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Anti-Americanism Sweeps South Korea

Times Staff Writer

The deaths of the two schoolgirls were particularly gruesome. While walking along a narrow rural road to a friend’s birthday party, they were crushed by a 50-ton mine-clearing vehicle that was moving during a U.S. Army training exercise.

Last week, two GIs accused of negligent homicide in connection with the fatal accident were acquitted in U.S. courts-martial. Ever since, one of the most intense waves of anti-Americanism in recent years has swept through South Korea.

Unlike demonstrations against President Bush’s visit to South Korea in February, which were staged almost entirely by left-wing students, the case of the crushed schoolgirls has drawn in a wide swath of South Korean society.

Since the verdicts, there have been dozens of mostly small protests daily in Seoul, Pusan, Kwangju and other South Korean cities. Students have broken into a U.S. Army base, and at least one restaurant has barred entry to Americans.

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Even members of the conservative Grand National Party, which is considered resolutely pro-American, have called for a public apology from Bush for the accident and the revision of the treaty governing U.S. forces in South Korea, one of the United States’ most important allies.

“President Bush should apologize to soothe the pain of the Korean people and to prevent any escalation in anti-American sentiment,” conservative presidential candidate Lee Hoi Chang told reporters today.

The protests have focused resentment on a Status of Forces agreement that in some cases makes the 37,000 U.S. soldiers based here off limits to Korean law enforcement.

“Punish Murderers,” and “U.S. Troops Out of Korea,” read the placards carried by about 50 student activists who cut through a wire fence Tuesday at the U.S. Army’s Camp Red Cloud in Uijongbu, on the northern outskirts of Seoul. A day earlier, members of the same student group tossed Molotov cocktails at a U.S. military warehouse south of Seoul, setting fire to a guard post. There were no injuries in either incident.

In response to the protests, security has been increased around all U.S. facilities.

“Suffice it to say that we are taking all appropriate steps to ensure the safety and security of both our personnel and facilities,” Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a U.S. Army spokesman, said Tuesday.

The accident in which the 14-year-old girls died took place June 13 in Yangju, near the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, but received scant media coverage at the time, in part because of the euphoria in South Korea over the World Cup soccer tournament.

But public interest has steadily grown, reaching a fever pitch last week after the acquittals of Sgt. Mark Walker, 36, the driver, and Sgt. Fernando Nino, 25, who was in charge of navigating the vehicle. Throughout Seoul, protesters are displaying graphic photographs of the crushed bodies of the girls, Shim Mi Son and Shin Hyo Sun.

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“The Americans look down on Koreans. We are powerless. How can we confront them?” said a teary-eyed Shim Su Bo, Mi Son’s father, in an interview taped by activists and made available on one of many Internet sites devoted to the case.

The furor has brought to the surface cultural and legal differences between South Korea and the United States. U.S. officials involved with the case say that the Koreans don’t understand the U.S. criminal justice system with its presumption of innocence, the concept of reasonable doubt and the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers.

A senior U.S. official here who spoke on the condition of anonymity complained about his frustration in trying to explain the case to irate South Koreans.

“Almost every Korean I speak to says that the verdict should reflect the feelings of the people. We go to great lengths to separate feelings from the law. It is a different concept,” the official said. He also complained that many apologies had been offered, from senior military brass to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who spoke to South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung Hong. “In this case, the Koreans just haven’t been listening,” the official said.

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American embassy and military officials have begun a public relations campaign to calm the rage. The Army today released written statements from the GIs to express their condolences and regrets. And at a hastily arranged news conference, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Hubbard extended an apology on behalf of Bush.

“This morning, the president sent me a message asking me to convey his apologies to the families of the girls, to the government,” he said, adding that Bush asked him to express “his sadness and regret” for the incident.

Lee Jang Hie, a Korean law professor who leads a committee dedicated to revising the treaty between South Korea and the U.S. forces, says that the American soldiers almost certainly would have been convicted in a South Korean court.

He accused the military prosecutors in the courts-martial of being hesitant in presenting the charges and said because the two were tried separately, they could deflect blame to the other.

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“For a terrible crime like this, somebody must be held responsible,” Lee said. “Korea has a continental legal system which is somewhat different, and the Americans should respect the spirit of our system too.”

The legacy of colonial domination by Japan and national pride have made Koreans especially sensitive to perceived affronts to their sovereignty. The Status of Forces agreement between the United States and South Korea was revised in 2001 to satisfy Korean demands for jurisdiction over cases in which U.S. soldiers were accused of “heinous” crimes, such as murder and rape.

But that doesn’t apply to cases in which the alleged crimes are committed when soldiers are on official duty -- as was the case when the girls were crushed to death.

The extent of the anti-American sentiments stirred by the case was evident over the weekend at the entrance to a restaurant in downtown Seoul, which posted signs saying, “Not Welcome. The Americans.”

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Other establishments near university campuses were reported to be similarly barring Americans.

“I thought about putting up a sign reading, ‘Yankee, Go Home,’ but that seemed too harsh,” said Lee Chang Yong, 41, who had put up the “Not Welcome” sign. Lee said he appreciates the presence of U.S. troops in defending South Korea but believes that they behave arrogantly without respect for Korean culture.

“There are cultural things in Korea. When your son does something wrong, you visit the neighbor’s house and apologize, even though it might not be your fault,” Lee said. “In this case, it was the same. We expected something more than perfunctory diplomatic regrets. If they apologized properly, it would have been more important than the verdict.”


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