(ATTN: RECASTS 3rd para; ADDS more info in 9th para)
By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, July 29 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States agreed Thursday to work closely together for the return of about one-fourth of the U.S. military's Yongsan Garrison site in central Seoul by early next year, the foreign ministry said.
The agreement to pursue the return of nearly 500,000 square meters of land came as Seoul pushes for a mega project to establish a national park there, amid worries that a delay in the return and decontamination of the garrison would hamper the project.
Ko Yun-ju, the ministry's director-general for North American affairs, and Lt. Gen. Scott L. Pleus, deputy commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, reached the agreement in a telephone conference. They are representatives of the joint committee of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which governs the legal status of 28,500 American troops here.
"Both sides have committed to closely working together for returning nearly 500,000 square meters of the Yongsan Garrison by early 2022," the two sides said in a joint statement after the virtual session.
"The Joint Committee representatives agreed to continue to address returns and grants based on mutual trust and close cooperation, reinforcing the ironclad ROK-U.S. alliance," it added. The ROK stands for the Republic of Korea.
The envisioned return of the garrison is part of a broad relocation scheme to consolidate U.S. bases across the Korean Peninsula into a garrison in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of Seoul, and another in Daegu, 302 km southeast of the capital, with an aim to enhance defense readiness and operational efficiencies in the face of North Korean military threats.
The 500,000 square meters of land in point -- about the combined size of 70 soccer fields -- is expected to mostly include parts of the garrison's southern section, called the South Post, which houses schools, sports fields and officers' quarters.
The northern Main Post is still being occupied by the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) and other facilities currently in use, which makes it difficult to immediately proceed with the return process there. The South and the U.S. seek to relocate the CFC to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek by next year.
Last year, two areas of the Yongsan Garrison, which span 53,418 square meters in total, were returned to the South. The remainder of the garrison remains under the control of the U.S. military.
At Thursday's session, the two sides also reaffirmed the need for expediting the return of U.S. military camps no longer in use and the grant of facilities and areas that have been requested by the U.S. side, according to the joint statement.
"The ROK and the U.S. have agreed to identify the sections of Yongsan no longer in use that can be returned when all required transfer and force protection actions are complete," the statement read.
Despite the shared commitment to advance the return plan, the South and the U.S. appear to have made little significant progress on key environmental issues, including who will cover the cost of decontaminating returned sites.
"It doesn't appear to be a situation where the U.S. has made a policy decision not to take responsibility (for the decontamination issue)," a ministry official told reporters.
"I think we have no other way but to continue consultations on differences, with patience and based on scientific grounds," he added.
In late 2019, the two countries initiated the long-awaited return process for the garrison, once home to the USFK headquarters, to ensure that the national park construction project proceeds smoothly. But little significant progress has been made.
In the Yongsan Garrison, more than 90 percent of its facilities and personnel have been relocated to Camp Humphreys, though many facilities have yet to be returned.