In South Korea, an investigation is underway to determine if the toxic defoliant Agent Orange was buried at a U.S. military base three decades ago.
At least 3 American veterans claim that the U.S. government covered up the incident that took place at Camp Carroll, about 135 miles south of Seoul.
Environmental activists say that this is just one example of how the U.S. military has polluted their land. And as American forces prepare to return many of their facilities to the South Korean government, analysts say the environmental damage is already taking a toll on the U.S. image among locals.
For several weeks, Camp Carroll has been at the center of a dispute between the U.S. forces Korea, USFK, and South Korean environmental activists.
Outside the base, banners call on the United States to tell the truth about the use of toxic chemicals such as Agent Orange and to compensate victims for damages.
The dispute comes after three American veterans who were stationed at Camp Carroll in the late 1970s recently claimed they were ordered to bury Agent Orange on the grounds of the base. Agent Orange is a defoliant that was used during the Vietnam War era and known to cause cancer and other serious illnesses. It was also sprayed at locations on the Korean demilitarized zone, to ward off any infiltration from North Korea in the sixties.
A joint U.S. and South Korean investigative team recently released a progress report on their findings.
Colonel Joseph Birchmeier spoke at a press conference on Camp Carroll on June 23.
“No evidence of Agent Orange has been found in Camp Carroll or in the adjacent community,” he said.
The USFK says that during the late seventies barrels of other defoliants were buried on base, but were dug up within a few years and removed. Traces of those chemicals still remain in the soil. However, groundwater samples outside Camp Carroll have also shown no dangerous levels of toxic contamination.
But environmental activists are not yet ready to dismiss the threat posed by toxic chemicals on U.S. military bases. Jung In-chul of Korea Green United says there are plenty of other cases of base pollution aside from Camp Carroll.
He says in the past 20 years we’ve seen 47 cases of environmental problems near U.S. bases. Jung says the most serious incident was in 2000 when they dumped formaldehyde into the Han River in Seoul.
That incident occurred at the Yongsan Garrison, which is one of 26 American camps that will be returned to the South Korean government by 2017.
Activists say many of these facilities are polluted and want the United States to restore them to their natural condition and pay all of the clean up costs.
But according to the U.S.-Republic of Korea Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, the treaty that governs how the military operates here, the United States is not responsible.
Activist Jung In-chul says it is unfair that the SOFA places the entire burden on South Korea.
He says the SOFA only allows the U.S. military to determine what constitutes a serious threat to human health. The South Korean government has no say and is given no estimate of what the clean-up costs of those bases will be.
For these reasons, Jung says he wants to renegotiate the agreement.
But some analysts don’t think that’s a good idea.
Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea policy at the Asia Foundation in Washington, says “Trying to open issues related to SOFA becomes a sort of Pandora’s box, because there are a lot of different SOFAs around the world and if you make an exception for one then the others want to make sure that they are pressing [for changes].
Snyder says the Camp Carroll investigative team is a good example of how both governments are working together to resolve environmental issues, but Washington should consider bearing some of the cost.
“There does need to be a certain measure of responsibility on both sides and I think if looked at in the context of financial cooperation hopefully it will be possible to manage it in an effective way,” he said.
Shin Chang Hoon, director of International Law and Conflict Resolution at the Asan Institute in Seoul, agrees.
He says environmental issues on military bases put stress on U.S.-South Korea relations.
Shin says whether or not Agent Orange is discovered at Camp Carroll, the U.S. should offer the Korean public some kind of gesture, but needs to be careful how it’s worded.
“It must not be an apology, because apology means recognition of responsibility, but there must be some sort of address, such as regret,” he said.
Shin says if South Koreans believe that local U.S. troops do not care about their health and safety, then their anger could be re-directed at the government just ahead of an election year.
Some locals in Waegwan city say their opinion of U.S. forces has already changed. Kim Eun Young lives across the street from Camp Carroll.
The 34-year-old says she had a pretty neutral view about the U.S. military. But after she heard about Agent Orange she felt like her community had been lied to. She says that it’s very irresponsible that the U.S. buried chemicals in South Korean land.
Kim says she just hopes the United States and South Korean governments tell the whole truth about these chemicals.
The investigation into the Camp Carroll claims is expected to wrap up in mid July.