Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Ask A Korean! News: Environmental Damage Caused by U.S. Army in Korea

First of all, a disclaimer: the Korean admires our men and women in services. It sounds incredibly made up, but it’s true. Any job in which one risks one’s life to protect others is noble, and deserves all the praise in the world.

That doesn’t mean the Korean can’t criticize the decision-making of the policymakers who tell those men and women what to do. I’m sure this distinction is unnecessary for most of you, but this being the Internet, just had to clarify that.

A little background first. After the Korean War, United States left many of U.S. army troops in Korea in order to protect it from future North Korean attacks. Until very recently, U.S. army had roughly 40,000 soldiers stationed in 66 camps located all over South Korea.

Ever since Korea became rich enough to start thinking about something other than staving off starvation, and especially since the 1990s, there has been a tension between Korean people and the U.S. army in Korea. The loudest voice against the U.S. army is that of the left-leaning college students who see the army as an instrument of U.S. imperialism and the obstacle against immediate Korean unification; but they are just loud, and not very many or smart.

On the other hand, more Korean people were aggravated by the fact that U.S. army personnel seems to do whatever they please. Every month you can guarantee that some idiot American soldier gets drunk and beats up a cab driver, or worse yet, kill a prostitute or two. Instead of receiving justice from Korean courts, those GIs are court-marshaled, where they receive punishments which appear to Korean people as a mere slap on the wrist.

[-EDIT 9/9/2008 7:15 p.m.- The above statement is struck because, upon further education on the topic prompted by a commenter, the Korean considered it to be incorrect, not to mention disrespectful in tone.]

The relation between Korean people and the U.S. military in Korea reached the rock bottom in the days following the events of June 2002, when two Korean middle school girls were run over by a U.S. armored vehicle. Whether it was a pure accident, or if there was any negligence on the part of the drivers, was unclear. But the American soldiers were court-marshaled, and found not guilty on all counts. And the entire Korea erupted in anti-U.S. sentiments. The current Korean president, who was elected in 2003, rode the tide of those sentiments into victory; in order to reciprocate to his constituents, he moved for gradual reduction of American troops in Korea. In April and May of 2007, 25 U.S. military camps were returned to Korea.

The Korean himself was not very keen on the anti-U.S. military sentiment in Korea. After all, most of the offenses of the soldiers are to be expected around a military camp. It is arguable that the justice system dealing with such soldiers was inequitable, but it appeared that the system was making progress.

But the following news was really distressing. This is what Dong-A Ilbo reported on June 14.

“Can they just abuse it like this just because it’s someone else’s land? Look at this oil. It’s like an oil field”

The seven National Assemblymen (note: same as Congressmen in U.S.) lamented as they smelled petroleum from the black, dead soil of Camp Edwards and Camp Howes of Gyeonggi-do Paju-si and Camp Kyle of Uijeongbu, whose process for return from the U.S. military was recently completed.


When the investigatory team dug 3 meters into the ground 20 meters away from petroleum storage tank, the petroleum odor arose, disgusting enough to automatically turn one’s head. Apparently the oil leaked as petroleum storage tank and the underground pipes corroded … the thickness of oil floating on top of ground water was measured to be 1 meter. … Assemblyman Woo Wonsik said “this oil is diesel; apparently if you put it in a car, it would drive. It’s incredible that they say the return process is completed when there is this much oil left in the ground.” As Woo lit the oil on the ground it soon grew into a flame. “Did we discover an oil field?” asked Woo with a chagrined expression.

[At Camp Kyle, around 70 air conditioning units] were seen with pipes cut off without processing the coolant, confirming that ozone-destroying Freon gas was released into the atmosphere.

To cure the 14 camps returned in April and the 9 camps returned in May into an orchard/crop field level would cost $40.77 million and $78.85 million respectively, and it is estimated that curing all 66 camps’ environmental damage would case over $400 million.

Full story, if you can read Korean, is here.

Now, this is particularly upsetting not just because the Korean is a huge tree hugging hippie. (He isn’t really – he drives an SUV.) This is upsetting because it shows the level of respect and care that the U.S. military has for its host country. Simply put, it shows that the U.S. army stationed in Korea truly does not give a shit about the well-being of Koreans, or their own image to the Korean people.

This is often the point when the idiotic left-winger screams about how American military is good for nothing. That is not true. American military liberated South Korea, and without the American military, communized unified Korea would have been closer to the level of sub-Saharan African countries. This much is undeniable, and South Koreans should be grateful for it.

This is also the point when the idiotic right-winger yells about how America saved Korea and the environmental damage is nothing compared to the amount of gratitude that we must owe. That’s not true either. Suppose someone saves your life by pushing you out of an oncoming bus, and carries you home to safety because you were too shocked to walk by yourself. Of course you are grateful. But what if that same person comes into your house, rummages the refrigerator and eats all the food, flirts with your husband/wife, and leaves after taking a giant load of crap in the middle of your living room? Sure, you would still be grateful, but the next time you are in any sort of need, you would pursue other options before turning to that person again.

And that’s really the bottom line. Does America want to continue a good relationship with Korea, a country of increasing economic and cultural importance in East Asia, with a great strategic significance in dealing with China and Russia? Contaminating another's land like this is what you do if you want to burn bridges, not to remain friends. If U.S. cares about its relation with Korea at all, it should take full responsibility for any damage caused by its military, and do that in a sincere way, not grudgingly dragging feet.

The significance of this event applies far beyond Korea-U.S. relationship. Think about Iraq situation right now. Unlike Iraq, people of Korea felt genuinely liberated by U.S. army. All the things that the neo-conservatives thought would happen in Iraq actually happened in South Korea in 1945, when the flag-waving throng of Korean people greeted the American liberators no matter where they went. Until around 1980s, United States represented the absolute good to Korean people, going against the absolute evil of North Korea and Soviet Union. In the following 20 years, the U.S. military squandered away the incredible amount of good will of the Korean people (which America will almost never receive from any country for a very long time) by simply not caring enough to do the little things that matter.

Apply this to Iraq and you can easily see why the “liberation” idea was such a massive delusion. U.S. army leadership does not even have the will power to maintain an extremely favorable relationship; how can we possibly trust them to mend and improve upon a bad relationship?

All this is so little known to American people, because it’s not something that directly affects them. But if you care one bit about how America is seen in other countries, you really should care. Ask a Korean! will keep you posted on any further development on this issue.

Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I'm lazy, so this about sums it up:

    Yes we are bad guests, but we don't treat foreign soil any differently from our own.

  2. That's missing the point; the Korean's comment about maintaining favorable diplomatic ties is something the U.S. military should have thought about. Of course, the argument can be made that American troops just don't know how to clean up after themselves and think that the way they've been closing down their bases is the correct way of doing things...but that just makes me lose faith in the American military bureaucracy. How can they clean up the mess they've made in Iraq if they can't pick up their own shit?

  3. Old posting but not entirely accurate.

    If you had a clue about who does the work on USFK installations, you'd know that Koreans themselves were responsible for much of the labor required for closing the camps. Have you any idea what the DPW is? (Department of Public Works) Many outside contractors are hired too. Who does the work? Yep, it's Koreans. Share the blame with those responsible, don't just lay the blame with the US. Have you visited any ROK military bases? Have you been to any large industry facilities? Take the plank from your own eye first.

    Not saying that it's right, or it doesn't exist, I ask that your comments remain balanced. (like FOX News)

    I suggest you read the SOFA and do some research on Foreigner crimes in Korea. "Kill a prostitute or two a month", that comment is beneath you. I suggest you read some postings from the ROK Drop, especially these:

    I like the ROK Drop as you can see.

    I like reading your blog, you do it well. I just ask you do a bit of research before making a blanket statement.

    Keep up the good work.


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