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.
"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.
The activists, who hold monthly protests outside the enormous Yongsam base in Seoul, also say that US troops are not held accountable for their crimes because the SOFA - the Status of Forces Agreement that the US has with South Korea and some 80 other countries - puts prosecution of most US troops' crimes in the hands of US officials, not local authorities. "There is a fundamental problem here: The US soldiers don't view Koreans as having the same rights as they do," says Cho Sun-ah, leader of a protest group in Seoul demanding revisions of the SOFA.
But, say US military officials, perhaps there isn't a great deal of crime committed by US troops, and when offenses are committed, military personnel are given stiffer treatment than they would under Korean law. "Part of the purpose of the SOFA is to ensure that soldiers can be prosecuted under the US military code of justice or under Korean law, and usually, the military code of justice is more severe," says a US official in Seoul. In Japan, too, the image of US troops being bad neighbors and literally "getting away with murder" is mostly myth, American officials argue.
But crime in the other direction may be on the rise. In June, a military physician from Texas was stabbed to death outside the Yongsam base in Seoul; other Americans have been targeted. For some, the June summit between the two Koreas sparked nationalist emotions, and amid the apparent rise in anti-American sentiment, troops have been told to try to use the buddy system. One soldier in Uijongbu says, "When you go downtown, I've seen it written on the wall, 'Yankees go home.' " On the drinking and fighting soldiers here do on their off time: "There are a lot of soldiers who make it hard for the rest of us. You're kind of ambassadors while your'e here," she says. Says one young military officer, heading home to change for the evening rather than wear his fatigues about town: "I have to say, I don't feel particularly safe here, in uniform or not."
That's a far cry from the days when Americans were the darlings of South Korea. At the time of the Korean conflict 50 years ago, this was one of the poorest countries in Asia. Now it has become an economic tiger with a growing middle class. Prices for many goods are higher here than they are in the US soldiers' hometowns. "I have seen US soldiers taking these boots and putting them in their bags," charges Yang Kun-shik, picking up a pair of shiny black shoes from a rack at a men's store. "If I send them to the police, they let them go because they don't want problems. They [soldiers] can stay after reunification [of North and South Korea], but they should stop taking advantage of us and ruining our environment."
But a united Korea is still a far-off ideal that many doubt will be realized, given North Korea's erratic history, communist ideology, and most of all, its nuclear weapons program. "Most sensible people understand why we need the Americans here. We can't forget that we have a war on with North Korea, with a very tentative armistice," says Kyongsoo Lho, professor of international politics at Seoul National University. "The troops are a security umbrella for which most South Koreans are grateful."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society