CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea â This small American city has four schools and five churches, an Arbyâs, a Taco Bell and a Burger King. The grocery store is offering a deal on Budweiser as the temperature soars, and out front thereâs a promotion for Ford Mustangs.Â
But for all its invocations of the American heartland, this growing town is in the middle of the South Korean countryside, in an area that was famous for growing huge grapes.
âWe built an entire city from scratch,â said Col. Scott W. Mueller, garrison commander of Camp Humphreys, one of the U.S. militaryâs largest overseas construction projects. If it were laid across Washington, the 3,454-acre base would stretch from Key Bridge to Nationals Park, from Arlington National Cemetery to the Capitol.
âNew York has been a city for 100-some years and theyâre still doing construction. But the majority of construction here will be done by 2021,â Mueller said. (New York was actually founded nearly 400 years ago.)
The U.S. military has been trying for 30 years to move its headquarters in South Korea out of Seoul and out of North Korean artillery range.
Since the end of World War II, the military has been based at Yongsan, a garrison that had been the Imperial Japanese Armyâs main base during Japanâs occupation of the Korean Peninsula. It is in the middle of Seoul and just 40 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas.
The South Korean and American governments have been talking since 1987 about moving the base away from Yongsan, but political and funding issues had slowed the process. Protests broke out a little over a decade ago when the Pyeongtaek, a sleepy rural city 40 miles south of Yongsan, was chosen as the new base site.
Now, the $11 billion base is beginning to look like the garrison that military planners envisaged decades ago.
The Eighth Army moved its headquarters here this month and there are about 25,000 people based here, including family members and contractors.
There are apartment buildings, sports fields, playgrounds and a water park, and an 18- hole golf course with the generalsâ houses overlooking the greens. There is a âwarrior zoneâ with Xboxes and Playstations, pool tables and dart boards, and a tavern for those old enough to drink.
Starting this August, there will be two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. A new, 68-bed military hospital to replace the one at Yongsan is close to completion.
That is in addition to the airfield, the tank training areas and firing ranges.
When it is finished, the base will be able to house precisely 1,111 families and a total of about 45,500 people.Â
But itâs not just bigger; itâs much more modern than the garrison at Yongsan, Mueller said.Â It has state-of-the-art communications technology and is a more âhardenedâ site to protect against a possible North Korean attack.
âDown here weâre a little bit further from the action, and that helps buy us some strategic decision space should anything happen,â Mueller said. âWeâve been able to create the facilities needed to keep up with the pace of modern warfare and modern communications technology.â
Although the recent concerns about North Korea have centered on its rapidly evolving ballistic missile capability, the Kim regime has a huge amount of conventional artillery lined up on its side of the border that would be able to inflict significant damage on Seoul in a short space of time. It is this concern that has restrained American presidential administrations from launching a preemptive strike on North Koreaâs nuclear weapons facilities.
But the new Camp Humphreys is out of range of North Koreaâs multiple rocket launchers, although that hasnât stopped the North Koreans from making threats.
âThe larger the U.S. military base is, the more effectively our military can hit its targets,â a North Korean military spokesman said this month after the Eighth Army moved here, according to the Northâs Korean Central News Agency.
Under an agreement with the South Korean military, one U.S. Army brigade will remain at Camp Casey, right near the DMZ, even after the Yongsan garrison has closed.
The construction of Camp Humphreys had raised hopes for the local economy, which had not exactly been flourishing before the area was selected for the base.Â
Local authorities have built a $13 million train station and a new four-lane highway bridge, and invested $55 million in a new substation to deliver power to the base. The main roads in Pyeongtaek are lined with new apartment towers.
Immediately outside the base, local businesses are vying to prove how pro-American they are. There are dozens of real estate agencies with American flags on their windows and names such as âKomerican Realty,â while two of the new housing developments outside the base are called âLincoln Palaceâ and âCapitolium.â The parking spaces in the developments are bigger, to fit American cars.Â
There are restaurants offering all-you-can-eat Korean meat dinner buffets for $11, Tex- Mex joints and even a Hooters rip-off. The barbershop offers flattops and âskin fadeâ cuts, and there are other services you donât find in an average South Korean town, such as âAll African American Caribbean styleâ hair braiding.Â
Because soldiers below the rank of staff sergeant are not allowed to drive in South Korea, even off base, young Americans on bicycles rigged up with small motors sputter through the streets.
But there is a sense of frustration that the base hasnât produced a gold rush.Â
âBusiness is so-so,â said Suh Hee-yeon, the owner of one U.S. Forces Korea-approved real estate agency on the main drag, which offers housing for those who will live off base. She has been here for a decade and doesnât welcome the new firms that have arrived as the base gets closer to completion. âThereâs too much competition now and we have to share the limited amount of business,âÂ she said.
Some here worry about increased crime and that American soldiers will be on the prowl for local women. The U.S. Army has developed an app so troops can check which bars have been deemed off-limits, either because theyâve been caught serving drinks to minors or because theyâre selling sex.Â
Others complain that the new arrivals donât learn Korean and expect local store owners to speak English.Â
But worse than that is the fear that the soldiers just wonât patronize their businesses.
âThey rarely come out from their bases,â said Park Jong-ho, who has run a shoe shop here for the past three years. âThey have everything they need there on the base.âÂ
Min Jung Kim contributed to this report.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â