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South Korea Pushing US Relocation

President and First Lady Bush on a recent visit to South Korea.
by Jong-Heon Lee
UPI Correspondent
Seoul (UPI) May 05, 2006
South Korea has pressed ahead with the planned relocation of U.S. bases in the country, cracking down on local residents and anti-American activists. Some 13,000 riot police were mobilized Thursday to break up protesters who occupied a school complex in an area designated for expanded U.S. military facilities, resulting in violent clashes and injuries.

Just after the forced expulsion, the defense minister issued a statement vowing to carry out the relocation, calling it necessary to deter North Korea and South Korea's balanced territorial development.

But civic groups and some lawmakers blasted the forced expulsion, pledging all-out campaigns against the construction of new American facilities in Pyeongtaek, 45 miles south of Seoul.

The expansion of Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek is part of the repositioning of U.S. bases in South Korea.

Under a 2004 accord, the United States will redeploy frontline U.S. ground forces to south of Seoul, in one of the biggest relocations of American forces in the country since the 1950-53 Korean War.

In the land swap deals, the United States is required to gradually hand back 34 of its 41 military bases across the country by 2011; in return South Korea will assign alternative land for the reconsolidation of U.S. troops.

South Korea has offered 12 million square meters of land in the Pyeongtaek area for an expanded U.S. base to be built by 2008.

Under the plan, another 5,000 troops in the Seoul-based headquarters of the U.S. Forces Korea would move into Pyeongtaek. The high-profile presence of the Yongsan Garrison in central Seoul has been a constant source of anti-American protests.

The relocation is part of a U.S. global troop realignment plan to transform its fixed units worldwide into mobile, capability-based forces under its Global Posture Review plan to better deal with new security threats such as terrorism and rogue states.

The relocation plan has triggered security jitters in South Korea as the 2nd Infantry Division, made up of some 50 percent of the 32,500 U.S. forces stationed in South Korea, has long been regarded as a "tripwire" that could automatically lead to U.S. involvement in the case of an invasion by North Korea.

The realignment plan has also caused protests by local residents calling for more financial compensation and anti-American activists opposed to the U.S. military presence.

Some residents -- backed by anti-U.S. activists -- refused to leave their homes on the site of the planned expansion to protest the government's procurement of the area. They occupied a school situated on the land in protest.

After attempts to persuade the residents to leave their homes failed, the government mobilized 10,000 riot police to evict protesters.

Clashes erupted as police armed with batons stormed the elementary school compound where hundreds of protesters were holed up.

Protesters hurled rocks and wielded sticks to keep the police at bay, shouting slogans such as "Stop expanding the U.S. military base in Pyeongtaek No war on the Korean peninsula!" But they were overwhelmed and arrested by baton-wielding riot police. More than 20 police and protesters were injured during the scuffle.

Shortly after the forced eviction, troops, backed by helicopters, began establishing a barbed-wire fence around a vast track of paddy fields to secure the expansion of the camp.

The Defense Ministry sent some 3,000 troops, including 600 military engineers, and about 700 civilian security personnel and heavy equipment to build the fence.

In a statement, Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung said his government could not delay the relocation program because it was agreed upon by the two counties and endorsed by parliament.

"We cannot afford to let this state project drift further. We decided to designate the area the government has purchased so far as a military facility protection zone," Yoon said.

"I feel very, very sorry to see a social controversy arising over the base relocation plan, a national project agreed on between Seoul and Washington, and later approved by the National Assembly," he said.

But officials are concerned that the Pyeongtaek area may serve as a new site for anti-U.S. movements in the country because the protest against the relocation was backed by anti-American civic activists and students.

The Democratic Labor Party held a press conference to call for the suspension of the U.S. military expansion plan and dismissal of the defense minister for the clashes. Lim Jeong-in, a ruling Uri Party lawmaker, also asked for the withdrawal of the troops from Pyeongtaek.

Under a mutual defense treaty, since the 1950-1953 Korean War some 32,000 American troops have been stationed in South Korea against North Korea's 1.1-million-strong army.

Source: United Press International

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