Camp Page, a shuttered U.S. military base, is to be converted into a public park in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, where the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are being held this month. Photo by Elizabeth Shim/UPI
CHUNCHEON, South Korea, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- A U.S. military base that once sat 60 miles from the North Korea border is one step closer to being converted into an ambitious park, and for one of its South Korean planners, the transformation holds personal significance.
Kim Deug-jong, who is a manager for the Chuncheon City Institute of Public Development Projects, says he still remembers the noise of low-flying helicopters he heard as a young boy living adjacent to the airfield.
"I grew up near Camp Page," Kim told UPI. "When a helicopter would lift up, it would kick up dust like no other."
The U.S. base closed permanently in April 2005, about a year before North Korea's first nuclear test.
The facility never reopened, as the threat of a conventional North Korea artillery attack against the South has been overshadowed by the threat of a nuclear attack in the past decade.
Until it shuttered, troops were only a fence away from local residents who were never too far, owing to a lack of zoning regulations.
Camp Page was one of the first airfields to be built for U.S. forces during the 1950-53 Korean War, and was named in honor of U.S. Army Lt. Col. John U.D. Page, who disrupted a Chinese assault in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
The fighting later culminated in troop withdrawal from North Korea and an evacuation of refugees at Hungnam, including the parents of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
But as South Korea transformed over the decades, so did Chuncheon, a city well below the radar of many visitors, but remembered as a "revelation" by a commenter on a popular Korea blog.
"I think Page was one of the few camps that was located right in a big, normal city. The Koreans treated us very well, and for our part, I don't think we acted too badly," wrote one "Burma Bob" in a comment submitted in 2011 on rokdrop.net
"There were positive aspects to the U.S. military presence," Kim said on Monday. "People could find jobs," in an era when poverty stalked a population recovering from war.
But as South Korea developed, high-rise apartments replaced farmland, and the land where the military base once sat quickly became prime real estate.
Concerns about pollution also played a role in the negotiations between the U.S. military and the South Korean government, and an agreement was reached to return the land to Seoul, which was subsequently purchased by the city of Chuncheon for its new project.
The park is to cover a broad expanse of land, or 146 acres, and the deal to build zones for culture, ecology and the arts was reached with feedback from local residents, Kim said.
Dozens of military buildings on the former airfield have been demolished, and there are now only three remaining, including a red-and-white water tower, that, according to renditions circulating on the Internet, is poised to enjoy an afterlife as a water amusement park.
Renditions of the completed facility show a giant swim complex encircling the tower, including a slide that wraps around the structure.
"That's going to be part of a summer playground," Kim said, adding an old pilot dormitory will be converted into a childcare center, and a hangar for aircraft will be converted into a "sharing office."
The proposed plan also shows green spaces and staging areas for summer concerts.
The park's benefits, and a relatively new high-speed train station next to the area, all indicate the neighborhood is poised to grow in value.
Yu Chun-sik, a local real estate agent with an office near the former Camp Page, said investors are watching and waiting.
But potential buyers of neighborhood apartments are in a holding pattern because there have been "no plans that have been finalized."
A proposal to build a Legoland is also tentative and only a first phase of planning has been approved, Yu said.
"There's still uncertainty, where the plan will go."
"But the environment in the neighborhood, it's definitely improving."