US continues to dodge responsibility for decontaminating Yongsan Garrison

Posted on : 2019-12-12 17:18 KST Modified on : 2019-12-12 17:34 KST
Conservative estimates for clean-up costs around US$84.2 million
The USFK's Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. (Kim Hye-yun, reporter)
The USFK's Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. (Kim Hye-yun, reporter)

The agreement by South Korea and the US on Dec. 11 to initiate return procedures for Yongsan Garrison marks the first step toward Yongsan being completely returned to the people of Seoul after housing foreign troops for more than a century of Korea’s modern history. This comes 15 years after the two sides agreed in 2004 on a Yongsan Relocation Plan (YRP) establishing the necessary rules, schedule, and implementation procedures to complete the relocation of the UN Command (UNC), Combined Forces Command (CFC), and US Forces Korea Command from within the Seoul area.

Agreement to return 4 US Army bases (Dec. 11)
Agreement to return 4 US Army bases (Dec. 11)

The decision by South Korea and the US also means that plans by the South Korean government and city of Seoul to convert the Yongsan Garrison area into a public park are set to gain momentum. While the government initially planned to begin cleanup procedures this year for soil in the Yongsan Garrison area, no progress has been made as the return procedures have become bogged down. The park plan first drew attention as a project for a “new Yongsan” in 2005 when then President Roh Moo-hyun announced a plan to pursue the construction of a national park, which was followed in 2007 by the enactment of the Special Act on the Establishment of Yongsan Park.

Currently, more or less the only facility remaining at Yongsan Garrison is Dragon Hill Lodge, which is used as accommodations for CFC and US troops. The USFK Command relocated to Pyeongtaek in June 2018, following the US 8th Army headquarters’ relocation there roughly a year earlier in July 2017. According to the Yongsan Garrison relocation agreement, the relocation of UNC, CFC, and the USFK Command was to be completed by Dec. 21, 2008 – but this was delayed for over a decade because of a debate over the future location of the CFC headquarters. The CFC relocation is closely tied to the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON), which is expected to take place during the Moon Jae-in presidency.

Even if the two sides do initiate return procedures for Yongsan Garrison’s return, a number of issues need to be addressed before it is actually handed back over. According to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), a survey of facilities and areas by the Facilities and Areas Subcommittee, an environmental assessment by the Environmental Subcommittee, and approval by the Joint Committee must take place before the return is completed. The key factor here is the environmental assessment. If no agreement can be reached on responsibility for cleanup of contaminated areas, the matter is passed on to the Special Joint Committee. With the US so far refusing to recognize responsibility for contamination of the base, a simple agreement does not look to be in the cards.

Process of returning bases and history of Yongsan Garrison
Process of returning bases and history of Yongsan Garrison
US hasn’t covered decontamination costs for base returns in other countries

SOFA does not specify the US’ obligations for remedying environmental contamination. It states that the US is under no obligation to return facilities and areas in their original condition at the time that they were provided or to provide compensation to the South Korean government. The US is using this as a basis for avoiding responsibility for contamination of its base locations. Indeed, the US has not covered any costs associated with decontamination for bases that have been returned in the past in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere. But the South Korean Constitutional Court ruled in 2001 that the provision in question does not exempt the US military from environmental cleanup responsibilities.

In 2001, South Korea and the US adopted a Memorandum of Special Understandings on Environmental Protection as a supplementary document to SOFA, but they remain clearly at odds on their assessment standards for contamination. The US had maintained that it can only recognize responsibility for contamination that poses a “known, imminent and substantial endangerment to human health” according to the memorandum’s terms. South Korea has proposed forming categories to classify contamination levels, but the US has reportedly refused on the grounds that the troops working on the garrison site to date have not shown any urgent health issues.

The two sides plan to continue discussions on the possibility of amending SOFA-related documents as they decide on the US military base return. The US’ lukewarm stance can be surmised from its reference to “discussing the possibility.” Some are worrying that if the US does not change its attitude during discussions of responsibility for environmental cleanup, South Korean taxpayers will end up taking on the financial burden of remedying contamination on its base. The South Korean government is estimating the costs of cleaning up the Yongsan Garrison site at around 100 billion won (US$84.2 million); environmental groups put the number closer to 1 trillion won (US$842.01 million).

“There cannot be a US military base return without environmental cleanup,” the group Green Korea insisted in a statement issued the same day.

“The government must call off negotiations that let the US military off the hook,” it urged.

By Yoo Kang-moon, senior staff writer, and Noh Ji-won, staff reporter

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