Oldest, Most Strategic U.S. Base for Deterring North Korea Shuts Down | WSJ

(funky electronic music) – [Joshua] Taco Bell,
Starbucks, Burger King, can’t go wrong with a Whopper. Yongsan, it’s kind of a
little bit of a slice of home. – We have a elementary
school, grocery stores, you can buy your clothes, and we also have a hotel
here on the installation. Yongsan is very much like a small town within the United States. – [Narrator] This community is just like any American suburb. But there’s a catch: (vehicles running) this base, Yongson Garrison, is not in America. It’s in the heart of Seoul, South Korea. – And you got the Seoul Tower
over here, which is amazing. New York City doesn’t have
a base, Chicago doesn’t. This is a unique example. You can walk out one of the gates and you’re in the middle of a
hundred different restaurants. (officer speaks indistinctly) – [Narrator] For more than 60 years, Yongsan Garrison has been one of the most important
strategic military centers to help South Korea contain North Korea. – U.S. Forces Headquarters, the United Nations Command Headquarters, any type of planning operations,
everything started here. (helicopter whirring) You’re making sure that
you’re ready to support not only in peacetime, but
also being able to fight if, unfortunately, a contingency or some type of war
situation were to break out. – [Narrator] In recent years, North Korea has aggressively developed its nuclear program, while
China is increasingly asserting its military
influence in the area. So the U.S. is revamping its strategy. It’s decided to shut down
the symbolic facility. – This was a training
ground for the cavalry. – [Narrator] John Nowell lived and served at Yongsan Garrison for 54 years. He was part of the
Seventh Infantry Division and remembers the crucial
role the base has played in peacemaking and defense
operations in the region. At its peak, about 22,000
Americans were stationed here. – This was the center of the universe. This place was just a hubbub of activity. Well, they had buses coming
in and picking up troops and taking them up to other
camps all over South Korea. – [Narrator] Back in the day, he says, Seoul wasn’t as densely
packed around the garrison. But by the 90s, skyscrapers popped up, a new metro line was built, urban sprawl caught up with the base. – When I first came to
the Yongsan Garrison, you wouldn’t see any of that. You wouldn’t see those tall
buildings over there at all. We had, then, two movie theaters. It was special because it
brought America home to you. Whenever the war broke
out, in 25 June in 1950, there was just very few
Americans over here. – [Film Narrator] We found
out we were surrounded. – We lost the Yongsan
area to the North Koreans. We pushed the North Koreans out. (explosion) When the Chinese came
down, they pushed back and took the Garrison again. So it was a push, push, push, push. – [Narrator] Nowell says,
because of that history, he remembers always feeling
welcomed by South Koreans. – They wouldn’t have the life they had had we not come and
assisted them to save Korea from being swallowed up by
the North Korean communists. (funky electronic music) – [Narrator] But over the years,
that sentiment has changed. Once on the outskirts, Yongsan is now right in the middle of the capital, just across the river
from hip neighborhoods like Gangnam and just a few miles away from the financial center. While the base is in
the process of closing over the next couple of years, the military is still leaving behind a helicopter pad and hotel,
with the U.S. Embassy moving in at a later stage, which isn’t sitting
well with some Koreans. (drum beats) Some local residents like Ki Man-hee want to remove all trace
of the U.S. presence in the heart of the city. – [Narrator] Yongsan has come to represent people’s resentment towards America’s decades-long
presence in their country. The South Korean government
is currently debating whether to build high-rise
buildings or a park on the site occupied by Yongsan Garrison. (children yelling) – [Narrator] Yongsan wasn’t
just a military base, but a home for families. Kids were schooled on the base, and families came to pray
at the Garrison’s chapel. Some army staff are even buried in Seoul. But with the base being slowly dismantled, this bit of Americana on the
Korean Peninsula is fading. (“The Star-Spangled Banner”) This is the closing ceremony
for Yongsan High School, which opened its doors in 1959. – U.S. Army Garrison
Yongsan has been the center of one of the largest peacetime transformation in the history
of the United States Army. (somber electronic music) – [Narrator] Streets are now nearly empty. Sections of the base are cordoned off, and buildings are left crumbling. – This was hook-ups for
classified material. – [Narrator] Colonel Monica Washington is in charge of the closure. She says shutting down a
60-year-old institution like Yongsan is not easy. – So you are talking about
moving people, moving equipment. The sheer scope of what
we’re having to move, it is a tremendous process. – [Narrator] And being
the military, they face a very particular challenge: there can’t be any lapse in the mission. – How do you unplug from one location and move to another
location, at the same time maintaining your day-to-day operations, because the operations
don’t stop just because you’re moving from one
location to the other. – [Narrator] That means,
though things are being moved out of the Garrison,
people can’t stop working. Technicians still need
to tune up helicopters, and specialists must continue monitoring North Korea’s nuclear activity. If anyone goes off-duty, the
consequences could be fatal. – [Monica] We are in the midst
of a huge transformation. Yongsan will never be what it used to be. (chill electronic music) – [Narrator] So, where
is all of this moving to? The closure of Yongsan doesn’t mean the U.S. is leaving the Korean Peninsula. Far from it. The military is in the process
of opening new headquarters 40 miles south of Seoul. Camp Humphreys will the U.S. Military’s largest overseas base in the world. It’s in a more strategic
location than Yongsan, with better access to sea and airfields. – This is the A-10, one of the baddest attack planes that we’ve got in the Air Force. This will do some damage rather quickly. – [Narrator] Master
Sergeant Mace is part of the Air Force’s weather squadron. He recently moved from Yongsan
to the new headquarters. – It’s vast. It’s like going from playing soccer at a small little stadium to a stadium of like 100,000 people. – [Narrator] To him, leaving
Yongsan is nostalgic, but it’s a necessity. – It is kind of sad to see
some abandoned buildings, but at the same time, that’s how moves go. You’re gonna have to abandon the old and move in with the new. Camp Humphreys, the
metropolis of Humphreys, certainly is unlike
anything that I have seen on any military post. It’s the future of the military. (man yelling indistinctly) We are more prepared to
complete the mission.

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