By Peter Schurmann and Jin Kim
San Francisco (New America Media – May 26, 2011) – In 2006, a film about U.S. military scientists dumping chemicals into Seoul’s waterways took South Korea by storm.
Based on actual events, “The Host” broke box office records across the country, a slapstick horror about an oversized monster that emerges from the depths of the Han River to terrorize the city.
Powerless to stand in the way of their more powerful partner, South Koreans resorted to comedy then, laughing at the toxic creature of American making. But with revelations emerging last week that United States Forces in Korea (USFK) buried large amounts of hazardous chemicals, including the defoliant Agent Orange, Koreans’ sense of humor and trust may be wearing thin.
“As a former soldier with the South Korean army, I understand the need to maintain American forces in the country,” says Dong Hwan Kim, who still serves with the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) reserves. A native of Bucheon, a satellite city 20 km outside of Seoul and home to Camp Mercer, where U.S. forces are said to have buried the chemicals, Kim say she now feels “a sense of betrayal” and wonders if he will ever again be able to trust Seoul’s most important ally.
Washington has maintained some 30,000 soldiers in South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War, primarily as defense against North Korea.
Reuters news service noted yesterday that Seoul had launched a second investigation into the allegations surrounding USFK activities at Camp Mercer, near the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. The move came after South Korean media uncovered statements made a decade ago by a former U.S. soldier on the American website for former U.S. service members, Korean War Project, that “every imaginable chemical” had been buried at the camp between 1963 and 1964.
Last week, three American ex-servicemen admitted to burying Agent Orange at Camp Carroll near the city of Daegu, 300 km southeast of Seoul, leading to a joint USFK-Korea investigation.
On Monday, USFK confirmed that Agent Orange, widely used during the Vietnam War and later to clear foliage around the DMZ dividing the two Koreas, was buried at the camp but that it was later removed. Soil samples taken years later revealed trace amounts of dioxin, a key ingredient in Agent Orange, USFK officials said.
Agent Orange has been cited for numerous health problems, including cancer, asthma, and birth defects. U.S. veterans, including those who served in Korea, have long sought treatment for related illnesses from the Veterans Administration, which just recently increased to 16 the number of diagnoses recognized as being related to the herbicide.
While no definitive links have been made to health issues stemming from the USFK activities, one major broadcaster reported on Tuesday that Daegu, South Korea’s third-largest city, had the nation’s highest infant mortality rate at almost six per 1,000 births from 2007 to 2009. According to one local television station that is part of the larger Seoul Broadcasting Station, Daegu is also high on the list of congenital birth defects, raising questions over the possible connection to chemical contaminants found in the soil.
South Korea’s official news agency Yonhap, meanwhile, reported Wednesday that ROKA forces enlisted civilian help in spreading toxic agents “by hand” near the demilitarized zone throughout the 1970s. One villager told reporters that he has suffered from asthma ever since, but has been consistently denied restitution from the state.
A USFK spokeswoman on Wednesday attempted to distance the U.S. military from the growing scandal, saying that as part of the existing Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed between the two countries, conditions at Camp Mercer in Bucheon became Seoul’s responsibility once the base was returned to ROKA in 1993.
According to the agreement, the U.S. cannot be held liable for conditions at any installation once it has been returned and accepted by South Korea. That has many in this country angered at the perceived callousness of the United States and at Seoul’s failure to inspect the bases prior to accepting them.
For now, Seoul says it will not seek to renegotiate the terms of SOFA, though both sides insist they consider the issue “very serious.” Such statements may not be enough, however, to placate concerns among South Koreans.
A recent editorial in the national daily, Kyunghyang Sinmun, says the United States must be held accountable for its actions. “It was the U.S. military that sullied this rich land… Just because the U.S. military has received the right to use some of this land as bases does not mean they’ve been granted even the freedom to pollute it.”
South Korea’s tech-savvy youth, who figured prominently in anti-U.S. demonstrations in 2002 and again in 2008, have been abuzz on social networking sites.
One Twitter user, who goes by the name Sun-A, wrote, “I was born and raised in Bucheon… do I need to be concerned?” Another who tweets under the name bokme41 asks, “Is there anywhere to live without worry in this U.S. host nation?”