however, remember the destruction of the Korean War and the decades of hardship afterward.
“They want us to be here,” Conklin said. “They know what North Korea is capable of doing. The younger ones, they think that we’re the reason they can’t unify.”
Now on his third tour in South Korea, Conklin thinks the U.S. military needs to be here.
“Until the threat is gone, I don’t think that we should be gone,” he said.
Staff Sgt. Oscar Ramos, also stationed at Camp Red Cloud, disagreed.
“In my opinion, Koreans can take care of themselves,” he said.
Other than a surly bus driver who didn’t stop for a group of Americans, Sgt. Johnny Roebuck said he hasn’t had any negative experiences.
But USFK’s curfew and no-driving policy for Area I isn’t helping U.S. troops make friends with South Koreans, he said.
“With the curfew, to me it’s not even worth leaving base,” he said. “On the weekend, or any day, you can only go so far. You can get a pass, but you still have to be inside. The curfew really limits how much you can experience.”
Near the end of his second yearlong tour at Osan, Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Rios, 28, said South Koreans have made him feel welcome here, and many airmen in his shop have Korean girlfriends.
“I’ve been to Suwon and Seoul and enjoyed the time,” he said. “I just go there with a positive attitude, and people usually kind of respond in the same way.”