South Korea ordered to pay villagers $7.8M in Koon-ni Range noise dispute
January 16, 2005
PYONGTAEK, South Korea — A judge has ordered South Korea’s government to pay millions in compensation to villagers who suffered from noise at a controversial firing range used for decades by American warplanes for bombing and strafing practice.
South Korea’s Seoul Central District Court on Thursday ordered the government to pay $7.8 million to 1,900 residents of Maehyang-ni, near Koon-ni Range, the court’s chief judge, Kang Jae-chul, told Stars and Stripes on Friday.
Maehyang-ni consists of five small villages near the range, which is on a small, uninhabited island off South Korea’s west coast.
U.S. fighter planes had used the range for ordnance training since the 1950s, but strafing practice was halted in August 2000 amid area residents’ complaints that the noise of jets, and that of strafing and bombing, had caused them physical damage.
The U.S. military is set to transfer jurisdiction over the range to the South Korean government later this year.
Officials at U.S. Forces Korea were unavailable for comment Friday because of a training holiday, the USFK public affairs office said.
The Maehyang-ni villagers sued the South Korean government in August 2001, saying noise at the range had caused hearing loss, stress, sleeping problems and hypertension.
In its ruling Thursday, the court acknowledged that the firing range had served a purpose in the public’s interest. But it said noise from the range exceeded standard levels more than 10 times daily in a residential area that lacked a buffer zone.
That, the court said, had posed “unbearable suffering” for the villagers, an official of the court’s criminal division said Friday.
Chon Man-gyu, head of the Maehyang-ni Residents’ Solution Committee, which opposes the U.S. military’s weapons training in the area, said he welcomed the ruling, even though it fell short of the $364 million the group had asked for in its lawsuit.
Despite the amount of the award, the ruling represented an acknowledgment that residents’ rights had been “infringed,” upon and that their efforts “at last paid off,” Chon said.
“We plan to use a big portion of this compensation money to build an ecological park and a museum contributing to peace, equality and justice on the firing range that has been shut down by our efforts,” Chon said Friday.
In a separate court action last year, South Korea’s Supreme Court upheld a 2001 court decision awarding about $10,000 each to 14 Maehyang-ni residents who brought a class-action claim against the government because of noise from the range.