U.S. Base Closures Cause Jitters Abroad
May 25, 2005
TOKYO - Just outside Tokyo, city officials gathered nearly 60,000 signatures in one month to stop the possible expansion of a U.S. Army camp. In South Korea, 1,000 workers fearing for their jobs rallied outside the main base there and vowed a bigger protest was ahead.
While the United States works out its biggest set of domestic military base closures in decades, countries from Germany to South Korea are bracing for a major restructuring as well, with new hosts being courted and as many as 70,000 U.S. troops expected to head home over the next decade.
Mirroring the domestic shake-up, negotiations are underway for bases abroad to be shut down, or, in other cases, beefed up. But with few formal announcements, the overseas restructuring has everyone from peace activists to labor unions on edge.
In Japan, where U.S. troop levels are expected to stay about the same at 50,000-plus, even rumors of relatively minor moves have generated jitters.
"Our long-standing position is that we want the base here closed," said Hiroyuki Suzuki, an official in Zama, where the U.S. Army's Japan headquarters are located. Camp Zama is rumored to be a possible new home for several hundred soldiers currently assigned to I Corps at Fort Lewis, Wash.
"We're worried that the base will become more permanent," Suzuki said. Zama officials organized the petition drive to give weight to their opposition and make it more difficult for the Japanese government to accept an expansion plan.
Across the Japan Sea, workers in South Korea are preparing to fight the opposite possibility.
Lt. Gen. Charles Campbell, chief of staff for U.S. Forces Korea, said last month the American military would lay off up to 1,000 Korean workers, about 10 percent of the total, and cut contracts for services by up to 20 percent over the next two years.
Some 1,000 workers and their supporters protested outside Yongsan base, in central Seoul, earlier this month and the Korean Employers Union said it will hold a larger rally on June 3 if the United States does not repeal its plan for layoffs.
About 32,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea. Several thousand U.S. soldiers have been reassigned from Korea to Iraq and more are slated to depart in the next few years, leaving about 24,500.
Though anti-base groups have long been active in South Korea, Okinawa and other places where U.S. troops are stationed, the current atmosphere of change has emboldened many.
Earlier this month a few thousand members of Hanchongryon - South Korea's largest student group - staged a demonstration and tore down wire fences at an air force base in Gwangju, demanding the United States remove its Patriot missiles and withdraw from South Korea altogether.
The group, which is outlawed by the South Korean government yet still operates openly, has dubbed June a "period of anti-United States and anti-war struggle," and more demonstrations are expected, according to an editorial in the Joong Ang Daily newspaper.
Japan, Germany and South Korea have long been the major destinations for U.S. troops abroad.
But, with its budget and manpower pushed to the limit by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military is rethinking the distribution of its assets.
The most prominent upshot has been the Defense Department's plan to save billions of dollars by closing or reducing forces at 62 U.S. bases and reconfiguring 775 others. A commission will review the Pentagon's list before submitting it to President Bush in September.
In connection with the domestic changes, some 13,500 troops would be pulled from Germany and South Korea.
Overall, however, Bush has said he intends to bring home 70,000 troops - along with 100,000 family members and civilian employees - in the next 10 years, while increasing the U.S. presence in such countries as Poland, Romania and Uzbekistan.
For Germany, the Army plans to bring home the 1st Infantry Division and the 1st Armored Division, with a mobile brigade using lighter Stryker armored vehicles added at the Grafenwoehr base in Bavaria, and another regular brigade also stationed in the area.
There are currently some 112,000 military personnel stationed in Europe, and U.S. officials have previously said about 40 percent were expected to remain after the restructuring, including some 25,000 soldiers in Germany.
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