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U.S. military returns four bases to South Korea

By Thomas Maresca
U.S. military returns four bases to South Korea
An Apache chopper takes off at U.S. base Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. United States Forces Korea turned over four military sites to South Korea on Wednesday and initiated the return process for Yongsan Garrison, the former U.S. military headquarters in Seoul. Photo by Yonhap

SEOUL, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- The United States returned four military sites to South Korea in the biggest such handover since 2015, United States Forces Korea announced on Wednesday.

Lt. Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach, USFK deputy commander, and Ko Yunju, director general of the North American Affairs Bureau of South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, finalized the return during a meeting at Camp Humphreys, a U.S. military base located about 40 miles south of Seoul.

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Wednesday's handover consisted of Camps Eagle and Long in Wonju, parcels of Camp Market in Bupyeong and the Shea Range parcel at Camp Hovey in Dongducheon.

United States Forces Korea has an additional 13 completely vacated and closed sites ready for return, it announced in a press statement.

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The military has also initiated the return process for Yongsan Garrison, the former U.S. military headquarters located in the heart of Seoul.

Yongsan, which at its peak housed a population of more than 25,000, is prime real estate that South Korea has been eager to reclaim, with visions of transforming it into Seoul's version of New York's Central Park.

After years of delays due to construction and quality control issues, nearly all of the forces once stationed there have been relocated to Camp Humphreys, the $10.7 billion, 3,500-acre base that is the largest overseas U.S. military installation in the world.

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The administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has pushed to speed up the return of military bases as well as the transfer of wartime operational control of troops from Washington to Seoul.

"As a testament to our ROK-U.S. alliance, USFK remains committed to returning installations as expeditiously as possible to ROK government control," the USFK said in a statement. The Republic of Korea is the official name for South Korea.

The moves come as Seoul and Washington remain locked in a contentious dispute over a cost-sharing agreement for the roughly 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea that has shaken the 66-year alliance.

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The United States is reportedly demanding that South Korea contribute around $5 billion annually, a fivefold increase over its current commitment.

At the start of 2019, South Korea agreed to take on a larger financial burden of $923 million, an 8 percent increase on its previous contribution. South Korea also paid around 90 percent of the price tag for Camp Humphreys.

U.S. President Donald Trump has long claimed that South Korea is not paying enough for the protection from the United States and speculation has swirled that he is considering reducing U.S. troop presence in South Korea.

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Congress on Monday agreed to restrict the reduction of U.S. forces below a minimum level of 28,500 in its annual National Defense Authorization Act, which determines military policy and spending for the year ahead.

A fourth round of defense cost-sharing negotiations ended last week without a deal after a two-day visit by Jeong Eun-bo, South Korea's chief negotiator, to Washington, D.C.

The current Special Measures Agreement, which determines the defense burden-sharing between Washington and Seoul, is set to expire at the end of the year.

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