As North Korea intensifies missile program, US opens $11 billion base in South Korea
CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — This small American city has four schools and five churches, an Arby's, a Taco Bell and a Burger King. The grocery store is offering a deal on Budweiser as the temperature soars, and out front there's a promotion for Ford Mustangs.
But for all its invocations of the American heartland, this growing town is in the middle of the South Korean countryside, in an area that was famous for growing huge grapes.
“We built an entire city from scratch,” said Col. Scott Mueller, garrison commander of Camp Humphreys, one of the U.S. military's largest overseas construction projects. If it were laid across Washington, the 3,454-acre base would stretch from Key Bridge to Nationals Park, from Arlington National Cemetery to the Capitol.
“New York has been a city for 100-some years, and they're still doing construction. But the majority of construction here will be done by 2021,” Mueller said. (New York was actually founded nearly 400 years ago.)
The U.S. military has been trying for 30 years to move its headquarters in South Korea out of Seoul and out of North Korean artillery range.
Since the end of World War II, the military has been based at Yongsan, a garrison that had been the Imperial Japanese Army's main base during Japan's occupation of the Korean Peninsula. It is in the middle of Seoul and just 40 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas.
The South Korean and American governments have been talking since 1987 about moving the headquarters away from Yongsan, but political and funding issues had slowed the process. Protests broke out a little over a decade ago when Pyeongtaek, a sleepy rural city 40 miles south of Yongsan, was chosen as the new site.
Now, the $11 billion base is beginning to look like the garrison that military planners envisaged decades ago.
The 8th Army moved its headquarters here this month, and there are about 25,000 people based here, including family members and contractors.
There are apartment buildings, sports fields, playgrounds and a water park, and an 18-hole golf course with the generals' houses overlooking the greens. There is a “warrior zone” with Xboxes and Playstations, pool tables and dart boards, and a tavern for those old enough to drink.
Starting in August, there will be two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. A new, 68-bed military hospital to replace the one at Yongsan is close to completion.
That is in addition to the airfield, tank training areas and firing ranges.
When it is finished, the base will be able to house precisely 1,111 families and a total of about 45,500 people.
But it's not just bigger; it's much more modern than the garrison at Yongsan, Mueller said. It has state-of-the-art communications technology and is a more “hardened” site to protect against a possible North Korean attack.
“Down here we're a little bit further from the action, and that helps buy us some strategic decision space should anything happen,” Mueller said. “We've been able to create the facilities needed to keep up with the pace of modern warfare and modern communications technology.”
Although the recent concerns about North Korea have centered on its rapidly evolving ballistic missile capability, the Kim regime has a huge amount of conventional artillery lined up on its side of the border that would be able to inflict significant damage on Seoul in a short time. It is this concern that has restrained American presidential administrations from launching a preemptive strike on North Korea's nuclear weapons facilities.
But the new Camp Humphreys is out of range of the North's multiple rocket launchers - although that hasn't stopped the North Koreans from making threats.
“The larger the U.S. military base is, the more effectively our military can hit its targets,” a North Korean military spokesman said this month after the 8th Army moved here, according to the North's Korean Central News Agency.
Under an agreement with the South Korean military, one U.S. Army brigade will remain at Camp Casey, right near the DMZ, after the Yongsan garrison has closed.
A public affairs officer for the 35th US Air Defense Artillery Brigade, explains the Patriot missile system to Republic of Korea air force cadets during their visit to Osan Air Base, South Korea.