No Trace Of Agent Orange At U.S. Base In South Korea

The U.S. military is investigating claims by veterans that they buried barrels of the toxic defoliant at an American base in South Korea three decades ago. Agent Orange was used during the Vietnam War, and it's been blamed for a variety of ailments, including cancer and nerve disorders.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In South Korea, the U.S. military is investigating claims by veterans that they buried barrels of a toxic defoliant at an American base there three decades ago. Agent Orange was used during the Vietnam War. It's been blamed for a variety of ailments, including cancer and nerve disorders. Reporter Doualy Xaykaothao reports that Koreans living outside Camp Carroll are alarmed at what they're hearing.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: In rural Chilgok county the pace of life is slow, and the sounds are of a few moving bicycle riders, construction and some traffic, but there's a lot of talk about what's going on at the U.S. Army base, Camp Carroll. Office worker EunJung Park.

Ms. EUNJUNG PARK: (Through translator) Although the U.S. has helped Korea very much, it still makes me angry that it would bury remnants from the Vietnam War, another country's war, in my country, Korea.

XAYKAOTHAO: That is a question that Americans and South Korean officials are still trying to answer, yet the rumors off base persists.

Young-mi Park owns a supermarket nearby. She claims her sister has cancer.

Ms. YOUNG-MI PARK: (Through translator) I was born near the base but moved away to get married. And well, I was very much shocked at the recent reports of possible poison in the water and soil.

XAYKAOTHAO: Park says her younger sister lived next to the base and wonders if the drinking water caused her cancer. Park said she was shocked to learn of allegations made last month by former U.S. soldiers. At least three veterans claimed to have buried Agent Orange there in the late 1970s.

Colonel JOSEPH BIRCHMEIER (United States Forces Korea): So far, no evidence of Agent Orange has been discovered on Camp Carroll or in the surrounding community.

XAYKAOTHAO: That's Colonel Joseph Birchmeier of the United States Forces, Korea. He's involved in a joint investigation looking into this matter with South Korea. To date, he says investigators have interviewed at least 26 people.

Col. BIRCHMEIER: Each interview, we have found, leads to additional names of people who may or may not know - have information that's pertinent to us. So there's been a continuous tracking of personnel.

XAYKAOTHAO: But Chilgok native, Lee Sang Churl, doubts there were toxins buried on the U.S. base.

Mr. LEE SANG CHURL: (Through translator) I am a local, born here in 1958, that means I'm over 50. I drank the water, and I'm 6'2". I don't understand why people are all upset about this.

XAYKAOTHAO: Even Sung Wook-kim agrees. He's with an organization that claims each of their members has been exposed to or contaminated with Agent Orange from their tour of duty either in Vietnam or fighting the North Koreans at the Demilitarized zone.

Mr. SUNG WOOK-KIM: (Through translator) Many of us doubt if the U.S. military buried the toxic materials on base. It's still an ongoing investigation to find out the truth.

XAYKAOTHAO: U.S. military officials say water samples taken last month show no health risks, even if traces of dioxin are found in some tests. Past environmental studies from 1992 and 2004 show chemicals were buried at Camp Carroll, but later removed. Those chemicals do not include Agent Orange, according to the U.S. military.

The situation in South Korea is a far different story from Vietnam, where dioxin related birth defects have been reported, and at least three communities have been badly contaminated with Agent Orange. Last week, the U.S. and Vietnam began to remove ordnance in what was described as a key first step to begin clean up the legacy of Agent Orange.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Chilgok, South Korea.

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