By Gregory Elich


By this time next year, the Yongsan Army Garrison in Seoul will be in the final stage of closing down, as U.S forces shift farther south and consolidate around Pyeongtaek. South Korea intends to convert the site into a series of six parks, but there are unresolved concerns regarding alarming levels of toxic contamination.

In the decade after an oil leak became known in 2001, cleanup efforts by the Seoul Metropolitan Government removed nearly 2,000 tons of oil-contaminated underground water from areas outside of Yongsan.[1] U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) claimed that it rectified the problem at its source in 2006, yet the level of petroleum hydrocarbon pollution in nearby groundwater continued to grow, multiplying by a factor of nearly thirteen times over the last four years.[2] The measured level of contamination outside Yongsan now stands at well over eight thousand times the Korean government safety standard. It can only be presumed that the situation inside the base is substantially worse.

Among the more harmful chemicals found in surrounding groundwater are benzene, toluene, and xylene. Benzene is a natural component of crude oil, and scientists working with the Lymphoma Program at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia performed a statistical analysis which found “significantly higher” rates of non-Hodgkin lymphoma near facilities “that released benzene into the surrounding air or water.”[3] According to the World Health Organization, “Benzene is a well-established cause of cancer in humans.”[4]

Toluene can serve as a solvent and is also used in making aviation fuel. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reports, “Effects such as incoordination, cognitive impairment, and vision and hearing loss may become permanent with repeated exposure, especially at concentrations associated with intentional solvent abuse. High levels of toluene exposure during pregnancy, such as those associated with solvent abuse, may lead to retardation of mental abilities and growth in children. Other health effects of potential concern may include immune, kidney, liver, and reproductive effects.”[5] The New Jersey Department of Health warns, “Repeated exposure may cause liver, kidney and brain damage.”[6]

Xylene is a hydrocarbon that naturally occurs in petroleum, and affects the central nervous system. One study found that xylene “disturbs the action of proteins essential to normal neuronal function,” and long-term exposure can lead to “impaired concentration and short-term memory.”[7]

Certainly, a major cleanup effort is needed to make the area suitable for park visitors. The first order of business is to identify the full extent of contamination. Yet, for more than ten years, USFK repeatedly rejected requests by the South Korean national government and the Seoul city government for permission to conduct an onsite inspection.[8] It was not until last year that U.S. Forces Korea relented, allowing Korean inspectors to enter Yongsan and test the soil and groundwater.[9] The results of that inspection remain under wraps.

Green Korea United, Lawyers for a Democratic Society, and other civic groups filed a suit in the Seoul Administrative Court, asking for the release of the ministry’s report on its inspection of Yongsan. The Ministry of Environment opposed the request, citing what it termed “diplomatic issues,” an apparent reference to the perceived need to cater to the sensitivities of the U.S. military. The court ruled in favor of the civic groups, which produced no result, as the Ministry of Environment is expected to lodge an appeal with the Supreme Court.[10]

Who will ultimately pay for the cleanup of toxic contamination at Yongsan remains to be seen, but if the past is any guide, then it can be expected that the Korean people will shoulder the entire burden. Among other bases that the United States failed to clean up is Camp Casey, the future home of a university, with pollution covering 42 percent of its area.[11] In addition to the usual presence of hydrocarbons at U.S. bases, many also exhibit elevated levels of cadmium, which the U.S. Occupational and Health Administration reports is “highly toxic and exposure to this metal is known to cause cancer.”[12]

To date, the United States has not paid to decontaminate any base it has vacated, and the South Korean government has acquiesced every time. The most recent two conservative administrations have taken an odd stance on the matter, ultimately agreeing each time after long negotiations that the polluter bears no responsibility. Responding to criticism last year, Environmental Minister Yoo Seong-kyu asserted, “Who carries out the cleanup efforts is a secondary issue.”[13]

Efforts to persuade U.S. military officials to adopt a responsible attitude have been futile. Korean environmental activists noted that oil leaks at the various bases “are continually caused by the same reasons,” yet nothing is ever done to address the issue. “It costs less to prevent pollution than to take care of pollution after it has happened,” they point out.[14] True enough, but who pays for preventive measures is not the same party that covers the cost of cleanup. For the U.S. military, it is clearly more cost effective to do little or nothing, since remediation costs are invariably borne by the Korean people.

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the U.S. and South Korea, as signed in 1966, did not include an environmental provision, and it was not until 2001 that an amendment addressed the issue.[15] That amendment committed the United States to “promptly undertake to remedy contamination caused by United States Forces in Korea that poses a known, imminent and substantial endangerment to human health.”[16] In practice, this phrase, often referred to by its acronym, KISE, has been a bone of contention between U.S. and South Korean environmental officials.

It is instructive to consider how the document’s promise that the United States would “work together” with South Korea on environmental issues has played out in practice. There is no agreed upon standard on pollution remediation, and each case is separately negotiated between U.S. and Korean officials. It has been the Korean Ministry of Environment’s position that its standards ought to apply, whereas American officials insist on KISE as the sole determining factor in assessing cleanup responsibility.

Over a three-year period ending in 2007, the SOFA Joint Committee surveyed 41 military sites that had been closed down. Investigations were limited to 105 days per location, of which only sixty days were given for onsite inspections. Moreover, the U.S. side proved unwilling to cooperate on surveys and consultations. The Korean firms selected to conduct the investigations were not provided with full data on the sites until near the end of the scheduled thirty-day period for assessment of records. When an extension was requested for onsite inspections, the Koreans were firmly rebuffed.[17]

Despite such constraints, inspectors identified dangerous levels of carcinogenic substances at all but one of the 23 military bases that had been recently returned, at levels generally measuring far above Korean safety standards.

The United States points to Article IV of the SOFA, which stipulates that it “is not obliged…to restore the facilities and areas” to their original condition, asserting therefore that it bears no responsibility for cleanup.[18] However, in the agreed minutes amended to the SOFA in 2001, the United States “confirms its policy to respect relevant Republic of Korea Government environmental laws, regulations, and standards.”[19]

It appears that while the United States had promised to “respect” Korean environmental laws, it does not feel compelled to adhere to them. KISE remains the standard. U.S. military officials assert that there are no relevant health issues among its personnel. Therefore, it cannot be said that any U.S. bases meet the KISE guidelines. But this is not how carcinogens typically work. It can take years, or even decades, for exposure to toxic substances to produce cancer. Tours of duty for U.S. personnel tend to be relatively short, and it is unlikely that U.S. officials checked the medical records of former personnel who served in Korea to ascertain their health status. Plainly put, there would have to be immediate or near-immediate lethality or severe illness among large numbers of personnel before the United States would concede the need to fund cleanup efforts.

In meetings with their South Korean counterparts, American environmental subcommittee members argued that no remediation can be done unless the standard of KISE is met, and none of the returned bases qualified. Counter-arguments that contamination levels far exceeded Korean environmental standards fell on deaf ears. Eventually, to placate its Korean partners, the U.S. side offered to implement eight remediation actions over a six-month period. The U.S. side chose the eight activities, without prior agreement by the Koreans, and in the end declared that it had completed its responsibilities. It was a sop, leaving myriad issues of contamination unaddressed. Korean environmental officials were particularly annoyed at the bioslurping that was performed at pilot sites, as this method had only a peripheral and temporary impact.[20] Bioslurping is a technique whereby oil is vacuum-pumped from soil and the top of the water table. It has the advantage of having a lower cost than alternative measures, although it fails to treat residual soil contamination. It can be a useful approach, but not where the source continues to pollute. In such cases, areas processed by bioslurping are quickly re-contaminated.

Once USFK returned the 23 bases to Korea, the Ministry of Environment conducted a desultory one-month inspection, focusing only on confirming whether or not the U.S. side had completed the eight cleanup actions. The ministry found that it had not. USFK had failed even to remove the oil in the water that resulted from the bioslurping operation.[21]

The South Korean government acquiesced to the U.S. position, even though soil and groundwater pollution remained largely untouched. South Korean officials were not given the opportunity to review and assess cleanup operations while they were taking place, as American officials felt they were only doing the Koreans a favor.[22]

In 2011, claims by former U.S. servicemen that they had helped bury around 250 drums of Agent Orange at Camp Carroll in Chilgok in 1978 triggered an investigation. But when inspection results indicated that trace amounts of the defoliant found fell well within safety levels, the issue was considered closed and mostly forgotten. By limiting attention to the question of whether or not dioxin was still buried in the camp, other important matters went unexplored.[23]

Although USFK maintains that dioxin was never present at Camp Carroll, it admitted that it had buried other toxic substances at the camp. These were later dug up and removed, along with 40 to 60 tons of contaminated soil.[24] Records show that some barrels of toxic substances were shipped to Utah, without indicating their final disposition.[25] What became of the remainder is unclear, and the lack of military records hints at improper disposal procedures. As Stars and Stripes reported, “Nobody knows where they were taken.”[26] Could it be that some of the barrels were disposed of elsewhere in Korea or dumped in the sea?

Green Korea United feels the investigation was handled in a superficial manner, as boring had extended less than ten feet below the surface. Steve House, one of the former servicemen who had been involved in the burial of dioxin, reports that the substance was dumped in a trench and covered by twenty to thirty feet of soil. The investigators failed to dig deeply enough, so if there had been any substantial leakage into the ground from the buried drums, it would not have been discovered. In another curious omission, investigators interviewed none of the former officers in charge of the burial operation.[27]

According to the U.S. Army, its internal investigation found no trace of Agent Orange. Environmental expert Steve Brittle, who was later shown a copy of the Army’s report, pointed out that two components of Agent Orange were present. “They weren’t entirely truthful, let’s be honest. The testing says what it says,” he observed. “They found it. They found what would reasonably be considered a cooled off version. Time has worn it down, but it’s still there.”[28]

Generally overlooked is what the investigators did find in abundance: volatile organic compounds in the water near the camp exceeding 900 times safe levels for drinking water.[29] Worrying measurements of trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene, used for metal degreasing, were discovered.[30] Both substances are classified as carcinogenic.[31] An earlier inspection uncovered high levels of heavy metals and pesticides in water samples, as well as toluene in soil recorded at more than twelve times the allowable level.[32]

Environmental Compliance Supervisor Tom Curry noted that the groundwater at Camp Carroll was contaminated with trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene. In all, more than one hundred toxic substances were buried on the base in 1978. “The more contaminants you have, the worse the water has got to be for public health,” Curry pointed out. “No one should be drinking this water,” Brittle says. Concerning the several children living nearby who developed leukemia, Brittle adds, “I would say there’s a 99 percent likelihood that their leukemia was caused by these chemicals. I would be concerned for the people who are drinking water from those wells.”[33]

Camp Carroll quickly became a non-issue in the U.S. media — not that it ever held any particular prominence — once the question of Agent Orange was dismissed. Koreans residing near the camp were not so sanguine and questioned why they were witnessing abnormally high rates of cancer. Suspicions ran high, and as one resident put it in a meeting, “The USFK disposed defoliants, which is an outright criminal act. Who in the world lets the accused do the investigation?”[34]

The case of Camp Hialeah in Busan is typical. Leading up to the base’s turnover to the Busan city government in 2006, the Ministry of Environment was only allotted the standard 105-day investigation period, leaving one-quarter of the base unexamined. As so often, U.S. military officials rejected Korean requests to extend the inspection period.[35] What the investigation did manage to uncover in its limited period of access was disturbing enough, and the resulting report has never been made public. Opposition assemblywoman Lee Mi-kyung was informed by a government source, however, that a groundwater sample contained petroleum residue at 481 times the legal limit, and several carcinogenic substances were also measured at well above safety standards.[36] After four years of fruitless negotiations over the issue of who would pay for remediation of toxic contamination at Camp Hialeah, the Korean government agreed that it would foot the bill.[37]

In every case, USFK has succeeded in evading responsibility for the pollution it has caused, based on the dubious standard of KISE. Ten years ago, an estimate placed the cost of cleaning the 59 camps to be returned by 2008 to the level of Korean standards at more than half a trillion dollars.[38] If one factors in the bases handed back since that time, the overall total could double that amount.

It may be too much to expect the Park Geun-hye administration to put the needs of its people ahead of U.S. interests, but it can be hoped that a new government in 2017 will exhibit more care for its citizens. Overcoming U.S. obstinacy will present a challenge, but one that must be met. Yongsan would be a good place to start.


Gregory Elich is on the Board of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute and the Advisory Board of the Korea Policy Institute. He a member of the Solidarity Committee for Democracy and Peace in Korea, a columnist for Voice of the People, and one of the co-authors of Killing Democracy: CIA and Pentagon Operations in the Post-Soviet Period, published in the Russian language.

His website is



[1] Kim Rahn, “Underground Water Pollution Serious Near US Bases in Seoul,” Korea Times, June 7, 2016.

[2] Kim Gi-beom, “Pollutants from Yongsan Base Neglected: Pollution in Surrounding Areas Increases 13-Fold,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, March 22, 2016.

[3] “Higher Cancer Incidences Found in Regions Near Refineries and Plants that Release Benzene,” Science Daily, July 29, 2013.

[4] “Exposure to Benzene: A Major Public Health Concern,” World Health Organization, 2010.

[5] CAS#: 108-88-3: “Public Health Statement for Toluene,” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

[6] “Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet: Toluene,” New Jersey Department of Health, August 1998, Revision November 2007.

[7] Reena Kandyala, Sumanth Phani C Raghavendra, and Saraswathi T Rajasekharan, “Xylene: An Overview of its Health Hazards and Preventive Measures,” Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology, January-June, 2010.

[8] Heejin Han and Yooil Bae, “Reality Revealed: U.S. Military Bases, Environmental Impact, and Civil Society in South Korea.” Chapter in Proving Grounds: Militarized Landscapes, Weapons Testing, and the Environmental Impact of U.S. Bases (pp. 211-238). Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015.

[9] Jung Min-ho, “US Bases Inspected for Oil Pollution,” Korea Times, March 2, 2015.

[10] Kim Se-jeong, “Court Orders Discharge of Findings of Yongsan U.S. Base Pollution,” Korea Times, June 17, 2016.

Ock Hyun-ju, “Court Orders Release of Information on U.S. Military Base Pollution,” Korea Herald, June 16, 2016.

[11] Lee You Ju-hyun, “US Refusing to Cover Decontamination Costs for Five Military Bases Slated for Return,” Hankyoreh, November 3, 2014.

[12] “Safety and Health Topics: Cadmium,” United States Department of Labor/Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

[13] Sohn Ji-Young, “Minister Shuns Concerns Over Base Cleanup Cost,” Korea Herald, March 18, 2015.

[14] Working Group for Environmental Research on Damage Caused by the U.S. Military, “Report on Environmental Damage Caused by U.S. Military Bases in South Korea,” October, 2008

[15] Young Geun Chae, “Environmental Contamination at U.S. Military Bases in South Korea and the Responsibility to Clean Up,” Environmental Law Reporter, January 2010.

[16] “Memorandum of Special Understandings on Environmental Protection,” Status of Forces Agreement, 2001.

[17] Young Geun Chae, “Environmental Contamination at U.S. Military Bases in South Korea and the Responsibility to Clean Up,” Environmental Law Reporter, January 2010.

[18] “Facilities and Areas and the Status of United States Armed Forces in Korea,” July 9, 1966.

[19] “Amendments to the Agreed Minutes of July 9, 1966 to the Agreement under Article IV of the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States of America and the Republic of Korea, Regarding Facilities and Areas and the Status of United States Armed Forces in the Republic of Korea, as Amended,” January 18, 2001.

[20] Young Geun Chae, “Environmental Contamination at U.S. Military Bases in South Korea and the Responsibility to Clean Up,” Environmental Law Reporter, January 2010.

Report on Environmental Damage Caused by U.S. Military Bases in South Korea,” The Working Group for Environmental Research on Damage Caused by the U.S. Military, October, 2008.

[21] “Report on Environmental Damage Caused by U.S. Military Bases in South Korea,” The Working Group for Environmental Research on Damage Caused by the U.S. Military, October, 2008.

[22] Young Geun Chae, “Environmental Contamination at U.S. Military Bases in South Korea and the Responsibility to Clean Up,” Environmental Law Reporter, January 2010.

[23] Mark McDonald, “Dioxin Traces Found Near U.S. Base in South Korea,” New York Times, June 16, 2011.

[24] Ashley Rowland, “Report: Buried Chemicals on Camp Carroll Removed in 1979-80,” Stars and Stripes, May 23, 2011.

[25] Kelly L. Derricks, “Agent Orange: Camp Carroll Soldier Accepts One Last Mission,” Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance, July 20, 2015.

[26] Ashley Rowland and Yoo Kyong Chang, “Agent Orange Allegations Putting Strain on Local Community,” Stars and Stripes, June 7, 2011.

[27] Kelly L. Derricks, “Agent Orange: Camp Carroll Soldier Accepts One Last Mission,” Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance, July 20, 2015.

[28] Tammy Leitner, “Military: Investigation into S. Korea Agent Orange is Over,” CBS 5, January 26, 2012.

[29] “Task Force Says Traces of Defoliant Found at US Military Camp in South Korea,” Yonhap, September 9, 2011.

[30] “Pollutants Found at US Base in S.Korea – Possible Agent Orange,” The Watchers, August 8, 2011.

[31] CAS#: 79-01-6: “Toxicological Profile for Trichloroethylene (TCE),” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, January 21, 2015.

 CAS ID #: 127-18-4: “Tetrachloroethylene (PERC),” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, March 3, 2011.

[32] “Probe in 2004 Found Traces of Dioxin in US Base in South Korea,” Yonhap, June 24, 2011.

[33] Tammy Leitner, “Military: Investigation into S. Korea Agent Orange is Over,” CBS 5, January 26, 2012.

[34] Heejin Han and Yooil Bae, “Reality Revealed: U.S. Military Bases, Environmental Impact, and Civil Society in South Korea.” Chapter in Proving Grounds: Militarized Landscapes, Weapons Testing, and the Environmental Impact of U.S. Bases (pp. 211-238). Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015.

[35] “South Korea, US Talks on Returning Army Bases Stalled over Pollution Dispute,” Yonhap, September, 2008.

[36] Lee Tae-hoon, ‘Gov’t Hid Toxic Case at US Base,” Korea Times, October 6, 2011.

[37] Jung Sung-ki, “S.Korea to Pay for Cleanup of US Base in Busan,” Korea Times, January 14, 2010.

[38] Maj. Linda Moschelle, “Environmental Issues on Returns of Facilities and Areas in the Republic of Korea,” Presentation, USFK, July 27, 2006.


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