After 124 years, freed up plot to become city's Central Park In the heart of Seoul there is a piece of land that could be mistaken for small-town America. It has everything, from its own American schools, fire station and police force, to a laundrette and television repair shop. Here the predominant language is English and the most useful currency is US dollars. Since the end of the Korean war in 1953, Yongsan military base has been the headquarters for the US troops in Korea. It is home to between 12,000 and 15,000 American troops, administrative personnel and their families. Within the next three years, the 288 hectares of land will be returned to South Korea after more than a century of use by foreign troops. By 2008, the US troops will be relocated further south. Last week, at a ceremony marking the start of the redevelopment, President Roh Moo-hyun said the return of Yongsan represented the country's growing 'self-reliance'. 'Yongsan has a heartbreaking history of a continuous foreign military presence, including from China and Japan, over the past 124 years,' he said. In the latter part of the Qing dynasty, Chinese troops were stationed in Yongsan, a symbol of Korea's tributary status. Following an 1876 pact with Japan, Tokyo posted a small military contingent in the area, which grew as Japan tightened its grip on the peninsula. 'The Yongsan area attracted the attention of the Japanese military perhaps because of its proximity to the Han River, which provided the easiest medium of communication in that pre-railway age,' said Andrei Lankov lecturer in the Asian studies faculty of the Australian National University. As Seoul emerged from the civil war, Yongsan, then hosting US military, acted as a focal point for the development of the capital. 'In the 1950s, Seoul was made up of a lot of villages and towns and as it grew, most of the capital ended up being solidified and spiralling around the US base,' said Major Jerome Pionk of the US Army. Its association with a foreign presence has turned Yongsan, or Dragon Mountain, into a highly symbolic piece of real estate, and a giant model dragon is now on display in the area, marking the imminent end of that period. The base will be transformed into a national park, a welcome green lung in the middle of the overpopulated concrete jungle. The plan has been likened to Central Park in New York. Mr Roh said it would 'symbolise the independence and peace of Korea and bid farewell to the history of invasion, domination, war and suffering'. The handover, while being welcomed, has left Seoul with a US$3 billion bill for relocating the troops. It has also pitted the central government against Seoul's city government for control of the project and terms of the redevelopment. 'Central government intends to raise funds for the military transfer by selling off part of the land,' said Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon, who opposes the plan. Mr Oh believes the land will then be used for commercial and residential facilities, a proposal that has raised the hackles of green groups. 'The plan to build a park in Yongsan should be a project to restore national pride and protect an ecosystem in Seoul,' said the Korean Federation for Environmental Movements.