Reclaiming Peace of Mind: The Fight Over Yongsan’s U.S. Military Base

by Casey Jong

My father and his family moved to the US from South Korea when he was just eleven years old. Now, at twenty, I’ve made my first-ever trip to Korea. It has been relatively easy: while I know little Korean, enough people speak English to help me get by. I have no family in Seoul, but family friends are gracious enough to open a home so comfortable it’s almost familiar. They live within the stone walls of the Yongsan US military base, formally the United States Army Garrison Yongsan (USAG-Yongsan). Inside, it feels like a small town within Seoul, with American three-pronged outlets where you can purchase American snacks with US dollars. On my third day in Seoul, I attended a historical tour of the base’s walls by the International Strategy Center. While restricted access to the base forced us to tour its walls, touring its environs provided a unique view into the base’s impact to Koreans.  As a Korean American and a US citizen, my experiences have provided me with a unique lens through which to view USAG-Yongsan. Those lived experiences don’t align with those of the Koreans whose words and actions have moved me to write this. Here are my observations of and reflections on the historical tour, which revealed to me the base as the remains of American imperialism in Seoul.

Upon arrival at the starting point of the tour, I knew nothing of the base’s history, which dates all the way back to the Japanese occupation of Korea. It served as the Imperial Japanese Army’s headquarters until 1945, when the United States took over the base after overseeing the surrender of the Japanese and then occupying South Korea. Today, it is the headquarters for the US military forces in South Korea. Despite a plan to relocate the base more than a decade ago, the base has yet to be returned to the Korean people. The tour’s first stop peered into the base from Itaewon Shrine while discussing the legislation passed to create a National Park in its place. The base isn’t simply a plot of land, but also contains many historical relics that Koreans want access to.

Korean citizens haven’t had access to the base in over one-hundred years. There are Koreans whose families have lived in Seoul for generations, and even their grandparents have never understood what goes on inside of Yongsan base. For those unfamiliar, the base occupies an incredibly large and central plot of land, directly north of the Han River, essentially bisecting the city. It is enclosed by high stone walls topped off with barbed and razor wire. What long-term impact might a barbed wire-rimmed wall (constructed and maintained by colonizers to house their military and officials) in the center of a city have on its environs?

Not only have Koreans been unable to use that land in any capacity, but even construction projects outside the base are impacted by the base’s secrecy of its internal activities from official military and embassy business to residential units to recreational activities. For example, a bridge originally designed over the base was split into two and redirected to hide the base’s golf course in one of Seoul’s most expensive and crowded areas. Throughout the tour, questions from Koreans like, “What do the houses look like?” and, “What kinds of things are there to do inside?” revealed just how shut-out Koreans have been, and it’s not for a lack of interest.

One of the recurring themes of the tour was the lack of information flowing out of the base to Koreans, who have been demanding answers to the same questions for decades. We discussed at length the environmental impact of the base and the consistent burden placed on Koreans to bring these issues to the attention of the responsible party. We stopped at an oil-collecting well and learned that, in 2001, oil leaks were discovered flowing out from USAG-Yongsan. The US military denied involvement until the presence of JP-8, a jet fuel used only on-base, was discovered. To this day, despite claims that the leaks have been addressed, oil still collects outside its walls.

These environmental accidents are not uncommon from USAG-Yongsan, and the Freedom of Information Act helped civil society identify about 100 incidents that have taken place within the base. Standing outside of the US military morgue, I learned that a staff member had disposed of 480 bottles of concentrated formaldehyde into a drain leading to the Han River. This highly toxic substance was dealt with carelessly, and once again, the US did not take responsibility until a Korean environmental group successfully campaigned to make it the base’s only case of environmental pollution to be fully prosecuted.

The tour ended at the National Museum of Korea, overlooking the south end of the base. At this final stop, our attention was brought to the discovery that anthrax was being tested within the base between 2009 and 2014. Apparently, anthrax is typically tested in the desert, not in old facilities at the heart of a heavily-populated city such as Seoul. Yet again, Koreans were forced to dig into incidents like these, which aren’t formally disclosed or publicly discussed by those responsible. These are just some of the investigative work necessary to ensure the safety of the base, especially now that the base will become parkland. One of the biggest demands of the community group — Full Recovery of the Yongsan Military Base — is the full investigation of such environmental accidents by the US. This demand should be met, for the solutions to the problems caused by the US military base are the responsibility of the US government. The other demands include the removal of the buildings that are set to remain, including the Dragon Hill Hotel (whose usage is restricted to US military officials) and the adjacent US military’s helipad. The final major demand of the group and other civil society is that the plans to build a US embassy building on the north end of the National Park be scrapped.

When USAG-Yongsan becomes a National Park, a project long delayed since its 2008 finalization, the Korean people should receive not just land, but peace of mind. From where I’m standing, this all reflects the oppressive white savior complex the US took up in the eighteenth century, especially given the over-simplified Korean War narrative familiar to most of the world. The full investigation of the environmental accidents that have taken place on the base should be carried out and made public to combat the US’s failure to hold itself accountable. The hotel, helipad, and embassy should be removed or relocated off of the National Parkland. No foreign country houses its military or lands its helicopters within US National Parks. No foreign embassy exists on US National Parkland, because, wouldn’t that just seem “un-American”? But then again, what could be more American than continuing to build on land that was never rightfully ours?