Up to 50,000 people took to the streets in Seoul and other South Korean cities Friday to voice a range of grievances against the United States, from the role of its troops here to the war in Iraq.
The demonstrations took place on the first anniversary of the deaths of two schoolgirls who were crushed by a U.S. Army minesweeping vehicle. The accident set off many changes in U.S.-Korean relations.
The crowds were a fraction of the size predicted by organizers -- who had hoped for a turnout of 1 million people -- but were nonetheless the largest in months and showed that anti-American sentiments remain strong beneath the surface.
South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, who won election last year in part riding a crest of anti-Americanism, has tried to dampen such public displays since taking office in February. Members of the government published statements urging restraint in anticipation of the anniversary of the girls’ deaths. The U.S. military also held a memorial service for the girls, Shim Mi Son and Shin Hyo Sun, who were 13 at the time of their deaths.
The largest demonstration was in downtown Seoul, where about 20,000 gathered in front of City Hall for a memorial concert and then marched toward the U.S. Embassy.
Huge papier-mache effigies of the girls were erected in front of the concert stage, while some demonstrators also brought less-than-flattering effigies of President Bush. Others carried banners with slogans supporting North Korea.
“This is about North Korea. This is about Iraq. This is about the girls,” said Lee Seon Yu, a 37-year-old demonstrator who was draped in antiwar banners and buttons at the largest of the demonstrations in Seoul.
Some demonstrators expressed little interest in the girls and said they had come out of fear that the Bush administration’s tough stance toward North Korea in the crisis over nuclear weapons would lead to another Korean war.
“I like Americans -- really, I do. But I don’t want to see another Korean war,” said Park Wol Rim, an 85-year-old man who spoke fluent English and said he had worked with U.S. companies in South Korea’s postwar reconstruction.
The June 13 road accident near the demilitarized zone was one of those seemingly minor events that would later turn out to have lasting repercussions for South Korea.
The accident received little attention at the time, but the acquittals in November of two GIs in a military court on manslaughter charges unleashed years of pent-up resentment toward the United States and its troops here.
American officials say the subsequent demonstrations are at least partially responsible for the recent decision to relocate most of the 38,000 U.S. troops in South Korea to bases outside Seoul and away from the DMZ.