For over a century, the walled off Yongsan Base has been forbidden ground for Koreans. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

SEOUL – Any visitor who spends a day or two in South Korea’s capital will likely encounter a vast, walled-off compound just a few minutes by taxi from Seoul’s central business district.

Its red brick walls, topped with coiled razor wire, enclose 500 acres. But at the walls’ 21 gates, the average citizen is barred entry. This is Yongsan, or “Dragon Hill”: A location that was, for over a century, forbidden ground for Koreans.

Yongsan provided the HQ for Japanese imperial forces, then for the US Army in Korea. Now, the GIs have departed Yongsan for a new base, 65 kilometers south of the capital that offers a better eye on China.

But the transfer process of the base from US to South Korea has dragged on for almost two decades, is clouded with opacity and is far from complete: Less than a third of the land is currently in Korean hands.

Yongsan directly links to the sometimes uneasy history of America’s presence in Korea – as well as to the US military’s shifting posture in Northeast Asia. 

Recently, it has returned to the public spotlight, given that newly elected President Yoon Suk-yeol has controversially moved the presidential office to the site.

But its real import lies in the future, for the abandoned site offers Seoul what is arguably developed Asia’s biggest urban-regeneration opportunity: The chance to create a giant, iconic park in the heart of a metropolis of 10 million people.

The huge scale of the Yongsan base is clear on Google Maps. Image: Google Maps

Inside ‘Mini America’

Though the base handover remains incomplete, sections that have recently reverted to Korean control are being temporarily opened to small tour groups. Asia Times joined one last week for a peek inside.

“For 120 years Koreans could not enter,” said tour guide Im Jong-hwa.

Her reference was to Tokyo’s 1905 victory in the Russo-Japanese War, when a helpless Korea was a prize in great-power games. Victorious Japanese occupied the base as a convenient location outside the capital, with access to the Han River. After 1945, new occupiers – Americans – moved in.

A tour guide shows images of Yongsan as it once was. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

“I’ve been to Yongsan [district] many times, but I have never been inside,” said Choi Ha-young, a 74-year-old retiree on Im’s tour. “I saw it on the news, so I wanted to come.”

The base is so vast it is bisected by a busy highway. One section is overlooked by high-rise apartments typical of millennial Seoul. Another side backs onto Itaewon – formerly a “ville” offering seedy entertainment to GIs, now Seoul’s funky international quarter.

From the height of nearby Namsan – “Mount South” the mountain which demarcated the southern boundary of the traditional capital – the base is a dash of green in an otherwise gray cityscape.

There are no rusty tanks or fortified positions here, for Yongsan was always a headquarters and administrative base. The vibe is more US college town than frontline garrison.

Low, red-roofed bungalows that were previously officer quarters sit on prim lawns, shaded by copious tree cover. A baseball pitch, complete with bleachers, sits empty.

Signage is all in English; fire hydrants are not fitted for Korean-width hoses. Locals chuckle to learn that US troops used ancient grave markers as landscape features.

Ancient grave markers recall the time, over a century ago, when this land was in Korean hands. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

There is no other ‘hood like it in Seoul.

“I came out of curiosity as it is somewhere in Seoul that looks like the US,” said Oh Ji-un, a 25-year-old nurse. “The US-style houses here are unique.”

Chunky, red-brick headquarters buildings are relics of the Japanese occupation, but the US Army presence was so long that few are aware that it was formerly inhabited by the despised colonizers.

“Not many Korean people know it was a colonial base,” Im said. “So we don’t have any ill feelings.”

Perhaps not. But while Korean-US relations under the conservative Yoon administration look positively chummy, the huge footprint Yongsan represents is not without controversy.

Visitors take photos of Yongsan Base accommodation – accommodation not seen anywhere else in Seoul. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

Seoul’s American-Korean interface

America fought the Korean War to keep the communist North at bay – losing some 33,686 sons in battle in the process. Post-war, with GIs and their nuclear umbrella shoring up local bulwarks, Seoul was freed to spend billions on development it would otherwise have spent on defense.

Moreover, in the 1960 and ‘70s, the nascent export power enriched itself selling to the world’s biggest market, while operating within the US-led global trading system.

With Koreans unable to travel abroad until the 1990s, in-country American troops provided both an exotic presence and interface with the wider world. US trends – popular music, fashion, cuisine – were disseminated via GIs; US Army TV and radio stations won local audiences.

There were downsides, however. Prostitution – both freelance and government-sponsored – thrived in lurid camp towns outside US bases. Itaewon became a hive of beer ‘n burger joints, knock-off merchandizing, black marketeering and sleaze.

Yet overall relations were amicable. America was respected. That changed in 1980.

Combat underway during the Korean War. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Washington supported – or allegedly supported; debate still rages – a murderous crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by South Korean paratroops in the city of Gwangju in 1980. Anti-Americanism was born.

Korea democratized in 1987. Its economy expanded. Trade disputes and market-opening pressures from Washington added further layers to the sentiment. But it was the privileged status of GIs that ignited Korea’s biggest-ever anti-US demonstrations.

In 2002, after a US military vehicle killed two school children in a road accident, locals were infuriated when the GIs implicated in the incident were tried in a US rather than Korean court.

Seoul was rocked by demonstrations. Yongsan became a lightning conductor. Even Americans admitted that a massive foreign base in Seoul’s heart was intrusive.

“We were very keenly attuned to that,” said Steve Tharp, a now-retired US Army lieutenant colonel. “The problem was that it was the area we were given after we recaptured Seoul [during the Korean War] in 1951. You had what you had, and that time, it was outside of Seoul.”

A reproduction of North Korean propaganda paintings, portraying alleged atrocities by US troops, is on show during an anti-US demonstration in Seoul. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

Discussions started on returning the base to Korea under the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration in 2003; a communique was issued in 2005. The aim was to complete the transition in 2016.

Sizeable chunks of the base were handed over. Massive facilities now cover 570,000 meters of the returned land – notably the National War Memorial and the National Museum. 

But the process slowed during the conservative administrations that ruled in Seoul between 2008 and 2017. Those governments were less keen to see US troops relocate “South of the Han” – the river that bisects Seoul is both a tactical and psychological line.

Another issue was the speed of construction and transfer of gear to the new base in the south, Camp Humphreys. Even so, that base was officially activated in 2018.

Humphreys lies 65 kilometers south of Seoul, next to the Yellow Sea port-naval base of Pyeongtaek. Its scale is equally vast: The US Army calls it “the largest construction and transformation project in the US Department of Defense’s history.”

For US generals and admirals, Pyeongtaek – which sits between two other major US air bases – the location is ideal. It is beyond the range of North Korean tube artillery and offers a fine perch to monitor Chinese naval movements around shipyards and bases in the Yellow Sea.

But for the average GI, Pyeongtaek offers dull fodder compared to the off-duty options available in sophisticated Seoul.

“The feedback I get from guys down there is that it is incredibly sterile – there is no flavor to it,” said Tharp. “Yongsan was exciting.”

Enlisted men’s housing at the giant new Camp Humphreys. Photo: USFK

Ongoing irritations

This may explain why one of the last few areas of contention between Korean and US negotiators is the status of the US military hotel, the “Dragon Hill.” The hotel continues to operate inside Yongsan’s gates as a popular weekend destination for Pyongtaek-based troops visiting Seoul.

Another chunk of the ex-base is set aside for a brand new US embassy.

As is the case worldwide, left-wing groups still protest against the US. And so it was outside Yongsan visitor’s gate last week.

The contention was ground pollution – an issue the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transportation, or MOLIT, insists has been resolved. Demonstrators disagree.

“Our opinion is that the US government should be in charge of US Army pollutants,” argued Kim Eun-hee, one of the protesters. But Seoul “is giving the US a free pass,” she said.

As is commonly the case in Korea, there were more police – both uniformed and plain clothed – than demonstrators: seven.

Protesters demand the US government clear up ground pollution inside the Yongsan compound, Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

More broadly, anti-US sentiment has fizzled among the body politic. Even the Moon Jae-in administration – arguably, the furthest left in Korean democratic history – cleaved strongly to its alliance with Washington and did not breach sanctions on North Korea.

Yet the return of Yongsan land has been unaccountably slow. According to MOLIT, as of June 2022, South Korea has got just 30% back: 634,000 square meters.

There may be some acceleration in the near future, for one corner of Seoul’s “Little America” now boasts a very high-profile resident: President Yoon Suk-yeol.

New presidential perch

Since South Korea’s foundation in 1948, the Korean and US militaries have been joined at the hip. Symbolic of this closeness, one corner of Yongsan Base was occupied by a Korean body: The Ministry of National Defense, or MOND.

Yoon, who took power in May, has chosen a chunk of the MOND compound as the new presidential office – the result of his populist election pledge to “bring the presidency closer to the people.”

The prior presidential residence was the Blue House – a mountainside, gated complex at the rear of Seoul’s biggest medieval palace. It had been critiqued as too “imperial” for a democratic presidency.

The new office looks appropriately workaday – though whether it is “closer to the people” is questionable: few can enter the secure ministerial compound.

The new presidential offices, as viewed from inside the grounds of Yongsan Base. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

Still, it can be viewed by base visitors.

“The move was necessary but it was a bit rushed,” said Lee Jong-ju, 27, a programmer visiting Yongsan. “It had to be done: When we look at the impeachment [in 2017 of President Park Geun-hye] it is was because the president’s office was out of contact with the public.”

Park was accused of running state affairs from her boudoir.

Still Lee had one criticism of the new site. “The Blue House had lovely views for visiting foreign dignitaries,” he said. “This does not have any design value.”

When US President Joe Biden visited Seoul in May, the ceremonials took place in the nearby National Museum of Korea – itself set on a returned portion of the base. 

The new presidential office is backed by a helipad, and visitors are allowed to take photos in a presidential limo and even in front of Yoon’s chopper.

Robo dogs – part of presidential security – roam a former US Army recreational field inside Yongsan. Distant local apartments loom over the base perimeter. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Security appeared to be low-key, with sensor-equipped robo dogs keeping an eye on visitors.

And regardless of the national humiliation Yongsan may have represented in the past, today it bubbles with future opportunity.

Seoul’s Central Park…eventually

Though Seoul is shaded with forested mountains and refreshed by the Han River, its landmark park is in Yeouido, an island in the Han. The heart of the city lacks a public, green space.

Judging from all sources Asia Times consulted, Seoulites want Yongsan to be that space.

“I’d like to see this as a Central Park or Shinjuku Park,” said Lee, the programmer. “The sad history here makes this more amazing.”

Yongsan, at 500 acres, is substantial. It is smaller than New York’s Central Park (840 acres) but larger than London’s Hyde Park (350 acres) or Tokyo’s Shinjuku Park (140 acres).

Moreover, it is close to Itaewon, “which is connected to international culture,” Lee said.

Past generations of Koreans were wary of visiting Itaewon due to its raucous reputation. Now the district is a cluster of foreign restaurants, craft-beer bars and international brand stores that draws local hipsters. It is also home to thriving Muslim and LGBTQ communities.

Visitors photograph themselves in the presidential limo – and the new presidential building (center) – from within Yongsan Base. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

“We need to preserve the historical sites and the nature, and it is very accessible in the center of Seoul,” said Im, the tour guide. “It is now up to us!”

A young volunteer at a booth was collecting ideas from visitors regarding Yongsan’s future. With Seoul suffering a politically sensitive housing shortage, how many want to see the location turned into a public apartment cluster?

“Nobody!” she said.

Given Seoul’s sizzling property market, the huge tranche of land represents a fortune – but as it is public land, “we never estimated the real estate price,” said MOLIT spokesperson Jang Seun-gueon.

A decision to turn it into a public park has already been made.

“In 2012, there was a public competition bid,” Jang said. The winning coalition was formed of West 8, a Netherlands-based landscape architecture firm, in combination with Korean engineering and construction companies.

Full details have yet to be ironed out. “We are still in discussions over preserving or remodeling or getting rid of some things,” Jang said.

Complicating matters are the multiple parties involved: MOLIT; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which negotiates with the US government; the MOND, which deals with land used by US Forces; and Seoul City. 

Once fully handed over, the conversion to a park will take around seven years, according to Jang.

So when will the handover finally be complete so that work may commence? “That is confidential information,” Jang said.

Follow this writer on Twitter @ASalmonSeoul