Anger as US shifts South Korea forces

By David Ibison -- Financial Times

Published: May 26 2004 19:26 | Last Updated: May 26 2004 19:26

A banner draped over the city council building in Tongduchon, a featureless military town 40km north of Seoul and near the border with North Korea, proclaims: "We are strongly against redeployment with no back-up plan."

The redeployment is twofold: the US decision to move troops away from the border and base them farther south and last week's announcement that 10 per cent of its 37,000 soldiers in South Korea are to be shifted to Iraq, probably permanently.

Park Su Ho, chairman of the council, is preparing for a demonstration today outside the US base. He said: "At the moment the people are peaceful. But the rage is huge and it is a very unpredictable situation."

The anger is one of the most discernible expressions of a broader anxiety in South Korea. News of the plans for US troops has sparked a national debate about the state of South Korea's 50-year military relationship with the US.

The contradictions inherent in that relationship are writ large in Tongduchon. On the one hand, Mr Park said, people are delighted that the town will no longer suffer the constant buzz of helicopters, the shock of weapons tests and military exercises.

On the other hand the withdrawals spell disaster for the town's economy. Tongduchon has been a US army base for 50 years and has developed the infrastructure typical of many military towns: restaurants, bars and prostitution.

Mr Park said: "When the US goes 3,200 people who work at the base will lose their jobs and the total cost, which includes more than 500 bars and restaurants, will be between Won130bn ($110m) and Won140bn - 20 per cent of our economy. It will be the end of the town."

As a result, today's demonstrators are expected to demand money from the South Korean government. Mr Park said they deserve compensation because during five decades as an enforced US garrison the town's residents have been prevented from developing land around the base.

There have also been less tangible consequences of the military's presence. Mr Park told of a young man who wanted to donate blood but was refused because he came from Tongduchon, renowned for its brothels. Young women, he said, will not admit they come from Tongduchon because of the town's reputation.

"We have made sacrifices for the sake of national security. We want to be able to build factories, we want the land that was used for the military base back and we want financial support."

The voices of Tongduchon's citizens will be heard beyond the city's limits. Particularly with North Korea playing nuclear brinkmanship with the US, South Korea's changing military relationship with America is one of the biggest challenges for Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea's president.

One of Mr Roh's most popular campaign pledges was to reduce the presence of US troops. But since then he has sent South Korean troops to Iraq, prompting criticism from supporters that he has become a US lackey.

Now that his campaign pledge is being fulfilled, conservatives in the opposition Grand National party say his left-leaning politics are undermining security. With passions running high, the US army has stepped in, saying the alliance remains stronger than ever and that the changing nature of warfare means the key factor is technology, not the number of troops on the ground.

Lt Gen Charles Campbell, Combined Forces Command chief of staff, said: "Think about capabilities, not just about the numbers." The US has pledged to spend $11bn to upgrade South Korea's technological defensive capabilities.

But in Tongduchon global geopolitics and the antagonism between Mr Roh and the GNP are of little importance to Mr Park. "People are suffering. It doesn't matter if the administration is left-leaning or not - surely they have to care about people?"