SEOUL/PYEONGTAEK, Gyeonggi Province -- The US’ 8th Army on Tuesday unveiled its new headquarters in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, putting an end to its 64-year deployment at the center of Seoul since the end of the Korean War.
Straddling an area of 14.7 million square meters, Camp Humphreys is the US’ largest and most populated overseas military base, housing some 500 buildings and amenities such as schools, stores, banks and playgrounds. The US Forces Korea says that about 80 percent of the relocation has now been carried out and it will be completed by 2020.
The two countries’ militaries celebrated the new chapter with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a memorial of Gen. Walton Walker, a Korean War hero and former commander of the 8th Army. He was credited with defending the Busan Perimeter in the lead-up to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s historic amphibious landing in Incheon during the 1950-53 conflict.
“Undoubtedly, this installation is the crown jewel of overseas installations in the Department of Defense,” current 8th Army commander Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal said at the event.
“Once complete in 2020, the transformation will reflect the enduring commitment of both the ROK (South Korea) and US governments to this great alliance. It will also greatly enhance our quality of life, our force protection and ultimately -- our readiness to fight tonight.”
The $10.7 billion relocation scheme consists of the Yongsan Relocation Plan, funded by Seoul for the relocation of the 8th Army, and the Land Partnership Plan, bankrolled by the US for the 2nd Infantry Division.
Signed in 2004, the projects initially intended to streamline and incorporate some 40 US bases across the country chiefly into Pyeongtaek and Daegu by 2008 but have repeatedly been delayed and adjusted.
A major change came in 2014, when the allies decided to have the CFC remain at the Yongsan garrison and the 2ID’s 210th Field Artillery Brigade at Camp Casey in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi Province, while postponing the takeover of wartime operational control to after 2020.
As a former leader of the main opposition party, President Moon Jae-in strongly criticized the decision, calling it “shameful.” Moon demanded the change put to a parliamentary vote because it might incur taxpayers’ burden. The costs have also more than doubled from the initially allotted 5.59 trillion won.
Controversy persists over the base’s environmental impact and associated expenses. Civic groups criticized the USFK for polluting the Yongsan land, saying that Seoul would end up paying for the recovery costs long after the relocation is complete.
During a tour, the sheer scale of the refurbished camp was felt, as its perimeter amounts to about 23 kilometers and it would take about 45 minutes to travel the entire garrison by a car with a speed of 40 kilometers per hour.
The garrison is largely divided into residential area for military families, training site and firing range, airfield and “downtown,” where command post and administrative organization are located. Most military facilities and amenities are within “walking distance” from downtown, according to the 8th Army.
Among the large-scale facilities are dental facility and “Supergym,” said Patrick L Mackenzie, deputy garrison commander of Camp Humphrey. The dental facility has 79 medical beds, the second biggest in the US Defense Department, and the gym is the biggest one among any others in the US army, he added.
“We have tripled the amount of place…. It’s the largest military installation overseas of any department of defense facilities. It will also become the most populated location for any overseas installation in the US military,” Vandal said.
“(The CFC command) will have a small footprint that will remain and they will primarily operate with (South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff).”
By Yeo Jun-suk and Shin Hyon-hee