SEOUL－South Koreans are gripped with fear over the prospect that US biological weapons laboratories operated by the US Forces Korea, or USFK, will transform the country into Washington's "overseas hub" for biological warfare experiments.
The United States has flouted international conventions by steadily advancing its germ warfare program in the country. It sees South Korea as a country "friendly "enough to let the US military test lethal toxins without institutional hurdles.
Enraged at the opaqueness of the US biological labs, civic groups and residents have taken to the streets to demand that the US military takes away its hazardous weapons.
The US military has secretly run its biological weapons program in South Korea since at least 2009. It became public in 2015 when live anthrax samples were sent from a US military lab through postal service FedEx to the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, about 70 kilometers south of the capital Seoul.
The USFK initially said it was the first time it experimented with deadly biological agents. But a joint panel investigation showed that the USFK brought in and tested dead anthrax samples 15 times at the Yongsan Garrison in Seoul between 2009 and 2014.
Article 9 of the South Korea-US Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, stipulates that a customs examination "shall not be made" in case of "military cargo consigned to the US armed forces", according to a document posted by the South Korean Foreign Ministry.
Lee Jang-hie, an emeritus professor at the law school of the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said the delivery of anthrax samples violated the Biological Weapons Convention, signed by over 180 nations, including South Korea and the US, to ban the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition or retention of biological agents or toxins.
Any violation of the 1975 convention requires an official investigation by the United Nations Security Council at the request of the country concerned.
"Lax regulations and the (South) Korean government's reluctance to protest against it created an easy, favorable environment (for the US military) to carry out experiments with germs here," Lee noted.
The US biological weapons program in South Korea has evolved over the past decade under the projects of the Joint USFK Portal and Integrated Threat Recognition, or Jupitr, and the Capabilities to Enable NBC(nuclear, biological, chemical) Threat Awareness, Understanding and Response, or Centaur.
"Figuratively speaking, Jupitr installed in the central headquarters serves as the brain. The Centaur, which operates in each regional military unit, constitutes the hands and feet of Jupitr to detect and send biochemical samples to it," said Woo Hee-jong, a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Seoul National University.
Woo said the UN Security Council should launch an investigation into the biolabs.
Jeon Wi-bong, director of the Association to Push for Shutdown of US Biochemical Experiments in Busan Port Pier 8, told Xinhua News Agency that, despite the attention surrounding the 2015 live anthrax samples delivery, the USFK expanded biological labs into Busan Port's Pier 8 in 2016.
A group of civic activists and citizens toured the country for a week through Sunday to spread awareness on the US biological weapons labs.
"A person in charge of US military biological labs said Korea is friendly to operate such labs. I got infuriated when I heard that because it belittles my country severely," said Choi Won-seok, who joined the tour near Busan Port's Pier 8.