The US military base at Yongsan Garrison in South Korea will become a green park in the heart of Seoul

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Yongsan Garrison, long the home of the US military in South Korea, is to be transformed into a park in the heart of Seoul that the government says will become a star attraction in the dense megacity. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, July 1 (UPI) — For nearly 120 years, Yongsan Garrison has been off-limits to South Korean civilians – but now the fortified compound in the heart of Seoul is being transformed into a public park that officials say will transform the city.

Since last month, residents have been able to enter the former US military headquarters on a pilot tour – and city leaders say the future Yongsan Park will become the “new face” of Seoul.

“Like Central Park in New York, Yongsan Park will provide the largest recreational space [in Seoul] for citizens,” Oh Jang-hwan, director of the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s strategic planning division, told UPI, adding that the project will provide a much-needed expanse of greenery for the densely populated metropolis of 10 million.

For two weeks in June, guests were allowed to tour a small section of the base that includes sports fields and a former living quarters for officers.

The officers’ one-story ranch-style houses with Spanish tile roofs and front yards formed a stark contrast to the surrounding city, a leafy slice of suburban America shaded by Seoul’s gleaming skyscrapers.

It was this glimpse of a different world that prompted Oh Ji-eun, a 25-year-old nurse, to take part in a guided walking tour last week.

“I was curious to visit because it feels like the United States,” she said. “I have never seen anything like this before in Korea.”

Historic photos and exhibits were set up on some of the lawns, while tour guide Im Jong-hwa pointed out the oddities of the base, including its two sets of power poles – some carrying 220-volt power lines and d others powering American homes. 110 volt standard.

I detailed the history of Yongsan, which was established in 1904 by Japan during its colonial occupation of Korea and has remained off-limits to the public ever since. The base eventually became headquarters for U.S. Forces Korea and the United Nations Korean War Command in the 1950s until 2018, when the two commands moved to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, 40 miles south. from Seoul.

“Few Koreans know the story of Yongsan, that the Japanese were here,” Im said. “Especially the younger ones.”

Other visitors, however, have long wanted the chance to see the compound’s history firsthand.

Choi Ha-yeon, 74, said he has often been near the base but has never been allowed to set foot there – until now.

“It’s a very big part of [Korean] history,” Choi said. “I wanted to get a chance to see him before he changed. I hope the government will preserve some of the historic sites.”

Detailed plans for Yongsan Park are still in the works, said Jang Seung-Gueon, deputy director of parks policy at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, which oversees the project.

“The developers conducted the basic investigation with the help of the US military,” Jang told UPI. “But there is still a discussion about whether they will preserve, remodel or get rid of some of the historic pieces.”

South Korean citizens have not been allowed access to the site for nearly 120 years, since Japanese colonizers established a military installation here in 1904. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

The ministry has set up suggestion mailboxes in several places around the site, seeking visitor feedback on the development of the park.

Plans to transfer the US military to South Korea date back to 2003, when it was first announced that US forces would move to the new Pyeongtaek base. This transfer was due to be completed in 2008, but delays and construction issues pushed back the final relocation by a decade.

A master plan for the design of the park by the Dutch company West 8 was chosen in 2012, but only a small part of the base land has been handed over so far, and the Korean government and developers have not been able to conduct a full investigation. .

At the beginning of June, the United States gave up a plot of land in their third transfer of the year. South Korea has so far received around 30% of the garrison’s roughly 500 acres.

Jang said it will take seven years from final handover for the park to be completed. He added that a timetable is in place with the US military to complete the process, but has not been made public.

Interest in the base’s future grew when South Korea’s recently inaugurated President Yoon Suk-yeol moved his presidential office to the former Defense Ministry headquarters, located right next to the site. from Yongsan.

During the pilot’s opening, guests were able to visit a field near the president’s office and pose for photos with a ceremonial vehicle and a defense helicopter.

The project, however, is not without controversy. A small group of protesters were stationed near the entrance to the base at the visitor entrance, warning of high levels of contaminants, such as benzene, which have been found in groundwater there after decades of oil leaks .

Seoul has been clearing the area around the base since the early 2000s, and Jang said there are currently no security concerns.

Protesters, however, accuse Seoul of giving the United States a “free pass” on the issue.

“Our opinion is that the US government should be responsible because it’s the US military’s pollution,” said activist Kim Eun-hee.

However, most visitors to the pilot tour had high hopes for Yongsan Park’s future, seeing it as a unique opportunity to transform a symbol of military occupation and war into Seoul’s iconic green space.

“The negative history makes this place more amazing,” said Lee Jong-ju, a 27-year-old programmer visiting the base.

“When they open it, I hope it will be an iconic park for Seoul.”

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