SEOUL — South Korea has rejected America’s attempts to return 25 closed military camps, calling for environmental cleanup standards that exceed those agreed upon by the Status of Forces Agreement, according to U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. B.B. Bell.

And that issue, Bell told members of the Korea Defense Forum during a speech Monday morning, must be resolved to keep “relocation efforts on track, and the fabric of our alliance as strong as it is.” A copy of the speech was provided to Stars and Stripes.

In the last three years, Bell said, USFK closed 32 installations, but the South Korean government has only accepted seven.

The 11,000 acres of land on those 25 bases are worth more than $527 million, Bell said, and “once the Korean government receives the land, it can use it and the capital improvements in any way desired for the betterment of the Korean people.”

He said the United States has tried to return the land in the past 18 months based on the SOFA.

“In that time, the Republic of Korea has decided to require the U.S. to achieve a new standard for camp returns, a standard outside our mutually agreed-to SOFA,” he said. “This new standard would require extensive environmental remediation to essentially return the land to pre-Korean War conditions.”

And when the United States sought compromise, offering and executing additional cleanup efforts including the removal of underground fuel tanks on all camps and underground water table remediation on five camps, Bell said, South Korea rejected the offer.

“It is fair to say that we loved this land and its people enough to die for it,” Bell said. “To state now that we have been irresponsible stewards of Korean land, while standing side by side with you, is a charge that hurts my heart.”

The agreement between the countries states that the United States is not required “to restore the facilities and areas to the condition they were in at the time they became available to the U.S., or to compensate the government of the ROK in lieu of such restoration,” Bell said.

Instead, the United States must “remedy known, imminent, and substantial endangerments to human health.”

Bell said those fixes were made. In exchange, he said, Korea agreed to accept the land “as-is.”

He said the United States made a long-term commitment to South Korea’s defense in the “aftermath of the ashes of the Korean War.”

“Over nearly 60 years, we have invested billions of U.S. dollars to build and maintain military facilities for our servicemembers, and invested huge amounts to train, exercise and modernize our joint and combined formations,” he said. America didn’t allow economic hardships or “competing demands for our military forces around the world” to affect the commitment in South Korea, he said.

Bell said the United States can’t charge South Korea for capital improvements such as buildings and other facilities when returning land.

“We give back the land, the buildings, the facilities and any improvements free to the Korean government for its use as desired, regardless of the dollar investment the United States has made over the years,” Bell said.

“This provision means when we close and return our base camps, the U.S. forfeits the billions of dollars of improvements made over the years,” he said.

The empty camps — which USFK officials have said cost about $400,000 a month to guard — must be returned, Bell said.

“The United States needs to return these base camp lands to the Korean people for their use and for their benefit. We need to do it in accordance with our SOFA and the additional measures offered by the United States beyond the SOFA,” Bell said. “And again, we need to do it now.”

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