US, South Korea agree to increase public transparency of military affairs
By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 21, 2017
SEOUL, South Korea — The United States and South Korea agreed Tuesday to increase public transparency by promising to “disclose non-confidential information” related to the U.S. military presence on the divided peninsula.
The decision, which was made during a meeting between the two allies to discuss their status of forces agreement, followed outrage over the installation of an advanced U.S. missile-defense system in South Korea despite protests and concern over environmental pollution from military bases.
The bilateral agreement known as SOFA outlines the legal terms governing the 28,500 U.S. servicemembers stationed in South Korea as well as their dependents and civilian contractors working for the Defense Department.
“The Joint Committee discussed cooperative efforts to further enhance transparency of SOFA related affairs with the Korean public,” U.S. Forces Korea said in a statement.
“The Joint Committee agreed to cooperate in every possible way to disclose non-confidential information related to SOFA implementing agreements to enhance public awareness and using well-established SOFA procedures,” it added.
Anger rose earlier this year when the U.S. military trucked in several components of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, known as THAAD, in an overnight operation that critics saw as an effort to rush the battery into place before a snap presidential election that threatened to delay the move.
Seoul and Washington agreed last year to station THAAD on the divided peninsula to counter the growing nuclear and missile threat from North Korea, but many South Koreans protested the decision due to fears of negative health and economic effects.
President Moon Jae-in’s new administration initially suspended the deployment but later allowed it to proceed on a temporary basis after the North stepped up its nuclear weapons program with a series of missile tests.
USFK insists THAAD is defensive in nature and said the deployment was carried out in full cooperation with South Korea’s defense ministry.
Two civil-rights groups petitioned for the defense ministry to disclose details of the bilateral negotiations leading to THAAD’s deployment, but the suit was dismissed by an administrative court that said the information is classified, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
The United States also faces complaints about the environmental fallout from its operations on the divided peninsula. Concern has risen as the military begins moving the bulk of its forces to regional hubs south of Seoul and prepares to turn over long-occupied bases to the South Korean government.
Most recently, the environmental ministry said on-site inspections found that soil and groundwater inside Camp Market, a base west of Seoul, had been contaminated with chemicals, oil and other potentially harmful substances.
USFK said the initiative to improve transparency was on display in addressing the contamination at Camp Market as well as the land grant for THAAD, which has been placed on a former golf course in the remote southeastern area of Seongju.
The SOFA committee “recognized concerns for environmental protection and decided to continue constructive consultation on environmental issues related to” USFK installations, it said. The two sides also promised “faithful implementation” of established environmental assessment procedures in “conducting real estate grants and returns.”
Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas Bergeson, USFK’s deputy commander, and Cho Koo-rae of the foreign ministry’s North America bureau, led the 198th SOFA meeting, which is held at least once a year to discuss pending issues.