A gate of a US military base in Yongsan, central Seoul. (Yonhap)
South Korea and the US will work together to seek the return of about one-quarter of the US military’s Yongsan Garrison site in central Seoul by next year, the Foreign Ministry said Thursday.
The tentative timeline was announced by the allies following a teleconference between Ko Yun-ju, the ministry’s director-general for North American affairs, and Lt. Gen. Scott L. Pleus, US Forces Korea deputy commander. The two are the representatives of the joint committee of the Status of Forces Agreement, which stipulates the legal responsibilities of the 28,500-strong US military forces stationed here.
“Both sides have committed to closely work together for returning nearly 500,000 square meters of the Yongsan Garrison by early 2022,” the statement said.
The site to be returned is about 25 percent of the 2 million square meters that makes up Yongsan Garrison, which formerly served as the local US military headquarters before its relocation to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, in 2018. The returned site is expected to be from the garrison’s southern section, known as the South Post, which houses schools, sports fields and officer housing.
The South Korea-US Combined Forces Command and other facilities still occupy the base’s northern Main Post. The complete return of the Yongsan base could take years, as the CFC headquarters need to be relocated to Pyeongtaek, which is slated for next year.
The envisioned relocation is part of the allies’ scheme signed in the early 2000s to move most US forces and operations from Seoul to Pyeongtaek, which is about 70 kilometers south of Seoul, and to another base in Daegu, and return the US-occupied land to Korea.
Once the Yongsan base is returned, Seoul plans to turn the land into a national park by 2027.
Of 80 US Forces Korea bases in the country, 68 have been returned so far. Discussions are underway for the remaining 12 sites, which includes the bulk of the Yongsan Garrison.
But the process has been slow due partially to disagreements over responsibility for handling polluted soil and other issues.
During Thursday‘s session, the two sides also agreed on the need for expediting the return of US military camps no longer in use and the granting of facilities and areas requested by the US.
“The ROK and the US have agreed to identify the sections of Yongsan no longer in use that can be returned when all required transfer and force protection actions are complete,” the statement read, using the acronym of South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.
By Ahn Sung-mi (firstname.lastname@example.org