Pyeongtaek: A US base, Americana in rural South Korea

As it gears up to host a huge US overseas base, the city is a window on to fraught relations between locals and troops.

A commercial street near Camp Humphreys base in Pyeongtaek. [Steven Borowiec/Al Jazeera]

Pyeongtaek, South Korea – The commercial area adjacent to the main entrance of the United States’ Camp Humphreys military base, is a slice of Americana in the Korean countryside.

Most of the signs are in English, the streets are lined with fast-food restaurants, and the street stalls sell french fries and chicken wings beside Korean staples such as blood sausage and rice cakes in red pepper sauce.

Park Kyung-chan remembers skipping through these streets as a child in the early 1970s, when, he says, there were fewer buildings and most of the roads were not paved.

Park, 47, credits the US presence with breathing economic life into his hometown of Pyeongtaek, a city of 470,000, the only place he has ever lived.

“More than 90 percent of the development in this area is because of the US base. We appreciate them being here, not just for that, but for their contribution to our national security.”

Many of the signs in Pyeongtaek's commercial area are in English and American fast-food restaurants line the streets [Steven Borowiec/Al Jazeera]
Many of the signs in Pyeongtaek’s commercial area are in English and American fast-food restaurants line the streets [Steven Borowiec/Al Jazeera]

Pyeongtaek, located about an hour south of Seoul, the South Korean capital, is currently in the midst of a plan to relocate military personnel and their families there from elsewhere in South Korea.

When the relocation is complete, Camp Humphreys will occupy three times its current area and its population will swell from its existing size of about 11,000 troops to more than 40,000 service members, making it one of the US’s largest overseas bases – an anchor for defending against North Korea and a focal point of the US military presence in Asia.

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Ban on local businesses

The relocation is bringing new commercial activity to Pyeongtaek’s otherwise dreary economy. Around the base are posters for new property developments and businesses aiming to take advantage of the cash influx coming from US military personnel and their families.

At the same time, there are some long-lingering tensions in Pyeongtaek.

Authorities are trying to scrub away the city’s reputation as a shady place, plagued by prostitution and human trafficking. In South Korea, there is a long history of prostitution near US bases, and fraught relations between locals and US military personnel. One infamous case is the 1992 murder of Yun Geum-yi, a 22-year-old bar waitress. Yun’s murder “catalysed local camptown consciousness about the disproportionate burdens that the villages and towns housing US bases in Korea have borne for decades,” wrote Katherine Moon, who holds the chair of Korea Studies and is a senior fellow at the Centre for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. 

US soldier Kenneth Markle was convicted of the murder and served 15 years in a South Korean prison. 

More recently, US soldiers were accused of sexually assaulting women at a water park near Seoul in 2014. That same year, a US soldier died in Pyeongtaek of a brain haemorrhage after being involved in a bar fight. 

Those incidents prompted the South Korean government to call on the US to more strictly control the behaviour of soldiers. 

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Last December, the US military issued a notice prohibiting US military personnel from patronising a number of drinking establishments, tattoo shops and massage parlours on the grounds that they may be venues for illegal activities such as prostitution, human trafficking and underage drinking. 

Park has spent his adulthood running bars and other businesses which cater mostly to US military personnel, and says that the ban is hurting his and other merchants’ livelihoods.

“Around here, the US soldiers are the main clientele for most of the establishments. If the soldiers aren’t allowed to go there for six months or a year, it’s like a death sentence for those businesses.”

Park disputes the claims that the businesses that have been designated off-limits due to concerns over commercial sex actually have prostitution on the premises. He says the establishments are just places where customers can drink with female staff.

“They make these allegations without proof. If they’re going to make accusations of prostitution, they need to provide details of when such acts took place and who was involved – otherwise, it’s unfair,” Park said.

United States Forces Korea did not respond to a request for comment about clarifying the criteria used in deeming particular establishments off-limits.

Park Kyung-chan has spent most of his adult life running bars and other businesses which cater mostly to US military personnel [Steven Borowiec/Al Jazeera] 
Park Kyung-chan has spent most of his adult life running bars and other businesses which cater mostly to US military personnel [Steven Borowiec/Al Jazeera] 


Perceptions of the US in South Korea are generally positive, according to the results of public opinions polls by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, but there is some resentment of the US military presence. 

While Park and other merchants welcome the US’ presence, there is a long history of local resistance to the expansion of Camp Humphreys.

In nearby Daechu Village, the South Korean government acquired more than 80 hectares of land from farmers for the base’s expansion. The country’s defence ministry compensated farmers for their land, but some refused to sell and were forcibly removed.

That led to a violent standoff in 2006, when more than 15,000 riot police and soldiers faced off against thousands of farmers and activists who refused to vacate plots of farmland in Daechu Village. There were 120 reported injuries and more than 500 protesters were arrested. 

Andrew Yeo, an associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, says that the split between business owners and farmers is an old feature of life around Camp Humphreys.

“The anti-base faction were primarily farmers and the pro-base faction were merchants and, based on my observations, there was bad blood,” Yeo wrote in an email.

Yeo added that in South Korea it is often protesters from outside the communities where US military bases are located who are the most committed to campaigning against them.

“There was still strong resistance from residents and local activists in Pyeongtaek, but national level activists are driven by a strong ideological commitment and long-term goal for peace and unification on the Korean Peninsula,” Yeo said. He added that residents and activists see the US presence as an impediment to direct dialogue between South and North Korea, and thereby an obstacle to unification.

Countering China

The expansion of Pyeongtaek is taking place as the US military makes East Asia a larger priority.

The US has around 28,500 soldiers stationed on 83 bases in South Korea and 800 bases in the world. In addition to South Korea, the US also maintains a large presence in Japan, and has bases in Australia and on the Pacific island of Guam. 

“The US has been increasing its military spending and presence in East Asia to counter the growing size and power of the Chinese military and its influence in the region,” said David Vine, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at American University in Washington, DC, and author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World.

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Vine added, “[M]y fear is that boosting the already very sizable US military presence in the region to counter growing Chinese power may become a self-fulfilling prophecy in only encouraging China to further boost its military spending, making a military conflict and war more likely rather than less likely.”

The bulk of Camp Humphreys expansion will consist of relocating Yongsan Garrison, a massive facility that accommodates more than 21,000 personnel, from Seoul to Pyeongtaek. Though that move was announced more than a decade ago, it has been delayed repeatedly. Local media reported in late 2016 that the move had been delayed again, to 2018. Al Jazeera did not receive a response to a request to US Forces Korea seeking confirmation or denial of the delay.

‘We have our own laws’

Those military ambitions matter little to Pyeongtaek residents.

On a chilly Thursday night in January, the area around Camp Humphreys was mostly quiet, the snow-dusted street illuminated by the bar’s neon signs.

Jasmine, a 23-year-old from the Philippines, stood behind a bar, opening bottles of Budweiser for a group of factory workers from Thailand.

Jasmine said she had been in South Korea for just over a year, and that she alternated one-month stints of work as a bartender near Camp Humphreys with seasonal work on farms, harvesting onions and cabbages.

“I don’t mind it here; there’s always work to do,” she said. “Mostly, the people around here are nice. You see a lot of the same people every day.”

Park is hoping that before the expansion is complete, an agreement can be reached to allow US military personnel to freely visit any of the establishments around Camp Humphreys.

On behalf of the local merchants association, Park has monthly meetings with officials on the US base, hoping to convince them to rescind the ban on particular bars and clubs.

“The fact is, this is still the Republic of Korea, and we have our own laws,” Park said. “We have to find a way of living and working together.”

Source: Al Jazeera