South Korean public's support for US bases ebbs
Last week's apology for a chemical spill does little to reduce friction between US troops and some S. Koreans.
UIJONGBU, SOUTH KOREA
When Jun Sik-hyun was a little boy, he remembers seeing US soldiers arrive in his hometown and thinking that they were angels who had come to save him.Skip to next paragraph
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"I thought they were from heaven, or from outer space," says Mr. Jun, now in his 50s, sitting with his buddies beneath a sidewalk parasol on a sunny fall day. "The soldiers were my idols. I begged them for chewing gum and chocolates, and one soldier wanted to take me to the US and adopt me."
Jun stayed, however, and so did the US troops. His hometown, once little more than a farming village northeast of Seoul, swelled into a city sprawl that houses working-class commuters to the South Korean capital. It is also home to Camp Red Cloud, the 2nd Infantry Division Headquarters.
To be certain, the local economy sprouted up around this base, which now encompasses 164 acres of land and houses some of the 37,000 US troops who are stationed throughout the country.
But now that democratic South Korea and Communist North Korea appear to be making strides toward reconciliation, crowned in June by an unprecedented summit meeting between the leaders of the two erstwhile enemy states, people here seem to be growing more vocal about their distaste for the bases that enjoy prime South Korean real estate.
The necessity of America's formidable military presence in East Asia - including the 37,000 troops here and the equal number of US military personnel in Japan - will be a key question facing the next president. Gov. George W. Bush has indicated that he would draw down the number of troops based here, while Vice President Al Gore has fallen in line with the Clinton administration, suggesting that it is a bit premature to speak about rejiggering the power balance in the region.
The complaints run the gamut, from those who say the troops drink too much and make a ruckus at night, to those who charge that special legal privileges for US troops allow them to act as though they are above the law. The now-dense city of Uijongbu, with a population of about 350,000, wouldn't mind having the land back for its own development.
"People are saying that it would be nice to build something where the base is, even a park," says Jun. "When things happen, people adopt bad stereotypes about [the troops'] behavior. I know that they're here to protect us, but they act as though they're the first-grade people and we're the second- or third-class citizens."
Indeed, even though the two Koreas have made vague pledges to reunify in the long term - and the short-term outlook for a North Korean attack on the South is close to nil - many of the harshest critics of the US bases say they are not demanding Washington pull every soldier out of South Korea. Rather, opponents say they want the US to clean up its act, especially on environmental and criminal issues.
Anti-base groups point to the spill earlier this year of formaldehyde into the Han River which runs through Seoul - a city that also has grown up around a US base - as evidence that the US military has been polluting South Korea. The US apologized for the dumping, but Army officials say the impact of the discharge was negligible.