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When I was young, I always had to pass the hill in Hu-ahm Dong to go to the restaurant Townhouse in the 8th US Army Garrison in Yongsan. It is only later that I found out that the entrance to the US army base behind the Ministry of National Defense building in Hu-ahm Dong was only one of many. But that entrance, to me as a little kid, felt like the only entrance I needed to pass for instantaneous movement in TV cartoons.  Everything inside the base was different; it was as if the minute you open the door, you face another country than Korea right away. The greasy food in Townhouse and the video arcade full of American teenagers might have been my first culture shock of childhood. Like that, the US army base remains in my memory as an inexplicable scent of an exotic land. 

Working on the military facilities in Seoul National Capital Area for several years, my interests naturally spread to the US army bases. But the bases in northern Gyeonggi Province felt different from the one in my old memory. Unlike the well-organized Yongsan Headquarters, the ones in northern Gyeonggi area, which are actual combat units, come across as dreary as any Korean military base. Now as a space where everything is effaced, the bases left without the American troops let us try imagining what they would have been like or strike a sentimental mood at seeing the debris like amateur photographers. Paju base which is left as unused property came to me as a space where a variety of emotions and desires can be projected.
96% of the land in Paju, the main venue of this project, is military-facilities protection zone and 22% of the city, 147,939,000㎡, is under military use. With its 14%(93,322,000㎡) owned by the US army, 85,950,000㎡of it is granted by the government as civil passage restriction area which makes the city no less suitable for the title of military town. Since the Iraq War broke out in 2003, more than 10 units in Paju have been gradually reduced which led to the beginning of total withdrawal around 2006. Some of them were sent back to home country after a while in Iraq, while most of them were transferred to Pyongtaek. Part of the reason for their transfer from northern to southern Gyeonggi Province is the attempt to minimize the damage to the US army in time of war.
The US being an important factor in Korea's local economy, the military camptown is going through a rapid change after the American troops left. It was around 2008 after they left when I started working on the US army, and the neighboring area of the base had already been transformed to the extent that it was hard to find any traces of the troops. There were expectations among the residents of the eerily old camptown about a new university said to be built where the base used to be, who were also getting ready for the real estate boom that was about to come. Paju's restoration of 2nd Infantry Division from the US forces heightened the hopes of local residents and real estate investors. However, not many people know that our government agreed to give 11,570,000㎡of land in Pyongtaek to the army in exchange for Paju. I came to realize that the real estate value and local economic value of Korea are hugely affected by the US national defense policies toward the Korean peninsula and, more broadly, toward Northeastern Asia. This is merely another reminder of ongoing history of what has been happening since the arrival of the US army after our independence in 1945. Its migration from Paju caused the increase in potential commercial value, while the inconvenience and hardships caused by the army are passing to the Pyongtaek residents. However, the economic value of Pyongtaek is also rising as much as their inconvenience and hardships. Townhouse, the house complex which, along with its popularity in the States, became popular in Gyeonggi area including Pyongtaek is being created for new-coming American soldiers and Koreans. It can be seen as forming of a new townhouse, which is something that some Pyongtaek residents cannot admit, while the municipal government welcomes it as a good sign for attracting external investments.
It is not difficult to see in Korea how an empty space turns into one filled with all the imagination projected as desires. A desire that drives a space possesses a supernatural power that nothing can evade, which can be seen in the practice after the independence where the land was confiscated by being designated as military facilities, and also the current redevelopment under the name of New Town. We can either call it the power of capital or combined desires of people who long for capital, but in a way it is also interpreted as taking over the legitimacy of development-oriented dictatorship.
This project, with the US army as its theme, virtually does not include the army. It is photography that functions as an evidence that the American troops stayed in Paju until recently. Depending on the viewpoint this project might be regarded as tracking the military traces of the army that was stationed in Paju, but actually this is a documentation of a bare space that is hard to be explained, that does not have much to be explained, like randomly grown grass in a bare space. What that bare space contains can be a memory about the US army in Paju which played an important role in peacekeeping in Korea or can implication of an oil outflow that was generously spilled over somewhere deep inside the base. If it is to some extent possible to imagine the future as we recollect the past through photography, the forseeable future in my photography can be the future of Pyongtaek, that of Yongsan and that of reunification. These photos are thus a documentation of a place somewhere between the past and future coexisting with the US army.

By Onejoon Che
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