Seoul's Little America

When the troops leave, what happens to embassy staffers? No one is sure.

Dec 22,2003
About 150 U.S. diplomatic families, nearly 500 people in all, live tucked away in a residential compound at the edge of Yongsan Garrison, the center of the U.S. military presence in Korea. Amid impressive security inside the already tightly guarded base, embassy employees and their families live in a cluster of one-story single houses and duplexes with tidy lawns front and rear. The compound resembles a neighborhood in a peaceful rural American town, and the greenery muffles the roar of the city traffic on the other side of the high walls that surround the compound.
But the diplomats and their families could be looking for a new place to live in the next few years - or, more accurately, their successors will.
The compound, which has been used by the embassy for most of the post-war period, had not been in the spotlight until U.S. and Korean officials began intense discussions about relocating the U.S. military establishment in Seoul outside the city. The status of the homes and land they are on is not entirely clear: Is it a part of Yongsan Garrison, as Korean officials assert, or a separate piece of property controlled by the U.S. State Department, as embassy officials contend? U.S. officials cite a 1948 agreement in which Seoul gave the State Department the right to use the site indefinitely.
The issue rises above one of diplomatic niceties, however, because it is enmeshed in a web of other problems. The biggest is that the embassy has been trying for two decades to move out of its cramped, aging and less-than-secure chancery building. Korean officials also want the embassy away from its too-prominent location on one of the city’s major boulevards, a few minutes walk from Gyeonbok Palace. The building is the twin of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism next door.
Nationalistic sentiment tinged with anti-Americanism is running high among the core supporters of President Roh Moo-hyun, so both governments are closed-mouth about the negotiations involved in moving the embassy and how the Yongsan embassy housing area may or may nor be related to those plans.
The somewhat murky status of the housing area also complicates matters.
As one indication of how cautious the embassy is on the issue, U.S. Ambassador Thomas C. Hubbard has turned down repeated requests for an on-the-record statement about the compound’s future, apparently worried any public comment would prompt criticism from some quarter or other.
At a recent round of U.S.-Korean talks on the move of the military garrison, the United States proposed taking all its military facilities out of in Seoul, retaining only 16 acres of the 662-acre site.
The United States wants to retain the site of a military-run hotel for business travelers, soldiers in transit and military personnel vacationing in Seoul.
Some Korean officials, though, said they had asked during the military talks that the embassy compound be returned to Korea. The two governments have agreed that the military redeployment would take place by 2006, despite clear splits in Korean public opinion about the departure of the U.S. forces. Although the center-left bloc of Koreans that swept Mr. Roh into the Blue House might like to see the U.S. forces move even further away, or out of Korea entirely, others have voiced concerns that the move could weaken the U.S. resolve to defend the city against North Korean provocations.

Entangling alliances
At the same time that those military talks were going on, the plans for an embassy move had reached a critical point, an effort that is nearly two decades in the making. The United States envisions building a 15-story office building and an eight-story apartment house with 54 units. The chosen site is the former home of the Kyonggi Girls’ High School adjacent to Deoksu Palace in central Seoul. In 1986, the embassy had traded a separate office building it owned across the street from the Lotte Hotel for the school site.
The transaction, brokered by the Korean government, included a substantial cash payment by the U.S. government. By 1990, the two governments had agreed on the size of the new embassy complex. To further prepare, the embassy also sold a housing area in Songhyeon-dong, near Gyeongbok Palace, and the embassy staffers living there moved into the Yongsan housing area.
But last year, pressure from some civic groups began to build to stop the embassy project. Relying on revised environmental and historical preservation regulations, the groups contended that important parts of Korea’s history would be lost if the U.S. construction were permitted.
An archeological survey of the site was finally arranged after several expert groups declined the honor of being dragged into the controversy, and the surveyors concluded the site did have historical significance. But the matter did not end there. The Foreign Ministry intervened, saying diplomatic and political considerations would play a role in the final decision to allow or bar construction. A committee set up to rule on the experts’ conclusions about the site put off a decision last week without setting a date for its determination.
Money is also a consideration. Having smoothed the way for the original acquisition of the new site, Seoul would be on the hook to come up with a substitute to meet stringent U.S. security standards if the current site is vetoed. Officials have estimated that the cost of a new site in central Seoul could reach 100 billion won ($85 million).
Seoul’s city government is also involved in the hunt. Song Deuk-beom, the city’s urban planning director, said the city has reviewed 10 potential sites, but found all of them lacking in some respect.
As public pressure to keep the Americans out of the Deoksu Palace site mounted recently, the embassy told Seoul that it would be willing to consider other options, including locating only the chancery on the site and dealing with the housing issue separately.
Korean officials have said that they asked the United States to return to the issue of the Yongsan embassy housing compound during talks on the relocation of the U.S. military. Maureen Cormack, the embassy spokeswoman, said carefully that U.S. officials had not raised the matter themselves during the talks throughout the year.
Quoting Mr. Hubbard, Ms. Cormack said the United States was now willing to give up the compound on its own initiative and not as a part of the defense talks or in connection with the negotiations over the embassy office site.
The reasons for that willingness are not entirely clear, especially when the question of substitute housing is up in the air. Even if a housing block were to rise on the Deoksu Palace site, it would accommodate only about a third of the families now at Yongsan. The embassy says it prefers housing compounds to trying to find quarters for its staff in the high-priced Seoul real estate market.
And the ambassador’s view, by way of Ms. Cormack, came as news to Mr. Song, city government’s urban planning official, who said the offer to vacate Yongsan was news to him. “I don’t recall that the issue was ever brought up,” he said. “The discussions didn’t go that far.”
Ms. Cormack said firmly: “Expanding the current project for the eight-story staff apartment building at the Deoksu Palace site is definitely not an option. We will be somewhere in Seoul, but we just don’t know where.”

Residents’ view
And what do the residents of “Little America” think about moving out of Yongsan? The people living there now will almost certainly have moved on to other assignments before alternatives are arranged, although Korean speakers could expect to be assigned to Seoul again in the future. Some residents at the compound have complained about a deep sense of isolation from the local community. Life in the U.S. foreign service was never meant to resemble life in, say, an Akron, Ohio, suburb.
“We are diplomats,” Ms. Cormack said. “We would prefer to live among the people of Seoul and have more interaction with them.” Ms. Cormack lives with her family at the Yongsan embassy compound.
Others, however, are happy to be near the facilities on the base, especially the Defense Department schools that many U.S. diplomats’ children attend. International schools in Seoul are expensive and crowded, many foreign businessmen have complained.
For others, especially support staff members who usually receive no language training before being assigned here, having access to the military base and its all-American lifestyle is a boon. That includes its post exchanges, the U.S. food at the commissary, American movies and cable television channels. All of it will be sorely missed when Yongsan Garrison is no more.

by Ser Myo-ja

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