SEOUL South Korea said on Sunday it has agreed with the United States military to jointly investigate claims made by U.S. veterans that they helped bury the toxic chemical defoliant Agent Orange at a U.S. army base in South Korea about three decades ago.
The issue could potentially rekindle anti-American sentiment in the country, which saw massive protests against the import of U.S. beef in 2008 and over the deaths of two South Korean girls in an incident allegedly involving U.S. soldiers in 2002.
The United States has nearly 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea, and the two countries are currently grappling with how to deal with North Korea's nuclear programme.
"South Korea and the United States agreed to proceed with a joint probe (into the case) as soon as possible for the quick and transparent resolution of the issue," Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik's Office said in a statement on Sunday.
The controversy erupted last week, when South Korean media reported that U.S. veterans told U.S. television station KPHO-TV that they were ordered to dump the herbicide at Camp Carroll, in the southeastern part of South Korea, in the late 1970s.
The television station said the "toxic herbicide that was used to wipe out the jungles during the Vietnamese War," was used years later around demilitarized zones in Korea, which was divided after the 1950-1953 Korean War.
The South Korean government said it had formed a task force on Friday to address the issue and had been investigating the area around Camp Carroll, located in North Gyeongsang Province.
The United States Forces Korea said in a statement on Friday that "an on-going review of records has not revealed evidence of the movement or storage of Agent Orange at Camp Carroll, and we are expanding our search to more thoroughly investigate the claims."
Gen. Walter L. Sharp, Commander of United Nations Command, said in a statement: "I am aware of and concerned with news reports alleging burial of Agent Orange at Camp Carroll.
"Both Americans and Koreans live and work in and around Camp Carroll, and I share the concerns of the government of the Republic of Korea and the Korean people living near the installation."
(Reporting by Hyunjoo Jin; Additional reporting by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Alex Richardson)