Top 10 stories in South Korea 2008
Turmoil in the RepublicOn the evening of Feb. 10, one of South Korea’s oldest treasures — Namdaemun Gate — burned to the ground. Parts of the gate, the former southern entry way to Seoul, had survived from the 14th century Joseon Dynasty through the country’s 20th century civil war. The loss was an emotional setback in a country whose military, democratic ideology and economy have seen staggering growth and change since the Korean War.
The top 10 stories for the U.S. military here in 2008 showed growth and change as well.
The year saw Americans watching as the South Koreans, for the first time, ran the country’s biggest military exercise to practice response to a North Korean invasion. U.S. Forces Korea announced that more U.S. military families would be stationed in South Korea. The Americans sent half of their Apache helicopters home, permanently.
Yet the two countries’ close relationship had its stresses during the year.
South Koreans protested violently against U.S. beef imports. Harsher enforcement inside U.S. military gaming rooms shut out many local customers and caused overall profits to drop dramatically. The value of the won, tied closely to the dollar, plummeted as the year passed and all began to understand the global effects of America’s recession.
Throughout the year, the U.S. military had some challenges of its own, including a bribery scandal and a horrific murder. Some good news, at least for the Americans, came toward the year’s end. Not only did gas prices drop on bases to below $2 a gallon, but the improved dollar against the won added holiday cheer.
1. Plans for growthThe Department of Defense signs a memorandum on Dec. 1 that will allow more U.S. troops to serve in South Korea with their families in a country noted for one-year, unaccompanied tours. Each service branch must develop implementation plans by March 1, 2009. The plan calls for boosting command-sponsored billets from 2,135 to 14,250 — roughly half the U.S. troop population in South Korea — at a date to be determined.
2. A won meltdownThe South Korean won drops to 1,269 against the dollar on Oct. 6, a new six-year low and 29 percent lower than in November 2007. The won continues to plummet, cutting cost-of-living allowances for many troops in South Korea as their U.S. dollars gain buying power off base. The exchange rate hits 1,512-to-1 on Nov. 24 and rebounds only slightly by the end of the year.
3. A new leaderArmy Gen. Walter Sharp takes command of U.S. Forces Korea, the Combined Forces Command and the UnitedNations Command on June 3, in the midst of major changes in the command’s posture and mission on the peninsula. His priorities include the ongoing relocation of all U.S. forces stationed in and north of Seoul, returning wartime command of South Korean troops to their own government and military leaders, and normalizing tours in South Korea. In mid-August, he relaxes an unpopular curfew for his troops and changes the driving policy to allow more servicemembers to own cars and all servicemembers to get driver’s licenses.
4. Gambling abuseU.S. Forces Korea begins mandatory identification card checks and increased random police checks in military base gaming rooms on Jan. 20. The efforts come after reports that people not authorized to use the slot machines were gambling, running money exchange businesses and offering loans to gamblers. As the year passed, USFK announced stricter consequences for breaking the rules. The efforts would bring a drastic drop in the military’s gaming revenues for South Korea, historically a bigger earner for Morale, Welfare and Recreation than Germany or Japan. February-to-April revenues in South Korea were $8.48 million, a 49 percent drop in the average three-month gross revenue of $16.75 million in fiscal 2007.
5. Contract rules changeU.S. Forces Korea officials confirm in October that they are denying status-of-forces-agreement visas to contractors who were considered "ordinarily resident" in South Korea before receiving SOFA status. Contracting Command Korea rejects SOFA renewals for personnel who, in some cases, worked decades for USFK. The visa denials come on the heels of an Army Audit Agency finding that the contracting command had not properly enforced USFK regulations.Several contractors say that losing their visas means they will lose their jobs because of a mistake USFK originally made.
6. A wife allegedly slainLea Gray, the 27-year-old wife of Army Capt. Christopher Gray, is allegedly murdered on April 20 by her husband in their Camp George apartment in Daegu, South Korea. Her severely decomposed body is found May 9 off a roadway in Waegwan. During a two-day pretrial hearing in August, Army prosecutors at Camp Henry accuse Gray of killing his wife because he was fed up with her marital infidelity and lying. They contend Gray killed her with a lethal dose of over-the-counter medication, then stuffed her body in a suitcase and dumped the corpse north of town. The Army in September announces Gray must stand trial. Officials set trial for Jan. 12, 2009, at Camp Henry.
7. Protests eruptU.S. Forces Korea warns its troops in early June to avoid parts of downtown Seoul that have been turned into virtual war zones by South Korean protesters. Tens of thousands ofprotesters — many angry over a free-trade agreement with the United States that allows U.S. beef into the country — pour into the streets, battling riot police and sending hundredsto local hospitals. Nightly news broadcasts show surreal scenes of the mayhem.
8. Apache helos leavingU.S. Forces Korea announces Nov. 16 that half of its U.S. Army Apache helicopter force on the peninsula will leave in March 2009 for a new home at Fort Carson, Colo. The 1st Battalion, 2nd Aviation Regiment, stationed at Camp Eagle in Wonju, will deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan in 2009. The battalion includes 24 AH-64 Apache Longbow helicopters, about 500 soldiers and about 150 family members. To maintain military capabilities, the military will send 12 A-10 jets to South Korea as part of a six-month rotational deployment. Also, two MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters will deploy to South Korea from Iwakuni, Japan, and a U-2 reconnaissance squadron at Osan Air Base will increase in capacity.
9. Internet scandal continuesSouth Korean businessman Jeong Gi-hwan, chief executive of Internet firm SSRT, is sentenced in Suwon District Court on Jan. 30 for interfering with international trade for bribing officials of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service so SSRT could hold a contract to provide home Internet, phone and cell phone service on U.S. bases in South Korea. Jeong and SSRT are fined a total of about $30,000, and an appellate panel upholds the sentence.
Clifton W. Choy, one of the former AAFES officials whom Jeong is accused of bribing, dies Aug. 29 of heart failure at a time when he faced possible prosecution by U.S. authorities.
On Nov. 19, federal agents in Dallas arrest Jeong when he shows up at AAFES headquarters for a meeting and hold him on U.S. bribery conspiracy charges. His Dallas lawyer contests the allegations. Prosecution documents filed in the case disclose that former AAFES official H. Lee Holloway has allegedly confessed to taking bribes in the case and has made a plea bargain with prosecutors.
10. Hospitals strainedOfficials from the 18th Medical Command say Feb. 4 that they no longer have the resources to serve the entire community at 121 Combat Support Hospital on Yongsan Garrison as the number of community members exceeds what caregivers there can handle. Officials are forced to prioritize patients based on a six-tiered system that puts active-duty servicemembers on top and many Department of Defense retirees on bottom.
Officials say that care for many lower-priority patients will be referred off-post, but they expect an improvement in the situation by April when they increase their staff by about 200 caregivers. By mid-December, the hospital still is using the tier system.