U.S. military might in South Korea is being called into question this week as villagers launched a hunger strike to protest a U.S. military base expansion that would force them from their lands.
Korean authorities have arrested the head of a small village for protesting against the government’s plan to expand a giant U.S. military base, known as Camp Humphreys, in Pyongtaek, about 40 miles south of Seoul.
According to residents, police arrested Kim Ji Tae when he arrived for scheduled negotiations over how to end a stand-off in two townships that would be affected by the proposed base expansion.
In response, supporters have launched a hunger strike. "This is not a problem of compensation. This is about the rights of farmers to remain on their land," Father Moon Jhung Hyun told OneWorld. The priest, who says he will not eat while Kim remains in prison, heads up the Pan-Korean Solution Committee for the U.S. Base Expansion in Pyongtaek.
This is not the first time the farmers have been evicted to make room for a military base.
During World War II, Father Moon said, "these villagers were expelled from their homeland for a Japanese base. Then, in 1952, the U.S. troops wanted to make an extension of their base and they occupied their land and expelled them. So this is the third time."
The expansion of Camp Humphreys is part of a redeployment of the estimated 35,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. Once the move is completed in 2011, the U.S. military will have reduced the number of troops on the peninsula by a third with the soldiers stationed in fewer–but larger–bases.
In a statement United States Forces Korea (USFK) maintains the move will greatly improve its "ability to effectively deter aggression and defend the peninsula in a strategically flexible way."
As part of the redeployment, USFK also plans to build new facilities to improve quality of life for American soldiers stationed in Korea. According to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, those amenities include a new fitness center at Camp Humphreys "complete with a gym, indoor pool, running track, and four-story parking garage."
In addition to an eight-lane, 25-meter indoor swimming pool, the center will feature a 626-foot indoor running track; separate rooms for cardio fitness, circuit training, free weights, and group exercise; basketball and racquetball courts; a martial arts training room; and climbing walls, the newspaper added.
But Korean farmers chafe at the idea their land will be taken away so foreign soldiers can feel more comfortable.
"They don’t want to move," Father Moon said of the farmers, many of whom are elderly. "They refused their compensation. They don’t want to leave their homeland. They don’t want this experience for a third time."