Base realignment in Korea spurs protest
Farmers demonstrated Thursday constru intensified on a base that will expand to include US headquarters.
DAECHURI, SOUTH KOREA — Cho Sun Rie remembers when the Japanese seized her family's land in the 1930s - and when the land was swallowed up again 15 years later as fighting engulfed the rice paddies and pear orchards here during the Korean War. Now, her family faces a third land grab - and she's not yielding.
"I had to give birth in a tent during the Korean War," says Ms. Cho, a spry 89, after attending Catholic mass in a chapel near the American base of Camp Humphreys in Pyongtaek, a commuter town 30 miles south of Seoul. "Now it's a real sorrow to be forced to give up our land again."
Behind her sorrow - and serious clashes here Thursday between hundreds of protesters and thousands of policemen - is the expansion of Camp Humphreys, part of a "global repositioning" of US forces. By the time the project is finished at the end of 2008, the base will cover 3,600 acres, tripling in size from its current 1,210 acres.
Any new base would force some people to leave their homes in this densely populated country. But at a time of shifting aims, it's provided a focal point for protest.
In a society that's risen from the ruins of the Korean war to become the world's 10th richest country, ambivalence about the US presence pervades the outlook of officials as well as ordinary citizens.
The government has pursued a relatively independent foreign policy in quest of reconciliation with North Korea. At the same time, however, many Koreans are concerned that the US consolidation moves are part of an elaborate cover for the United States to withdraw its forces completely.
The emotional outpouring here, which is reaching a crescendo as serious work begins, has embarrassed Korean and American officials.
"We need US forces in Korea," says a Defense Ministry official. "We don't know what will happen yet. It is too early for them to leave. We have to have this base. Most people understand."
Camp Humphreys represents the critical element in an overall plan for "reducing and consolidating" - cutting US bases in Korea to 10 from 71, and slashing US troop levels from 37,000 two years ago to 29,500 today on the way to about 25,000 by the end of the decade.
The new base will include the headquarters of US forces in Korea, moving from their historic setting in central Seoul, as well as the combat forces currently positioned between Seoul and the line with North Korea, 30 miles north of the capital.
To both Korean and US officials, the logic is simple. The argument for clearing out of Seoul is that the base has long been a target for periodic angry demonstrations against the large US military presence in the capital city.
The move, moreover, returns immensely valuable real estate and parkland to the government, which already has built a National Museum over what had once been a golf course for US troops.
Beyond that, Pentagon planners argue that US forces can be more effective by moving well out of the range of the North's artillery.
"If you're going to be a strategic reserve, you need to be back where you can reinforce better," says the US command spokesman.
Throughout the day Thursday in Pyongtaek, about 3,000 Korean soldiers labored furiously to surround the targeted expansion area, still the home for about 400 families, with 15 miles of barbed wire, sealing off rice paddies planted with fresh seedlings by farmers and students.
But as work intensified, more than 10,000 policemen stormed an abandoned school where activists, led by a Roman Catholic priest, battled them with rocks and bamboo poles.
"This land is ours for agriculture, not for war," said the Rev. Moon Jung Hyeon, the leader of the protest, who has made the village his home for the past two years of demonstrations. "The people are still living here. They don't want to get out. We are going to fight this violation of rights."
On the street through town, farmers shared that sentiment, even though the government is offering families several hundred thousand dollars apiece to go elsewhere.
Many activists promised peaceful protests - in contrast to Thursday's violence - as a huge payloader slammed into the school building on the way to leveling it in the first step to preparing the land.
Assemblyman Im Jung In, who stayed on the roof of the school with the priests until convinced to come down by promises that earlier detained protesters would be released, suggested a compromise.
"I think the government has to negotiate with America about this area," he said.
But as thousands of police settled in for the night, the struggle was far from done.