President Bush, praising South Korea for "a commitment to democracy (that) is demonstrated daily," today pledged unflagging military support for the South Korean government but delivered a stern warning to Seoul to not let protectionist trade practices sour its relations with the United States.
Bush said in a speech prepared for delivery to the South Korean National Assembly that the Korean economy "has benefited greatly from the free flow of trade."
"Yet today, in many countries, there is a call for greater protectionism. I am asking you to join the United States in rejecting these shortsighted pleas," he said.
"Protectionism is fool's gold. Protectionism may seem to be the easy way out, but it is really the quickest way down. Nothing will stop the engine of Korea's economic growth faster than new barriers to international trade," he said.
Bush's visit coincided with growing anti-American sentiment in some sectors of South Korean society, which have protested the deployment of U.S. troops in this country and Washington's recent attempts to open the protected local market to U.S. agricultural products.
Thousands of police swarmed the area around the U.S. Embassy in central Seoul at noon and crushed an attempt by a tiny band of dissidents to hold a demonstration. About a dozen protesters unfurled a banner and chanted "We oppose Bush's visit to the death!" for about two minutes before they were surrounded by green-helmeted plainclothes police and hauled away.
Earlier in the day, at a news conference, leaders of South Korea's largest dissident alliance, Chonminyon, or the National People's Democratic Movement League, accused Bush of supporting a "military dictatorship" by stopping here for a meeting with President Roh Tae Woo, a former army general who succeeded an authoritarian ruler, Chun Doo Hwan, by election one year ago.
Bush was expected to meet briefly with opposition leaders after his National Assembly speech and his luncheon meeting with Roh, staying on the ground for only five hours, according to South Korean officials.
After the lunch, Bush said he had a "very frank discussion" with the Korean president on trade problems. Roh said that he and Bush share the view that the concerted efforts by South Korea and the United States have become increasingly important for the progress of the free-market system throughout the world.
During a picture-taking session that preceded the luncheon with the South Korean president, Bush was told by Roh's interpreter about the demonstrations taking place in Seoul.
The two presidents and their aides took off their shoes and donned beige slippers for the traditional Korean lunch, where the guests sat on a heated floor on cushions with hard backs. The lanky Bush, experiencing difficulty in stretching his long legs under the table, asked his Korean hosts, "Do you put your legs straight out or do you fold them up?"
Roh's answer could not be determined.
Bush, on the last day of a six-day journey, also asked Roh earlier, while signing a guest book, "Is today the 27th?"
Roh nodded and said, "Yes, it's the 27th."
Earlier, dissident leader Kim Keun Tae, a former political prisoner and torture victim who received the 1987 Robert F. Kennedy human rights award, told reporters that the United States "is the source of all suppression and sorrow to Korean people since the division of the Korean Peninsula."
Reading a protest letter to Bush, Kim declared that if America's "unreasonable, neo-imperialistic interference continues as today, the Korean people's struggle for anti-Americanism will (become) more vehement, which is not desireable for future, sound U.S.-Korean relations."
Kim was among those arrested in the noon protests. Two other leaders of the dissident alliance, Lee Boo Young and Park Kae Dong, were arrested minutes later while attempting to hand-deliver their letter of protest to U.S. Embassy officials.
Pedestrians at the scene, which was decorated with large American and South Korean flags, looked on passively and did not attempt to join the protest. The government had deployed some 20,000 police to keep the peace in central Seoul, and there were no major disturbances as of midday, although a student demonstration was planned in the early afternoon at Dong Kuk University.
Speech to Assembly
Bush's National Assembly speech was his only major address on the tour, which began Wednesday and was scheduled to end this evening when he and First Lady Barbara Bush return to Washington. They also visited Tokyo, to attend the state funeral of Emperor Hirohito, and Beijing.
While the U.S.-South Korean relationship was founded on the military ties that were formed during the Korean War, it has taken on a larger dimension in recent years, as the Korean economy has enjoyed spectacular growth and has led the once-impoverished nation to the forefront of the developing world.
In his speech, the President saluted Korean efforts to lower tariffs and other trade barriers, but added:
"Let me be candid. If we are to keep our bilateral relationship growing even stronger, much more needs to be done. I am confident that our two nations working together can accomplish the tasks still before us."
He said that South Korea, "as one of the world's major trading powers," is being watched by other nations.
Calling on this "emerging economic leader" to "shoulder important responsibilities" to protect the strength and stability of global markets, Bush told the Assembly:
"You . . . will face the challenge to improve living standards, to continue to open domestic markets and to adopt appropriate international financial and exchange rate policies that reflect your standing as a prosperous and powerful trading nation."
The Korean economy is the world's 17th largest and in 1988 exported a record $61 billion of goods to world markets. In 1987, it achieved a trade surplus with the United States of $8.5 billion.
Bush said his visit reflected "the importance I place on the relations" between the United States and South Korea.
"You are a world-class economic power; your commitment to democracy is demonstrated daily in this chamber," he said, in a rhetorical nod to the emerging democracy taking shape in South Korea.
Maintain U.S. Forces
Bush, as have other Presidents, pledged to maintain U.S. forces in South Korea. That commitment was affirmed by President Ronald Reagan after President Jimmy Carter proposed, but then backed down from, a troop cut. The United States has maintained about 43,000 troops in South Korea.
"There are no plans to reduce U.S. forces in Korea," Bush said. "Our soldiers and airmen are there at the request of the Republic of Korea to deter aggression from the north, and their presence contributes to the peace and stability of northeast Asia. They will remain in the Republic of Korea as long as they are needed and as long as we believe it is in the interest of peace to keep them there."
Bush also voiced support for "peaceful unification" of North and South Korea "on terms acceptable to the Korean people.