As Published in The Register-Guard, July 15, 2018
Yongsan is a Korean place name that every American veteran who has served in Korea would remember. Since 1945 it has been the command center for the U.S. armed forces in Korea.
Yongsan means “Dragon Hill.” According to legend, it formed the southern end of a twisting ridge resembling a dragon. It has long been coveted as an ideal location for military purposes. Japanese and Chinese occupiers used Yongsan over the centuries. It now forms the central part of the Seoul metropolis.
The 15,000 troops of the U.S. 7th Infantry Division arrived at Yongsan on Sept. 8, 1945, to accept the surrender of Japanese troops in Korea, south of the 38th parallel. When the Republic of Korea was formally established three years later, the U.S. troops withdrew but returned in June 1950 when North Korea invaded. Ever since the U.S., North Korea and China signed the cease fire treaty in July, 1953, Americans at Yongsan have looked after the security of South Korea and helped it emerge as a prosperous, free democratic nation.
Alas, after 75 years the U.S. Army Yongsan Garrison is going and will be gone completely in two years.
Is this the result of recent rumblings that the American military presence in South Korea would be reduced as part of the North Korea denuclearization negotiations?
To the contrary! The U.S. Army Yongsan Garrison has been replaced by a brand-new military base built from the scratch, nearly six times larger, about 45 miles south of Seoul at the cost of $10.8 billion. It is the largest American military base abroad. Built on the site of old Camp Humphreys, the new American military base is called Garrison Humphreys. Gen. Thomas Vandal, the commander of the U.S. Eighth Army, calls it “the crown jewel of overseas installations.”
Garrison Humphreys is more like an ultra-modern American city than a military base, lined with beautiful multi-storied buildings, cutting edge communication and transportation, a modern airport, schools, libraries, theaters, recreational facilities, churches, hospitals, a food court and a supermarket.
Within Garrison Humphreys are underground bunkers to be used as command centers during a nuclear attack. Nearby is the Osan U.S. Airbase, the largest American military air base in Asia, capable of handling America’s largest bombers and nuclear weapons.
On June 29, United States Forces Korea, United Nations Command, and the Eighth U.S. Army — the three most powerful military command centers — moved their offices from Yongsan to Garrison Humphreys. By 2020, all American troops scattered throughout South Korea will join them. By then more than 36,000 military personnel, American and Korean, will be stationed at Garrison Humphreys.
There is a risk in concentrating all essential military commands in one place. The American generals in Korea, however, believe that they have secured the base with sufficient defenses against any attack by conventional weapons.
The decision to combine all U.S. forces in Korea at Garrison Humphreys was made in 2003 between Seoul and Washington for a variety of reasons, including efficiency and a desperate need for land in rapidly growing Seoul. Construction began in November 2007. Ninety-two percent of the cost has been paid by the Seoul government.
During a recent visit, President Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were awed by the grandeur of Garrison Humphreys. “Wonderful, awesome!” was their appraisal. On June 20, speaking to a group of Korean reporters at the new base, Gen. Vandal emphasized, “Garrison Humphreys is the symbol of U.S.-South Korea alliance. Regardless of talks in Washington, the U.S.-South Korea alliance will not only be strengthened but also continue.”
If there is a rumor in the air that President Trump might reduce American forces in Korea, weakening the U.S.-South Korea alliance, signs on the ground tell a different story.
Song Nai Rhee is the academic dean emeritus of Northwest Christian University and a courtesy research professor of the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Oregon.