The cold wind sweeps down from the Siberian steppes across Manchuria and onto the Korean Peninsula, thence to brush over a wide expanse of rice paddies on which is being built a huge US military base. From the base in Pyongtaek, expeditions could be launched to any troubled place in Asia.
The conversion of Camp Humphreys, long a small isolated post, into the US Army Garrison Humphreys over the next eight years will turn it, along with the nearby US air base at Osan, into a hub in the consolidation of US forces in South Korea into 47 posts from the present 104 sites. Of the 28,500 US troops remaining in the country after recent reductions, 18,000 will be in Pyongtaek and another 5,600 in Osan.
The mission of this garrison and the air base will be less focused on the threat from North Korea, which can be met by the South’s increasingly strong forces, and more on threats elsewhere in the region.
“Our mission is to provide the army the installation capabilities and services to support expeditionary operations in a time of persistent conflict,” said David Frodsham, a senior civilian official overseeing the garrison’s expansion.
A senior military officer at US Forces Korea in Seoul said that consolidating US military units into US Army Garrison Humphreys would provide “increased strategic flexibility” to respond to crises elsewhere.
The project will cost US$13 billion, of which 90 percent is being funded by South Korea to persuade the US to keep its troops in the country. If the US ever decides to withdraw those forces, the South Koreans will inherit the modern base.
These changes in South Korea are part of a realignment of US forces throughout the Pacific. Nearly half of the 17,000 Marines in Okinawa are to be moved to Guam. That central Pacific island, which is US territory, is being built into a major air and naval base. A small base in Singapore is coming in for more use, US forces will train more in Australia and the US hopes someday to gain access to Indonesian bases.
Over the next few years, the headquarters of the UN Command led by a US four-star general will move to Pyongtaek from Seoul as will the headquarters of US Forces Korea and those of its army, navy, marines and special operations components. The US Air Force headquarters in the South is already in Osan. The UN command has been in Pyongtaek since it fought the Korean War.
The Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, its brigade combat team, artillery, helicopter and other units will move from posts north of Seoul to this garrison 88.5km south of Seoul and 137km from the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea. So will a long list of intelligence, signal, medical, engineering and logistics units.
The date around which many moves are planned is April 2012, when South Korea assumes wartime operational control of its forces now under a combined US-South Korea command, which will free US forces to concentrate on contingency plans elsewhere. South Korea already has peacetime operational control of its troops.
In Pyongtaek, US Army engineers have undertaken what they say is their largest project ever. The size of the post is to be tripled, to 1,357 hectares. Since the expansion lies in a flood plain barely above sea level, the engineers have begun covering it with dirt to raise the plain 2.4m that will be protected by a levee 3m high. In all, it will take 1 million loads in dump trucks to complete the task.
The new post must accommodate the troops, headquarters, motor pools and firing ranges, plus an expected 35,000 family members. Until now, troop tours in South Korea have been for one year, unaccompanied by families. That is being extended to three years accompanied by families, which requires new housing, schools, medical clinics, sports fields and movie theaters.
The engineers are building high-rise offices for commanders, barracks for troops and buildings with spacious family apartments. That housing, plus recreational facilities that include a gym with basketball courts worthy of the pros, an Olympic swimming pool and world class exercise equipment, are intended to make Pyongtaek a choice assignment.
Richard Halloran, formerly with the New York Times as a foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington, is a freelance writer in Hawaii.
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