KEI Communications Director Jenna Gibson, host of the KEI podcast Korean Kontext, recently interviewed Major General James Walton, Director for Transformation and Restationing for U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), who is in charge of moving around 30,000 troops, staff and families from Yongsan Garrison in Seoul down to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek. The following is a partial transcript of that conversation. The rest of the episode can be found here.
Jenna Gibson: Major General Walton, I first want to thank you for taking the time to sit down with me. I am hoping you can get the conversation started by giving us a bit of background on this project. When was it first announced and what is the timeline for its completion?
Major General Walton: The transformation of U.S forces on the Korean peninsula is based on two bilateral agreements between the United States and Republic of Korea. The first one is the land partnership plan which was agreed to in March 2002 and that entails the relocation of the U.S forces from areas north of Seoul up to the border, down primarily to newly expanded Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek. The second agreement is the Yongsan Relocation Plan, which was agreed to on October of 2004. And that’s the movement U.S forces here in Seoul, Yongsan Garrison, again primarily down to Camp Humphreys. That’s when the program began with the announcement. It took couple of years for things to get under the way, began initially with land acquisition, which was done by ROK government through their imminent domain process, relocation of folks that originally lived there, and then ultimately actual land development. It was primarily agricultural areas — marshy, a lot of rice paddies, so they needed to bring in literally thousands of dump trucks full of dirt to raise the land. For key facilities, it needed to be raised to the 100 year floodplain, critical facilities to the 500 year floodplain. And then after all the land fill and development was done, they began the actual vertical construction of buildings. And that started in earnest around 2012, peak construction was in summer of 2015, and many buildings have now been completed at this point. We’re are transitioning from construction to relocation, both the relocations are going to occur in calendar year 2017, and it will be pretty much be completed by year 2020.
Jenna Gibson: This has been a project that has been discussed for some time. Could you talk about the timing of this move? Why is it taking place now, and what was the original impetus behind the agreement to move out of Yongsan?
Major General Walton: Well the, “why now” is actually the construction has been completed. And as complete and useful buildings are available, units will move. Not generally just a single building, if you have a unit moving they will need headquarters, they will need barracks for the soldiers, they’ll need the maintenance facilities for all the equipment. So they’ll need a package of capabilities, and we’re just now getting to that point. It has taken us a long time this is a very large and complex project. Anything of this scope, there are always unanticipated challenges to be met and surmounted. We’re now to the stage that were moving. We’ve actually already had a couple of small units that have moved – the Armed Forces Network (AFN) is now down at Camp Humphreys and we’ve had the ribbon cutting for their new facility – great sound and TV studios. We’ve also had Command and Naval Forces Korea relocate from Yongsan. They actually did not go to Camp Humphreys, they went down to Busan and they are co-located with the ROK fleet headquarters on a naval base. So the timing really is just working through all the complexities, aligning funding, and doing all the actual physical construction and now we are beginning to do all the moves.
Jenna Gibson: So how moving the Yongsan base troops down to Camp Humphreys affect the way that way USFK will work together. I’m wondering if having more troops together in one place and so close to the Osan Air Force base will be beneficial for coordination or other positive benefits from having the base down there in Pyeongtaek?
Major General Walton: It will certainly streamline command and control. You’ll have collocated USFK Headquarters – the 8th Army headquarters, 2nd Infantry Division headquarters, headquarters for Marine Forces Korea, headquarters for Special Operations Command Korea. And then Osan will be nearby which is where 7th Air Force is located. It’s also going to serve to consolidate a geographically dispersed footprint that was on small instillations, many of which dated back to the Korean War. And others, including Yongsan, dated back to the Japanese occupation of the peninsula over a century ago. Now we are moving into facilities that are built to current U.S. standards. They are obviously more modern, energy efficient, so it represents a significant operational efficiency when it comes to operating and maintaining and then supporting the US forces. So certainly there are many advantages, and it also simplifies if there were a contingency requirement for a non-combatant evacuation operation. Being down in Camp Humphreys which is actually a staging point for folks departing, would simplify that.
Jenna Gibson: Of course I can imagine that such a huge move has required a lot of new infrastructure to be built down at Camp Humphreys. Can you talk a little bit about the construction process and some of the new facilities there?
Major General Walton: Sure. In terms of the scope, there will be 655 new buildings. In terms of legacy, there will be about 330 buildings that were on the original garrison that are going to be demolished or significantly renovated to make way for the new footprint. So, obviously a significant amount of construction. Virtually all of the construction is host nation construction, it’s in-kind construction provided by the Republic of Korea. Normally, if this were a US-BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure] move it would be the Corps of Engineers. In this case, we work with the ROK Ministry of National Defense counterpart, which is the Defense Installation Agency, as well as MURO, which is the M&D USFK Relocation Office. It’s a complex proposition, many new buildings, a lot of expansion – the original garrison was a little over 1,000 acres and it is going to grow to over 36,000 acres. And if you want to compare it to Washington, DC, if you do an over overlay compared to Washington, DC, from east to west it would range about four miles from the Key Bridge down to Washington Nationals Park. From north to south it’s about two miles, and that would range from north of the White House down toward the Jefferson Memorial. So if you think of what is within that footprint in Washington, DC, that’s what’s being built new down at Camp Humphreys. So, they will over three times grow in size in supported population which will be U.S. military and dependents, civilians, dependents, contractors, there will be school teachers, KATUSAs [Korean Augmentation To the United States Army], ROK military; we’ll rise from about 11,00 to over 40,000, that will almost quadruple in size.
Jenna Gibson: So as most of our listeners probably know, Yongsan Base is right in the heart of Seoul, it is prime real estate there, and that area will now be opened up after the move. So are there already some plans in place for what the city is going to do with that space?
Major General Walton: The SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement] granted lands will be returned to the ROK central government. The primary purpose for the bulk of the acreage will be to create a national park, the Yongsan National Park, and that will be managed by MOLIT, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. They actually have had design competitions for designing the park, they have put up posters in Seoul’s subway announcing their plans and schedule so that they can begin to share that with the public. That’s the main usage. There will be a small piece on the northern end of the main garrison, where Camp Coiner is located, that is actually going to be the site of a new embassy compound. All of the U.S. Embassy, with the exception of the Ambassador’s residence, is going to move into that location. They’re currently down near the Gyeongbuk Palace, which is truly in the heart of Seoul. Now there are three small pieces of Yongsan Garrison that are not going to be made part of the park, and that’s because they’re separated by arterial streets. One is Camp Kim just to the west, there’s two other small parcels just to the east. One is a motor-pool compound and the other is a now-vacant United Nations compound. MOLIT has forecast that the commercial development of those could draw investment up to four to five billion dollars. So, as you noted, incredibly valuable real estate, those are only a couple of small pieces. And of course, the actual development will be up the ROK government, because once we vacate, we return the lands for their use. That’s within the city of Seoul, also returning lands up in the north, cities such as Dongducheon, Uijongbu, and those communities have also done their development planning as to the purpose for which they replace us.
KEI Interns Chris Hurst, Rose Kwak and Patrick Niceforo assisted with transcribing this interview.
Photo from USAG-Humphreys photostream on flickr Creative Commons.