After years of squabbling over the issue, the US returned 12 American military sites to South Korea on Friday. The move unblocks development efforts, but talks will continue on who will shoulder environmental cleanup costs.
The two sides agreed on the return during a virtual joint committee session of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which governs the legal status of the 28,500 American troops in the country.
“We reached the decision comprehensively, considering social and economic issues in the communities caused by the delays and their requests for the swift return,” said Choi Chang-won, a vice minister of government policy coordination.
However, the handover plan for the 12 sites was finalized on the condition that the discussion of clean-up costs continued, because officials failed to bridge differences on who would shoulder environmental cleanup costs.
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US troops have been stationed in the country since the 1950-53 Korean War amid the perceived threat from Pyongyang. However, in recent years, the allies have disputed the cost of maintaining US personnel at bases.
This is the key reason US Forces Korea (USFK) are now returning just 12 sites when, back in 2003, it had agreed to hand over 80 sites to South Korea. The issues of decontamination procedures and base realignment remain unresolved.
Among the sites to be returned, six are in Seoul. Two sites at the Yongsan Garrison in the city center housed the USFK headquarters until 2018.
The South Korean authorities plan to build public housing in some areas, and the National Medical Center in Seoul could be relocated to the vacated site of the US Army Corp of Engineers, but decontamination of the returned sites must first be carried out.
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