Peace group joins S. Korean protest

Korean native decries U.S. plan to relocate military base.
Sunday, October 15, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:52 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Seungkwon You remembers growing up watching American soldiers driving their trucks around his home city of Pyongtaek in South Korea. The soldiers were stationed at Camp Humphreys, one of about a dozen American military bases in the country.

While those soldiers were supposed to be protecting South Koreans during the Korean War, You said, their presence wasn’t comforting. “Having foreigners, outsiders, in your hometown doesn’t give you a very good sense of security,” he said.

Korean security again became a focus last week after North Korea announced it had conducted its first nuclear weapons test.

You, a research associate at MU’s Asian Affairs Center, said a nuclear test by North Korea probably wouldn’t result in an increase in the overall U.S. military presence in South Korea. There are better options for winning North Korea’s cooperation, such as economic sanctions, he said.

Although troop levels will likely remain stable, the U.S. plans to move its central military base in South Korea, headquartered in the capital of Seoul, to Camp Humphreys, in Pyongtaek, next year, You said.

The U.S. also wants to double the physical size of Camp Humphreys, he said.

You said Pyongtaek has had its own conflicts between South Korean farmers, the South Korean government and U.S. military personnel.

To make way for the expansion, You said, the South Korean government has been evicting farmers from land their families have worked for centuries.

On Sept. 20, Columbia resident Charles Atkins of Veterans for Peace traveled to South Korea to protest against expansion of the military base near where You grew up.

Atkins traveled with Wilson Powell of Pacific, Mo., and three other American members of Veterans for Peace for the week-long trip.

The St. Louis-based organization sent members to South Korea, Atkins said, in response to an August invitation from the South Korea’s national Veterans for Peace organization.

Atkins said the United States has taken a particularly “belligerent” attitude toward North Korea under the Bush administration and that the administration’s policy has had negative consequences for South Korea. The U.S. currently controls the South Korean military, Atkins said.

Many North and South Koreans, by contrast, want to reach peaceful compromises without the use of force, Atkins said.

Many, though not all, South Koreans support the U.S. leaving South Korea now, he said. The U.S. has been in South Korea for 50 years, since the time of the Korean War.

“We’ve built it up economically, but we haven’t allowed (the South Koreans) to be in charge of their own country,” Atkins said.

Veterans for Peace supports a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, Atkins said.

The U.S. continues to pay more attention to training South Korean troops than it does to placing more of its own in that country, said Robert Scalapino, former director of the East Asian studies program at the University of California-Berkeley.

Scalapino said not only South Korea, but also China, will need to apply economic pressure in negotiating with North Korea.

It is difficult to tell what will happen in the region, Scalapino said, but military action on the part of the U.S. is unlikely.

“I don’t think a conflict is imminent,” Scalapino said. “We’ve got our hands full in the Middle East.”

The U.S. needs to talk directly with North Korea if the U.S. wants to avoid a war with that country, Atkins said. If the world wants to achieve peace in North and South Korea, Atkins said, it must lead by example and get rid of its own nuclear weapons.

While in South Korea, Atkins said, the Veterans for Peace members participated in several demonstrations against the expansion of Camp Humphreys. At one point, the group spoke to a crowd of 15,000 people who had come to protest the expansion and to support reunification of the country.

Although protest groups have formed to resist that expansion and people from around the world have joined that movement, You said, the move is going forward, and the South Korean government is making efforts to compensate displaced farmers.

The government also has committed $19 billion to build an agricultural research center in Pyongtaek in addition to expanding the city’s main port and building additional roads and railroads there, he said.

The South Korean government and farmers are also negotiating with the U.S. military to be able to sell their crops to U.S. military personnel stationed there, You said.

“Certainly the farmers are losing land, so there should be some compensation,” You said.

While there is still some resistance to the South Korean government’s actions in his hometown of Pyongtaek, You said, the majority of the resistance has died down there.

The rice field You saw as a child is now surrounded by a military barricade.

“It was sad,” You said. “I have deep sympathy for the farmers.”

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