The Sacrifice of Human Health and Environment in South Korea Under US Military Occupation
By Jia Hong and Erica Jung
“The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.”
In Pyeongtaek, South Korea, the local peace center regularly hosts walking tours around the Camp Humphreys military base. On these tours, visitors walk around 3,555 acres of land, observing it from the outside. Through the barbed wire fences, you can see a whole mini USA: large housing complexes, a high school, food courts, sports stadiums, two full-sized eighteen-hole golf courses, and of course, US soldiers training.
On these tours, the guide explains how the sports stadiums keep their bright lights on all night, every night, which interferes with the rice growth nearby. The local farmers tried to compromise, asking Camp Humphreys to turn off the lights every other night. Not only did the occupying forces not compromise, they installed small columns outside the perimeter of the base to prevent rice from being grown there. The tour guide continues to explain that the US military does not comply with South Korea’s recycling laws; they just put all their recycling into the trash. They also do not pay their own fines; the city of Pyeongtaek uses taxpayer money to pay them instead.
The villagers of Pyeongtaek say today that their land was stolen three times. First by the Japanese, who took the land to build Pyeongtaek Airfield in 1919. Second by the US military, who took over the base in 1945 instead of returning it. And lastly by the US military again, this time with the Korean Ministry of Defense, who expanded it threefold in 2006 by forcibly expelling residents from their historic farmlands. As the largest overseas US military base in the world and the primary hub of the United States Forces Korea (USFK), Camp Humphreys hosts approximately 36,500 people, including Department of Defense service members, civilians, contractors, and their families.1 Beyond Camp Humphreys, South Korea has been home to hundreds of US military bases and therefore to countless stories of land theft, environmental poisoning, and blatant disregard for the Korean people.2
Origins of the US Occupation
To understand the United States’ neocolonial chokehold on South Korea, also known by its official name, Republic of Korea (ROK), it is important to situate these recent developments within the legacy of Japanese imperialism and World War II. When Japanese Emperor Hirohito declared Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, Koreans flooded the streets in celebration, political prisoners were released en masse, and everywhere crowds of Koreans started forming and giving speeches. Korea had been subjugated under Japan as a colony for roughly thirty-five years, providing its rice and people to the Imperial Japanese war machine. Now they had gained their liberation and began organizing themselves immediately. Within days, they established People’s Committees throughout the peninsula, taking governance affairs into their own hands.3 The Korean People’s Republic was created as an independent government, built on People’s Committees. There was no North Korea or South Korea, but only one Korea, whose people were building the foundations of a sovereign government.
After World War II, the Soviet Union occupied northern Korea and the United States occupied southern Korea. In the north, the People’s Committees became the basis for a Korean government with the Soviet Union supporting a socialist governmental structure led by the Korean people. Yet in the south, the US military ignored and eventually banned the People’s Committees. The United States reinstated Japanese officials and collaborators into government positions, took over Japanese military bases, and repressed hundreds of thousands of Koreans who resisted. The United States suppressed Korean self-determination and maintained Japanese colonial structures in order to strengthen its own economic and political interests—sowing the seeds of a neocolonial relationship.
The Korean War broke out in 1950, though skirmishes across the 38th parallel had been taking place for months before. The newly founded People’s Republic of China sent its People’s Volunteer Army and the Soviet Union provided arms, aircraft, and tanks to North Korea. Meanwhile, the US military exercised near free reign over Korea’s skies, indiscriminately dropping incendiaries, explosives, and delayed-detonation bombs, decimating entire towns.4
Firebombing, mainly with napalm, was widespread and continuous, offering no respite for the large civilian populations that were sacrificed in service of the US empire. As the United States threatened to use nuclear weapons on the North, it dropped “dummy” nuclear bombs or heavy TNT bombs in order to simulate atomic bombing runs. In total, the United States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs in Korea, not including the 32,557 tons of napalm—more than the amount used in the entire Pacific theater during World War II.
In addition to conventional explosives and chemical warfare, the US also employed a variety of other tactics, including biological warfare. While the use of biological warfare has long been described as mere “allegations,” the Chinese People’s Commission for Investigating the Germ Warfare Crime of American Imperialists released a report in 1952 with detailed accounts of the US Air Force dropping flies, spiders, cotton, and other material contaminated with deadly diseases such as cholera, the bubonic plague, and anthrax.5
Throughout the war, the US military leveled entire cities, dropped fleas infected with the bubonic plague, and deployed chemical weapons like napalm. The Korean War wreaked absolute devastation and destruction, killing an estimated three million Koreans and destroyed the very land that Koreans relied upon to feed themselves and their families.6
The Cost of Occupation for Maehyang-ri’s Villagers
The Korean War has never officially ended. In 1953, the fighting ended in an armistice agreement, which was meant to be a temporary ceasefire preceding peace treaty negotiations.7 The armistice also called for a negotiation to withdraw foreign troops—but the US military, in violation of this provision, continues to occupy South Korea to this day. Nkrumah argues that in extreme forms of neocolonialism “the troops of the imperial power may garrison the territory of the neocolonial State and control the government of it.”8 The United States solidified its neocolonial relationship with South Korea after the Korean War—in part through indefinite military occupation.
In the coastal town of Maehyang-ri, residents were exposed to some of the worst noise pollution, living under war conditions even after the armistice. From 1952 to 2004, the US Air Force used two islets around the village as the Koon-ni bombing range. Every day, US Air Force planes based in Korea—but also from Okinawa, Guam, and the Philippines—conducted more than fifty bombing runs.9 Villagers claimed that the planes flew so low they could see the pilot’s faces. In addition to the noise pollution, buildings cracked and windows broke. Practice bombs and bullets polluted seabeds and tidal flats, and training accidents caused deaths and injuries. Twelve people are known to have died from stray bombs or machine gun bullets and thirteen are known to have been severely injured. Residents also suffered from abnormally high rates of depression, with some of them requiring “psychiatric consultation due to severe stress,” and according to villagers, “most of the suicides were [a] result of mental illness brought on by the noise of the training range.”10
In 2000, a US plane with engine trouble dropped six five-hundred-pound live bombs off the coast of Maehyang-ri. The accident destroyed some two hundred homes and injured residents. After the bombing, Maehyang-ri residents and organizers created a movement to close the bombing range. Resident leader Chun Man-kyu told a journalist in 2000, “‘The noise and stress drive me crazy. It makes me feel like my heart will explode . . . How can our own government allow us to be treated like this?’”11 After many years of widespread opposition, Koon-ni range finally closed in 2004.12
But even after its closure, residents are struggling from the damage done to their local ecosystems. The US Air Force never fully cleaned up the bombing range; the residents themselves collected more than thirty thousand rusted pieces of ordinance but contamination persists.13 In a soil study, the South Korean Defense Ministry found that lead, cadmium, and copper exceeded permissible levels. A study by the Humanitarian Physicians found that “the blood lead level of Maehyang-ri people was 1.7 times higher than the average rate among steel factory workers, who are normally known to be highly susceptible to lead poisoning.”14
The Incorporation of Environmental Provisions into SOFA
With this history in mind, South Korean activists and civil society groups began to increasingly voice their grievances against the military bases and criticize the ROK government’s alliance with the United States in the form of democratization efforts starting in the late 1980s. In particular, “they started to see the status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) . . . as an unequal and unfair agreement,” which shielded US military personnel from the consequences of their crimes and wrongdoings under ROK law.15 These crimes and wrongdoings had particularly devastating effects on the environment, which did not enjoy any protections under SOFA.
Per Article IV of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), made effective in 1967:
The Government of the United States is not obliged, when it returns facilities and areas to the Government of the Republic of Korea . . . to restore the facilities and areas to the conditions in which they were at the time they became available to the United States armed forces, or to compensate the Government of the Republic of Korea in lieu of such restoration.16
Eventually, in response to growing public concern over the environmental problems caused by the military bases, an environmental provision was added decades later in 2001 with new amendments. Per Article III of the Memorandum of Special Understandings on Environmental Protection:
The Government of the United States confirms its policy . . . to promptly undertake to remedy contamination caused by the United States Armed Forces in Korea that poses a known, imminent and substantial endangerment to human health.17
Through the implementation of the KISE standard (known, imminent, and substantial endangerment), the “decision on whether to clean up the environment [was] left to the US military’s own subjective standards rather than domestic environmental ones.”18 By allowing the US military to make its own determinations on whether the contamination meets this standard, the provision essentially allows the US military to avoid responsibility and refuse to provide environmental protection and cleanup. In fact, “there is no agreed upon standard on pollution remediation, and each case is separately negotiated between US and Korean officials.”19
An Unequal Exchange: Stealing Land in Return for Poisoned Land
The US military has successfully used SOFA and the KISE standard to evade responsibility for land remediation efforts as they return the land from their military bases to the ROK in accordance with the Land Partnership Plan (LPP), which was likely passed in response to increasing backlash by Koreans against the US military bases. Under the LPP, the United States began a process of “consolidating” its military presence and “returning” about thirty-two thousand acres of land. The ROK government agreed to the expansion, and took “large tracts of public and private land in the Pyeongtaek area” and gave it to the US military to expand Osan Air Base and Camp Humphreys.”20 The land that has been returned so far, however, has often been found to be contaminated with high levels of toxins and pollutants. The ROK government is unable to force the US military to clean up after its own mess.
Let’s take a look at the case of Camp Hialeah in Busan. In 2006, it was announced that Camp Hialeah would be returned but the entire process was plagued with difficulties. The US military only allowed the ROK Ministry of Environment 105 days to investigate the environmental damage, and refused to provide an extension. A quarter of the base was left unexamined and investigation results were not made public despite a Supreme Court ruling to publish the findings. Yet, assembly woman Lee Mi-kyung was informed by a government source that petroleum levels in groundwater were at 481 times the legal limit. Disagreements over who should pay for the environmental cleanup delayed the return of Camp Hialeah for four years. Eventually, after years of ineffectual negotiations, the ROK government agreed to pay in 2010.21 The government ultimately spent $12.4 million on the cleanup after estimating that it would only be $260,800.
More recently in 2019, the US military agreed to return Camp Eagle, Camp Long, and parts of Camp Market and Camp Hovey. Yet all of the bases were found “to be contaminated with metal, oil, and toxic chemicals such as benzene, toluene, and xylene.”22 Benzene, a natural component of crude oil, has been associated with “a range of acute and long-term adverse health effects and diseases, including cancer and hematological effects.”23 Toluene, used as a solvent and for producing aviation fuel, can cause a variety of health consequences, including “incoordination, cognitive impairment, and vision and hearing loss,” through repeated exposure.24 Xylene, a hydrocarbon that naturally occurs in petroleum, also has a range of effects on the nervous system, from nausea and headaches to loss of consciousness and death.25 The total cost of removing pollutants from these four bases will total about $92.71 million over the next two years.26
Like in the case of Camp Hialeah, these bases also stayed vacant and closed off to Koreans for years while the US military and ROK government negotiated the terms of an environmental cleanup. Through SOFA and the KISE standard, the United States is able to deny any responsibility for environmental cleanup efforts, arguing that the contamination found in these four bases do not meet the KISE standard. The US military also applies these same justifications to other bases in South Korea that have been returned with all their pollutants left in place.
As the US military and South Korean government continue to negotiate the return of some military bases, the USFK has also been expanding other bases like Camp Humphreys and Osan Air Base, in the name of consolidation. The expansion of these bases have had similarly devastating consequences on the health of nearby residents and the surrounding environment.
Since the construction of Osan Air Base, the largest US air base in the Pacific region, nearby residents have “suffered from problems ranging from excessive noise and vibration from repeated military exercises, underground water depletion, and waste oil leakages to sexual violence.”27 The noise damage from aircraft can have a range of potential consequences, including disrupting sleep, raising blood pressure, creating psychological stress, and causing hearing loss.28 Helicopter vibrations and rotor downwash have even reached high enough levels to cause roofs to collapse and break.29 In response to these problems created by the military, residents from the villages surrounding Camp Humphreys and Osan Air Base started a lawsuit against the noise in 2002. Two decades later, in 2022, the Pyeongtaek city government agreed to provide monthly compensation to its residents for the noise pollution from the airfields at Camp Humphreys and Osan Air Base without resolving the underlying issue of noise pollution that continues to harm residents.30
While the United States relies on its military bases in South Korea to advance its own geostrategic interests, it continues to violate the ROK’s environmental protection laws, refuses to pay for any preventive measures, and expects the Korean people to shoulder the financial burdens of their occupation and deal with the mess left behind by the US military. From what is already known and reported, it is clear that US military bases in Korea present an extreme health hazard. We can only imagine what the remaining seventy-six US military bases are doing to Korea’s land, air, water, and people today.31
Liberation in Korea and Beyond
For over seventy years, US military bases across South Korea have ruined tens of thousands of acres of land and poisoned groundwater to exceedingly dangerous levels—with little to no accountability. However, Korea is just one place where the US military devastates the environment and people on the land.
Throughout the world, people are fighting for their livelihoods against the blatant environmental degradation wrought by the US military. In early 2022, the US Navy was found to have leaked petroleum into Hawaiians’ source of drinking water.32 A year before, the US Marines dumped toxic chemicals into Okinawa’s civilian water system.33 In 2014, the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that the US Navy had poisoned the drinking water of Warminster, Pennsylvania with potential carcinogens.34 These are just a few cases, but with hundreds of US military bases around the world, the list of similar stories is endless.
Whether in Korea, Hawaii, or Pennsylvania, we are all being impacted by US imperialism. Despite the onslaughts of violence wrought by the US military, people everywhere have nonetheless continued to organize and resist their presence. As members of Nodutdol, an organization composed of diasporic Koreans based in the United States and Canada, we work to reclaim our repressed histories, counter imperialist narratives of Korea, and organize for Korea’s reunification and a world free of imperialism. All of us impacted by the blatant disregard and environmental destruction of the US military must stand up, connect our struggles, and work to build a new society that prioritizes our people and environment.
Jia Hong and Erica Jung are members of Nodutdol for Korean Community Development. Nodutdol is an organization of diasporic Koreans and comrades organizing for a world free of imperialism, and for Korea’s reunification and national liberation.
- Seungsook Moon, “Protesting the Expansion of US Military Bases in Pyeongtaek: A Local Movement in South Korea,” South Atlantic Quarterly 111, no. 4 (October 2012): 865–876, https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-1724246; “Camp Humphreys / USAG Humphreys In-depth Overview,” US Military, accessed October 15, 2022, https://installations.militaryonesource.mil/in-depth-overview/camp-humphreys-usag-humphreys.
- “US Camps Korea Past/Present,” Camp Sabre Korea, accessed January 2, 2023, https://web.archive.org/web/20160624090748/http://campsabrekorea.com/us-camps-korea-pastpresent.html.
- Martin Hart-Landsberg, Korea: Division, Reunification, and US Foreign Policy (New York: Monthly Review, 1998).
- Bruce Cummings, The Korean War: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2011).
- Chinese People’s Commission for Investigating the Germ Warfare Crime of American Imperialists, Report on the Crime of American Imperialists in Spreading Bacteria in Korea (People’s Republic of China, 1952), https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/22187637/china-peoples-commision-report-on-bw-apr-1952.pdf; Jeffrey Kaye, “The Long-suppressed Korean War Report on US Use of Biological Weapons Released at Last,” Monthly Review, February 21, 2018, https://mronline.org/2018/02/21/the-long-suppressed-korean-war-report-on-u-s-use-of-biological-weapons-released-at-last/.
- Mark Gillem, America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022).
- Korean War Armistice Agreement, July 27, 1953, Treaties and Other International Agreements Series #2782, General Records of the United States Government, Record Group 11, National Archives.
- Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (Bedford, UK: Panaf, 1965), ix.
- Jonathan Watts, “Bullied Koreans Rage at US Base,” The Guardian, November 12, 2000, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2000/nov/13/northkorea; “Maehyang-ri: From a Firing Range to a Test Ground for Human Rights and International Justice,” People Power 21, accessed October 15, 2022, http://www.peoplepower21.org/English/37772.
- The National Campaign for Eradication of Crimes by US Troops in Korea, Green Korea United, Peace Center in Pyeongtaek, Kunsan Civil Movement to Retake USFK Bases and Facilities, Center for Victims by Kunsan Air Base, and Lawyers for a Democratic Society, Report on Environmental Damage Caused by US Military Bases in South Korea; “Maehyang-ri: From a Firing Range to a Test Ground for Human Rights and International Justice,” People Power 21, accessed October 15, 2022, http://www.peoplepower21.org/English/37772.
- Watts, “Bullied Koreans Rage.”
- Andrew Yeo, “Anti-Base Movements in South Korea: Comparative Perspective on the Asia-Pacific,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 24, no. 2 (June 2010): 3373, https://apjjf.org/-Andrew-Yeo/3373/article.html.
- Steven Borowiec, “Bombing Ends, but Village Still Not Free from Past,” Yonhap News Agency, September 12, 2012, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20120905010200315.
- People Power 21, “Maehyang-ri.”
- Heejin Han and Yooil Bae, “Reality Revealed: US Military Bases, Environmental Impact, and Civil Society in South Korea,” in Proving Grounds: Militarized Landscapes, Weapons Testing, and the Environmental Impact of US Bases, ed. Edwin A. Martini (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015), 211–238.
- United States of America and the Republic of Korea, Facilities and Areas and the Status of United States Armed Forces in Korea. 1966 https://www.usfk.mil/Portals/105/Documents/411%20CSB/1%20U.S.-ROK%20SOFA.PDF. Facilities and Areas and the Status of United States Armed Forces in Korea, U.S.- R.O.K., July 9, 1966, T.I.A.S. 6127.
- United States of America and the Republic of Korea, Memorandum of Special Understandings on Environmental Protection. 2001. https://www.usfk.mil/Portals/105/Documents/SOFA/A12_MOSU.Environmental.Protection.pdf. Memorandum of Special Understandings on Environmental Protection, U.S.- R.O.K., Jan. 18, 2001.
- Ji-sun Lim, “The Absurd Spectacle of Land Sitting Off-limits to Anyone for Years at a Time,” Hankyoreh, July 12, 2017, https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/802524.html.
- Gregory Elich, “The US Military’s Toxic Legacy in Korea,” Korea Policy Institute, September 12, 2016, https://www.kpolicy.org/post/the-u-s-military-s-toxic-legacy-in-korea.
- Mark Gillem, American Town: Building the Outposts of Empire (Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley, 2004), 208.
- Sung-ki Jung, “S. Korea to Pay for Cleanup of US Base in Busan,” Korea Times, January 14, 2010, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2010/01/113_59081.html.
- He-rim Jo, “Who Should Pay for Cleanup of Former US Military Bases?” Korea Herald, December 16, 2019, https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20191216000747.
- “Benzene,” World Health Organization, accessed October 15, 2022, https://www.who.int/teams/environment-climate-change-and-health/chemical-safety-and-health/health-impacts/chemicals/benzene.
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Toxicology Profile for Toluene (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2017), https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp56.pdf.
- Reena Kandyala, Sumanth Phani C Raghavendra, and Saraswathi T. Rajasekharan, “Xylene: An Overview of its Health Hazards and Preventive Measures,” Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology 14, no. 1 (January 2010): 1–5, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2996004/.
- Ji-won Noh, “US Agrees to Immediately Return Four Military Bases to S. Korea,” Hankyoreh, December 12, 2019, https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/920639.html.
- Seungsook Moon, “Protesting the Expansion,” 869.
- “In Pyeongtaek City of Gyeonggi Province, You Can Now Receive Compensation for ‘Military Noise Damage’ without Resorting to a Lawsuit!” Gyeonggi-Do, accessed October 15, 2022, https://www.gyeonggido-korea.com/2022/02/in-pyeongtaek-city-of-gyeonggi-province.html.
- The National Campaign for Eradication of Crimes by US Troops in Korea, Green Korea United, Peace Center in Pyeongtaek, Kunsan Civil Movement to Retake USFK Bases and Facilities, Center for Victims by Kunsan Air Base, and Lawyers for a Democratic Society, Report on Environmental Damage Caused by US Military Bases in South Korea (2008), http://usacrime.or.kr/doku/lib/exe/fetch.php?media=%ED%99%98%EA%B2%BD%EC%98%A4%EC%97%BC:report_on_environmental_damage_caused_by_u.s._military_bases_in_south_korea.pdf; Franklin Fisher and Hwang Hae-rym, “South Koreans Await Help after US Helicopter Damages their Homes,” Stars and Stripes, February 28, 2009, https://www.stripes.com/news/south-koreans-await-help-after-u-s-helicopter-damages-their-homes-1.migrated.
- David Choi, “South Korean City Approves $9.5 million in Payouts for US Aircraft Noise Complaints,” Stars and Stripes, June 3, 2022, https://www.stripes.com/theaters/asia_pacific/2022-06-03/south-korea-aircraft-noise-compensation-6218369.html.
- “Mapping Militarism,” World Beyond War, accessed October 15, 2022, https://worldbeyondwar.org/militarism-mapped/.
- Brett Marsh, “Hawaii to US Navy: Quit Polluting our Waters,” Grist, October 6, 2022, https://grist.org/accountability/hawaii-tells-navy-quit-polluting-our-waters/.
- Mika Kuniyoshi and Naoki Matsuyama, “US Marines in Okinawa Dump Contaminated Water into Sewer,” The Asahi Shimbun, August 27, 2021, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14427364.
- Hannah Rappleye, David Douglas, and Anne Thompson, “A ‘Forever Chemical’ Contaminates Drinking Water near Military Bases,” NBC News, December 16, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/health/cancer/forever-chemical-poisons-drinking-water-near-military-bases-n1101736.