Town dreading U.S. troops’ departureDuring the late afternoon one day last week, a group of U.S. soldiers was strolling through the Bosan-dong district in the city of Dongducheon, not far from the border with North Korea. The shops lining the streets all bore signs in English.
As the soldiers walked by, a Korean man paced back and forth in front of his shop and looked far ahead as if he were trying to count the men.
“It has been a long time since soldiers were out on the street,” said Jung In-geun, 55, who has been running his clothing store, Big Man, for 30 years.
The streets of Bosan-dong in this remote town north of Seoul resemble those of Itaewon. Dongducheon is home to four U.S. military bases: camps Casey, Mobile, Castle and Nimble, which are next to Gwangam-dong and Bosan-dong.
Since the United States announced in May that it would send 3,600 soldiers here to Iraq, residents of Dongducheon have been worried about the survival of their city, which has been disparagingly referred to as “giji chon,” for almost half a century. (“Giji” means base in Korean and “chon” means village.)
To make things worse, it was announced last week that the bases in Dongducheon will eventually be relocated elsewhere in Korea, a move that is likely to cripple an area that relies on American soldiers as its main source of income.
According to Park Su-ho, 57, a city council representative, there are 400 businesses catering to American soldiers, including 250 shops in Bosan-dong alone, and 1,200 people working on the base.
When you count families of these business owners, an estimated 15,000 people, or 20 percent of Dongducheon’s 76,000 residents, rely directly on American soldiers for their livelihood.
According to the city, Dongducheon earns 120 billion won ($103 million) to 140 billion won per year from doing business with American soldiers.
There is no other city in Korea that depends on American soldiers as much as Dongducheon, Mr. Park said. Plummeting sales in stores in Bosan-dong have an impact on the entire city, he added.
Though the U.S. troops haven’t been sent to Iraq yet ― they are expected to leave as early as next month ― proprietors say they are already suffering.
“With the relocation already announced, those who are to be leaving are not likely to be in a mood to buy things,” said the owner of a souvenir shop who identified himself only as Mr. Chung.
Because many soldiers are in training, they haven’t been allowed to go outside the base in recent months. The U.S. Army is preparing a brigade, or 3,600 soldiers, of the second division for duty in Iraq.
“We haven’t been allowed to come out of post for the last couple of months,” said an American soldier last week who refused to identify himself, without giving the reasons behind the order.
The soldier said it was his first time outside in six weeks, adding that it was a privilege that wouldn’t last very long.
With many soldiers locked inside the base, the number of customers has dwindled, and businesses here have started feeling the pinch from declining sales.
“Sales have dropped by 80 percent,” Mr. Jung said.
Some other proprietors managing clubs or selling suitcases said they experienced a similar drop.
“It is just not comparable. Current sales have dropped 80 percent to 90 percent compared to past sales,” said Mr. Chung.
He said the decline has been occurring gradually. Events such as the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the killing of two girls by a U.S. armored vehicle in Dongducheon in June 2002 and the war in Iraq have led U.S. military bases to restrict soldiers’ movements outside their bases.
Impact of politics
“Because swings in sales are caused by U.S. foreign policy, we have watched U.S. presidential elections more closely than Korean ones,” said Cho Yong-seok, a tailor. He said his sales started weakening two years ago, and recently they have severely deteriorated.
Although business owners in the Bosan-dong district have been complaining about declining sales for a few years, they are even more pessimistic these days.
They’re taking a wait-and-see attitude, but they don’t really have a choice.
“I am very worried. Sales are certainly going to fall, and I don’t know whether the situation will ever improve,” said Hwang Young-su, who runs the Hyundai Color photo shop.
“I just don’t know what to do, but I can’t move to other places either,” he said. “It all depends on how much money I make next month. Next month will be a turning point,” as that is when the U.S. troops are expected to be sent to Iraq.
So far, his sales have dropped by 30 percent, he said.
Lee Myung-seok, a club owner and the head of an association of Bosan-dong merchants, said a store renting a space in his building plans to move out, but he doesn’t have enough money to return the security deposit.
“If the situation continues, half the buildings in this area will be auctioned off by winter,” he said.
Mr. Jung, of Big Man, said business owners’ options are limited as residents in other parts of the city don’t usually shop in Bosan-dong, scared off by the area’s seedy reputation.
“It would be very difficult to turn this neighborhood into one catering to the other residents of Dongducheon since these shops have catered to foreigners (American soldiers) for almost half a century,” he said.
“Who else would come here to shop?” said Mr. Lee. “Everybody points a finger at us for doing business in giji chon. Do you think Koreans will come here and sit on those filthy chairs?”
Mr. Cho, the tailor, said, “Because we have been doing business in giji chon, we simply cannot compete with other Korean businesses [catering to Korean customers].” He added that he had few Korean customers.
“Dongducheon residents come here to watch perhaps exotic scenes of Koreans and American soldiers mingling with each other, but do not make a purchase,” Mr. Chung said. “They would rather go to other places in Dongducheon for shopping.”
Besides the area’s bad reputation, most of the merchandise in Bosan-dong is geared toward Americans, not Koreans.
“Shoes for American customers have different sizes,” said Mr. Cho. “Americans have different tastes and have a different body structure.”
Moving to other areas where foreigners are plentiful, such as Itaewon or Pyeongtaek, where a new U.S. base will be built by 2008, isn’t so easy for most proprietors in Bosan-dong.
“Nearly 90 percent of merchants in Bosan-dong are renting their store spaces,” Mr. Lee said. “Bosan-dong has always been a place where people can have an easy start with a small amount of capital.”
According to Mr. Chung, monthly rents for businesses in Bosan-dong are as low as 400,000 won to 500,000 won, plus 5 million won for a refundable deposit. In Pyeongtaek, monthly rents can go up to 5 million won, with a 30 million won deposit.
Even though the neighborhood’s businesses will be sorry to see the American soldiers leave, residents in other parts of Dongducheon may breathe a sigh of relief.
“Residents in Dongducheon are afraid of telling other people that they live here,” said Mr. Park of the city council. “Even when students go on a group tour, they are reluctant to tell other people they are from Dongducheon.”
Young women in particular feel the stigma of living in Dongducheon.
“My friend told me that when her boyfriend’s mother found out that he was dating a girl from Dongducheon, the mother told him to stop dating her,” said Roh Go-eun, a 20-year-old student working at a cellular service center, Lee’s Telecom.
Coming to the defense of the city’s women, Park Eun-young, a co-worker of Ms. Roh’s, said, “I have never been to this part of town before I started working here. Most women working at the bars are not natives of Dongducheon.”
A couple of years ago several clubs, including one above Lee’s Telecom, were raided by police for hiring Russian women as prostitutes.
“Some people think girls living in Dongducheon are all prostitutes,” Ms. Park said. “Such things happen everywhere else, but people route all their criticism to us.”
Mr. Lee, head of the Bosan-dong merchants association, denies that prostitution and drugs are available at Dongducheon clubs.
Ms. Roh and Ms. Park seemed to have little sympathy for the Bosan-dong businesses, saying that they have profited handsomely from the U.S. base.
“I heard that the restaurant in front of the Camp Casey main gate makes as much money as a restaurant in upscale Gangnam, southern Seoul,” Ms. Park said.
Ms. Roh said, “American soldiers are paid every other week, and they spend a large chunk of it instantly, with little money left for the following week. There is no concept of saving money for them, and unlike Filipinos, they don’t send money back home.”
As for the Bosan-dong business owners’ apparent woes, “you would get a completely different response from people who are not directly related to the U.S. military,” Ms. Park said. “You’ll only get emotional responses from proprietors here.”
Business owners in Bosan-dong may have exaggerated their sales decline just to get their message delivered, Ms. Park said.
“There is no way of verifying the figures,” she said, as most transactions are in cash.
She said that the cellular phone shop has a stable base of customers because people need to make phone calls no matter what, so the store’s figures would give a better estimate of how much sales have dropped in the area due to fewer American customers. Lee’s Telecom has seen sales drop 30 percent recently, she said.
“Businesses here still make money, though maybe it’s less than what they are used to,” Ms. Roh said. “The real problem is that the sales decline won’t stop here.”
Government aid sought
Fearing the planned relocation of American troops, Dongducheon citizens have rallied several times to get the government to make up for lost years of development that resulted from various restrictions imposed because of the presence of the U.S. military bases.
“The physical development of Dongducheon has been abnormal because U.S. military bases limited the city’s development,” Mr. Park said.
In Bosan-dong, the U.S. military bases are divided from the rest of the city by railroad tracks, and the land that the bases now occupy used to be part of the Dongducheon’s commercial center before the 1950-53 Korean War. After the war and the establishment of the bases, those who used to live there were not allowed to return to their homes, Mr. Park said.
Jung Sung-ho, a National Assembly member of the Uri Party whose constituency is located in Dongducheon, said there still isn’t a concrete plan to help the city after the U.S. troops leave and no timetable for making one up.
Yet Dongducheon won’t be able to wait indefinitely. With the right development plan, the departure of the U.S. bases doesn’t have to mean the doom of Bosan-dong.
“I think what people want is an alternative solution, not to stop the relocation of U.S. military bases in Dongducheon,” Ms. Roh said. “Even our parents said it would be good for us in the long term. Dongducheon cannot rely on American soldiers for their living forever.”
by Limb Jae-un