Anger grows in South Korea over US-run labs

Experts say laboratories run by the US military in South Korea are endangering residents.


Citizen groups demonstrate near the US military base in Busan, South Korea on April 5, 2022. [Photo/Xinhua]

April 21, 2022

HONG KONG – Military biofacilities endanger lives, say experts calling for their closure

Biological laboratories run by the United States military in South Korea are endangering residents’ lives, and the experiments carried out at the facilities for military purposes should be banned, experts say.

“The fact that (these) facilities are located in Busan Port, where the population is dense, in a form the Korean government is not aware of at all, poses a risk of catastrophic and widespread civilian damage,” said Woo Hee-jong, professor of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Seoul National University. The academic linked the labs to the disaster that struck India when a gas leak at a US-owned factory in the city of Bhopal killed thousands of people in 1984.

Jeon Wi-bong, director of a civil group campaigning to shut down the biolabs in Busan Port, said there are about 20 schools, 30 apartment complexes, and major transport links within a 3-kilometer radius of the base that hosts the facilities.

In contrast, the US army set up its Dugway biolab in the Utah desert, Jeon said. In 1968, about 6,000 sheep died in the Dugway area. The Salt Lake Tribune newspaper reported that the nerve agent VX was found in the area, citing a declassified report in 1978.

Although the US government claims that the South Korean biolabs were set up for biosurveillance purposes against biochemical threats, evidence unearthed has undermined this claim.

“JUPITR ATD is entirely part of the US military biowarfare-related overseas military strategy,” said Woo, accusing the US of installing the facility in South Korea because it considers the Asian country to be part of its occupied sphere of influence. JUPITR ATD is the acronym for a biochemical lab project operated by the United States Forces Korea, or USFK.

Despite public criticism, the USFK has “deceived” South Koreans by denying the accusations made against the labs and making excuses for their actions, Jeon said. When people protested against the JUPITR facility in Busan in 2016, the US asserted that no biochemical samples would be brought to the base. Yet it was found that biochemical samples were carried in dozens of times between 2017 and 2019, Jeon said.

In 2015, the Pentagon confirmed that it “inadvertently” sent live anthrax samples to a US lab in South Korea. A joint South Korea-US investigation found out later that samples of the lethal bacteria had been sent to South Korea 16 times since 2009.

Noting the development of bioweapons is strictly banned by the Biological Weapons Convention, Jeon said the biolabs operated by the USFK violate the convention and can be investigated by the United Nations Security Council if the South Korean government files a complaint. The convention has been signed by more than 180 nations, including South Korea and the US.

“Under Article 9 of SOFA, military cargo delivered to the USFK bases is not subject to customs inspection. As a result, the Korean people will not know anything even if the biochemical samples are delivered to these bases,” said Jeon. SOFA refers to the Status of Forces Agreement, the military pact between the US and South Korea.

Woo said information about the overall status of the facility in question is still hidden as only some media and a few non-specialists had been invited to see its general experimental equipment in the past.

He said the USFK had not been cooperative in addressing the concerns raised by the public.

Woo said the “unilateral and unequal” SOFA needed to be renegotiated for the South Korean government to at least secure information on the import of hazardous substances into the country.

From April 4-10, a group of activists and residents traveled across South Korea, staging a series of rallies calling for the end of joint military exercises between South Korea and the US as well as the closure of the USFK’s bases and biolabs.

The US stations nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea after the 1950-53 war on the peninsula. The USFK’s headquarters, Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek on the west coast, is the largest US overseas military base.

On April 5, Kim Moon-jun, a professor from Kongju National University, submitted a petition to President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s transition committee demanding the return of the land occupied by the Yongsan US base in central Seoul and the revision of the “unequal” SOFA, the Incheon Ilbo newspaper reported.

Woo said: “Above all, foreign troops must withdraw from the country.”

scroll to top