CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — The U.S. military’s newest and largest overseas base for 26,000 soldiers, family members and civilians is finally humming with activity — and buzzing about the growing threat from nearby North Korea.
President Trump is scheduled to visit this $10.7 billion, 3,500-acre base in the city of Pyeongtaek during his stop in South Korea on Nov. 5-8 .
Camp Humphreys, which became the headquarters of the Eighth Army in July, is located 40 miles south of the former base in Seoul and about 60 miles from the Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea.
That puts the base about twice as far from North Korea as its predecessor, one of the main reasons for the move.
Since 2003, South Korea and the U.S. have planned to bring U.S. troops out of their headquarters at Camp Yongsan in metropolitan Seoul — and out of reach of the rocket launchers and howitzers that pose a threat to the capital’s metropolitan population of 25 million only 35 miles from the DMZ.
By 2020, the number of soldiers and civilians living and working here is expected to grow to 42,000, as U.S. Forces Korea, which oversees all military operations on the Korean Peninsula, and other units transfer.
By relocating, the military says it has more time to react to scenarios where every minute counts.
"When you look at North Korea's long-range artillery and you think about the ballistic missiles that go over, you literally may only have a few hours to respond to what is a real-world threat,” said Col. Kimeisha McCullum, a spokesman for the Eighth Army.
Lt. Col. Richard Tucker, deputy commander of the Eighth Army’s Second Combat Aviation Brigade, said that despite the rising temperatures with North Korea, troops here have not assumed a heightened state of readiness.
"The state of readiness is already inherent," Tucker said. ""When we practice getting from bed to the aircraft, whether it's an exercise or real life, we all do the exact same thing.”
As Trump leaves for an Asian trip that will also take him to Japan, Vietnam, China and the Philippines, soldiers also say they tune out the controversial barbs between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom Trump has called “Little Rocket Man” because of North Korea's ballistic missile tests and vows to threaten the U.S. with a nuclear strike.
“Honestly (the rhetoric) doesn't affect the day-to-day operations,” said CW2 Fernando Madrigal, who pilots an Apache attack helicopter. “We just continue to do our mission here, which is working with (South Korean forces) and strengthening our alliance.”
The Eighth Army trains for more than just battle. In the event of a North Korean regime collapse, troops are prepared to secure the stockpiles of the North's nuclear and chemical weapons.
They’re also responsible for evacuating non-combat Americans out of Korea during war or other disasters. A large-scale evacuation drill called Courageous Channel was held at the end of October, but the military stressed it was a routine exercise planned well in advance.
"Although not directly tied to current geopolitical events, our forces must be ready in all areas, to include systems and personnel annually exercised in Courageous Channel," Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said in a statement. "This training is as important to readiness as our other routine events such as tank gunnery and fighter wing exercises."
Construction of the base is about 80% finished, according to Bob McElroy, a spokesman for U.S. Garrison Humphreys, the department managing the transition. Originally expected to open in 2008, the move to Camp Humphreys has been delayed due to funding and construction issues.
The base offers the latest high-tech communications and training facilities. But as North Korea's capabilities have evolved, Camp Humphreys is not entirely out of the range of threats.
One recent addition to North Korea's arsenal is a 300mm rocket that can travel 120 miles, far enough to reach Humphreys, according to Bruce Bennett, a senior defense researcher and North Korea expert at RAND Corp., a think tank.
“We do not know much about how many of those rockets that North Korea has available, so the magnitude of the threat is uncertain,” said Bennett. “This rocket could carry chemical weapons but is too small to carry the kinds of nuclear weapons North Korea probably has available today. Of course, the North Korean Scud and longer range ballistic missiles could all reach Camp Humphreys, and do so with a variety of North Korean weapons.”
Some units closer to the North Korean border will remain in operation, such as the 210th Field Artillery Brigade headquartered at Camp Casey, but most U.S. forces will be concentrated around Pyeongtaek — Osan Air Base is also nearby — and further south in Busan, where the U.S. Navy is headquartered.
As part of the agreement, South Korea, which is footing most of the bill for the new base, will reclaim the facilities the U.S. is leaving behind.
Camp Yongsan, the former headquarters, is located on prime real estate in the heart of Seoul and city planners have designs to convert it into a park.
The amenities inside Camp Humphreys continue to take shape, transforming an area that was once salt marshes and rice paddies into a small American city. There’s a waterpark and a golf course soon to open, chapels, schools, a hospital, a newly opened commissary with chains such as Taco Bell and Popeye’s and a downtown soon to be topped off with movie theaters and a bowling alley.
For soldiers like Lt. Col. Tucker, who has served in 51 different countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, the comforts of home have been long in coming to Camp Humphreys, but they’re appreciated: "Put it this way,” he said. “I'm not living in a tent."