(2nd LD) U.S. returns multiple parcels of Yongsan, 2 other bases to S. Korea
(ATTN: UPDATES with details in paras 12-14, 17)
SEOUL, Feb. 25 (Yonhap) -- The United States on Friday returned multiple parcels of its military's Yongsan Garrison in central Seoul and two other bases north of the capital to South Korea, the defense ministry here said, a move bound to accelerate regional development projects.
The decision, including the return of 165,000 square meters of land inside the garrison, came as Seoul has been pushing to clear hurdles for a mega project to build a national park in Yongsan and other regional refurbishment plans.
Lim Sang-woo, director-general for North American affairs at Seoul's foreign ministry, and Lt. Gen. Scott L. Pleus, the deputy chief of the U.S. Forces Korea, approved the decision in a telephone conference. They are representatives of the joint committee of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) governing the legal status of 28,500 American troops here.
The returned swaths of land in Yongsan are part of the nearly 500,000 square meters of land, about a quarter of the garrison that the U.S. agreed last year to work toward handing over to the South by early this year.
At the joint committee session, the two sides reaffirmed their commitment to pursue the return of a "considerable" portion of the Yongsan Garrison by early this year, its joint statement read.
"In the first half of this year, (South Korea) is scheduled to receive an additional, considerable size of land (in Yongsan) through related procedures," Yoon Chang-yul, the first vice minister of government policy coordination, told a press briefing.
"Through this, we expect that the plan to build the Yongsan park would pick up momentum," he added.
Friday's decision also included the return of Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu, 20 kilometers north of Seoul, and a water detention basin of Camp Stanley in the same city.
The handover of the Red Cloud site spanning 830,000 square meters is where the Uijeongbu municipality seeks to construct an e-commerce logistics complex. The return of the 1,000-square-meter basin is expected to help the city's river refurbishment efforts, officials said.
Aside from the return, the two countries reached a consensus on ways to improve information-sharing, an environmental accident response system and access to U.S. military installations as part of efforts to strengthen the "cleaner, safer" management of American bases currently in use, according to Seoul officials.
Such measures have been added to environment-related SOFA documents, Yoon said.
The return of the bases was welcomed by local residents hoping for speedy progress in their regional development projects. Yet questions remain over who would foot the bill for base decontamination costs.
With no agreement with Washington on the financial issue, Seoul has covered the cleanup costs for 17 returned U.S. bases that amounted to a combined 215.6 billion won (US$179 million).
"For citizens' convenience and health, the government will first decontaminate the returned bases," the ministry said in a release. "But regarding responsibilities for the cleanup and the costs, we will explore solutions through consultations between the South and the U.S."
To reach the latest SOFA decision on the return of the bases, Seoul had run a task force consisting of officials from ministries of foreign affairs, defense, environment and land.
The return of the base is part of a broad relocation scheme to consolidate U.S. bases across the Korean Peninsula into a garrison in Pyeongtaek, 70 km south of Seoul, and another in Daegu, 302 km southeast of the capital, with an aim to enhance defense readiness and operational efficiency in the face of North Korean military threats.
South Korea has so far received 69 of the total 80 U.S. bases subject to a bilateral return agreement.
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