US military’s largest overseas base under construction in Pyeongtaek, Korea

The U.S. military is in the final stage of construction on what is set to be its largest overseas base located in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province. If finished on schedule in 2017, the base will accommodate approximately 42,000 soldiers and their families.

The site was first opened up to the media on Dec. 10 while engineers and construction workers worked hard despite the rain and cold weather.

Garrison Commander Col. Joseph C. Holland said the U.S. military has now completed 86 percent of the construction work as of the end of November to transform Camp Humphreys, a U.S. Army garrison, into a gigantic base that will be three times larger than its current size and equipped with up-to-date facilities.

Under a relocation plan signed between Korea and the U.S., the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) headquarters and the 8th Army headquarters, which are currently in Yongsan Garrison in central Seoul, as well as the 2nd Infantry Division (2ID) now stationed at Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul, will be moved to Camp Humphreys.

Most facilities such as family residences, training facilities, vehicle maintenance facilities and a railway vehicle base equipped with a railhead depot are in their final stages of completion. The railhead depot will be used to load armored vehicles on or off trains in the event of an emergency contingency plan.

In particular, construction of a four-story building which is to be the new USFK headquarters with two levels underground is 95 percent complete. According to the set schedule, it is to be completed early next year.

The site holds many surprises for visitors because few details of the inside of the camp have been released so far. Only photos taken soon after the 1950-53 Korean War, showing the desolate base with old military facilities and barracks, have been available to the public.

“The size of the camp will triple from 1,041 acres to 3,453 acres,” said Col. Holland. “There will be significant increase in population as well from 11,000 to 42,000.”

He said that when completed, the base will offer an improved mission command, improved protection for armed forces, more efficient base operations and better support for non-combatant evacuation operations.

Engineers and construction workers are attempting to complete the construction project on schedule.

But the camp still looks empty, with only two facilities including an engineering unit having been moved in so far. American soldiers were only seen intermittently on the road when reporters were given a tour of the huge base by bus.

Some of the roads are still unpaved dirt tracks, so the bus jolted and rattled over the rough ground. “People here love SUVs,” Col. Holland said and laughed.

The allies have been carrying out projects to relocate the USFK and return land to Korean people through two major plans ― the Yongsan Relocation Plan (YRP) and the Land Partnership Plan (LPP).

The YRP is to relocate the U.S. Yongsan Garrison in central Seoul including USFK headquarters and 8th Army headquarters to Pyeongtaek, while the LPP will consolidate 2ID from Uijeongbu to Pyeongtaek.

Pyeongtaek is located 70 kilometers south of the capital.

The total expenses for the YRP are estimated at about 8.86 trillion won, while those for the LPP are estimated at 7.1 trillion won. Korea shoulders the cost of the YRP, and the U.S. bears that of the LPP.

The two relocation plans have been pushed for since 2003 after then-President Roh Moo-hyun and U.S. President George W. Bush agreed upon them.

“These plans are to reduce the U.S. military sites from 174 to 96,” said Brenda McCullough, deputy director of the USFK Transformation and Relocation. “This will allow for the return of valuable land back to the Republic of Korea.”

She noted, “By moving into a less congested area, the U.S. forces will improve readiness, efficiency and further enhancement of partnerships with the local community and our ROK military partners.”

The new U.S. 8th Army headquarters, currently under construction inside Camp Humphreys. (Yonhap)

The new U.S. 8th Army headquarters, currently under construction inside Camp Humphreys. (Yonhap)

Relocation delayed by one year

The YRP and LPP initially called for relocating the USFK headquarters by 2016, but this will be delayed until 2017 due to an unexpected setback caused by bankruptcy of Keangnam Enterprises, a Korean construction company, said Kim Kie-soo, chief director of the USFK Base Relocation Office at the Ministry of National Defense.

“Keangnam Enterprises was tasked with eight projects associated with the two plans. In the wake of its bankruptcy, we had to award the contract again to another company,” he said.

Sung Woan-jong, then chairman of Keangnam Enterprises, committed suicide in April after being investigated for alleged corruption associated with the “energy diplomacy” of the former President Lee Myung-bak administration. Then the company went bankrupt.

“It was an unexpected issue,” said Kim, a retired general.

But Lt. Gen. Bernard Champoux, commanding general of the U.S. 8th Army, said the allies are keenly cooperating in carrying out the construction and the USFK relocation plans, noting that the construction work will be finished by next year, and the relocation of U.S. forces will be mostly completed by 2017.

Champoux stressed that moving the forces is not a simple issue, but is “very complicated” because the allies’ readiness posture against possible provocations from the enemy should be considered first.

“All things are condition-based, and the condition is readiness and fight tonight posture,” he said.

Champoux noted that the Combined Forces Command (CFC) will remain in Yongsan and maintain the minimum necessary personnel and infrastructure required to command and control operational forces, as the CFC will retain its wartime leadership role until Washington and Seoul agree that conditions are conducive for a stable transition of wartime operational control (OPCON) to the local military.

Similarly, the U.S. 210th Field Artillery Brigade will remain in Dongducheon, north of Seoul, until Korea fields a comparable capability.

“The decision to move the brigade to Pyeongtaek is also condition-based,” he said.

The decision to temporarily keep the CFC and the 210th Brigade in their current locations came when the two countries’ defense chiefs agreed in October 2014 to delay the transition of wartime OPCON until South Korea’s military capability against nuclear and missile threats from Pyongyang was secured. At the time, the Ministry of National Defense noted that the transition could take place in the mid-2020s.

Meanwhile, Col. Holland said that the U.S. forces now maintain a good relationship with the local community in Pyeongtaek. There were protests and confrontations with local residents when land was purchased for the base expansion and were they forced to leave their homes.

He said the allies have held regular meetings with former residents on the land once a month in order to communicate with them and ask for their understanding about noise from the construction site.

The manager of a supermarket inside the base, called the “Commissary,” often buys local chickens and eggs in an effort to help the local economy, he said.


(This post originally appeared on the Korea Times)

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