Ire Against U.S. Swells in S. Korea

Times Staff Writer

SEOUL -- In the largest such demonstrations in recent memory -- indeed the largest public gatherings here since the World Cup -- as many as 100,000 South Koreans took to the streets Saturday to air grievances about U.S. conduct ranging from a fatal road accident involving GIs to Bush administration actions on Iraq and North Korea.

The largest crowd rallied in front of Seoul’s City Hall, where throngs also showed up during the World Cup soccer tournament in June. Under a towering artificial Christmas tree, an estimated 50,000 people danced to the beat of a popular new Korean rock song that vulgarly lambastes the U.S. Tens of thousands more protesters massed in other South Korean cities.

The country’s riot police -- wielding shields and sheathed in protective gear -- formed a human wall to surround the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. The embassy issued statements warning American citizens to avoid the area. But the demonstrations proved orderly.

Few incidents were reported except in the city of Taegu, where students wrapped in the South Korean flag scaled the walls of a U.S. military base and climbed atop a water tower chanting anti-U.S. slogans.

The ostensible focus of the demonstrations was the deaths of two teenage girls who were run over in June by a U.S. Army mine-clearing vehicle and the acquittal last month before a court-martial of two soldiers who were driving the vehicle. But with a crisis looming concerning North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the protests took on the broader issues of the role played by the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea and the American war on terrorism. Activists from the Philippines and Okinawa, Japan, came to Seoul to speak at the rally.


“It has been more than 50 years since the United States came here, and it is time to reconsider their presence,” said Han Sang Ryul, a Presbyterian minister who was one of the organizers of the Seoul gathering. He and many other demonstrators said they were worried less about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions than about the prospect of the Bush administration’s provoking a war by attempting preemptive strikes against North Korean weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, North Korea ratcheted up tensions with a raft of new threats and anti-American rhetoric. In a letter to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the North warned that it would remove seals and monitors from nuclear installations if the agency didn’t do so immediately. North Korea asked the IAEA to do that Thursday, but without threats to take unilateral action.

The official North Korean newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, editorialized that “the army and people of [North Korea] with burning hatred for the Yankees are in full readiness to fight a death-defying battle.”

And yet another North Korean dispatch attacked the U.S. over the release of the new James Bond film, “Die Another Day,” in which Bond’s nemesis is a North Korean.

Some conservatives in South Korea say North Korea is stirring protests in the South to bolster its defense against the Bush administration in the standoff over weapons.

“I think this is a manipulation from North Korea. They want to create an anti-American atmosphere here at the same time there is this weapons flap,” said Norbert Vollertsen, a German physician who is a prominent anti-North Korean activist here.

South Korea has long been considered one of the United States’ strongest allies, its loyalty forged by the U.S. intervention against the communist North in the 1950-53 Korean War. But recent polls have shown that support for the presence of U.S. troops here is slipping, particularly among the younger generation.

Unlike student demonstrations here in the 1980s, recent protests have brought out a broad cross section of society: homemakers, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, bureaucrats.

“The fact that you have not only radical elements but mainstream Koreans espousing some of these views is obviously something the U.S. is concerned about,” said one American diplomat, who asked not to be named.

Fury over the June 13 accident with the mine-clearing vehicle has attained far more momentum than anyone might have anticipated. Since the acquittal of the two GIs accused of negligent homicide, there have been dozens of protests around the country and even in front of the White House.

Demonstrators believe that a Status of Forces Agreement is unfair because it allows U.S. soldiers to be tried by courts-martial and not Korean courts in cases of alleged crimes committed while on duty. Many protesters have demanded a personal apology from President Bush. The president did apologize to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung for the June incident in a phone call Friday about the North Korean situation, but that has not appeased protesters who believe he should do so in public and in front of television cameras.

“We are not a colony of the United States, and we don’t want to be treated that way,” said Park Young Ja, 54, a coffee vendor in Seoul, who added that despite her support for the protests, she remains a conservative who does not want U.S. troops to leave.

“We want them to stay here,” she said. “But they must treat us as equal partners.”