Korean protests against US troops grow louder

An investigation of a bombing at a US firing range south of Seoul finds no wrongdoing.

Five days a week for the past 49 years, American warplanes have bombed a little island not one mile from Chon Man Kyu's home. And after years of complaining about the shock waves and noise from the training facility, Mr. Chon finally has the South Korean government's attention - as well as a lot of company in his crusade against US troops in Korea.

On May 8, an A-10 attack plane dropped six 500-pound bombs to lighten its load after losing an engine near the US bombing and strafing range. In Maehyang-ri, about 50 miles south of the capital, villagers say 558 houses and several people were injured. Residents have filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for decades of suffering, and threaten to occupy the range to prevent the resumption of bombing exercises.

As chairman of a committee against the US bombing range, Mr. Chon is the village diehard opposing the troops. But in the past few months, Koreans have had a growing list of reasons for their anti-American sentiment. Before South Korea's transition to democracy began in 1987, the government simply ignored the villagers' complaints. But with the growing strength and organizational power of civic groups here, the outcry has escalated.

In April, a US soldier charged with the murder of a waitress in Seoul temporarily escaped custody. Already shaken by a Pulitzer Prize-winning news story that US troops massacred civilians during the Korean War at No Gun Ri, Koreans have protested at the US Embassy, increasing demands for revisions to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that defines the rights of the 37,000 US troops here. South Korea and the US will consider changes to the SOFA after the June 12 to 14 inter-Korean summit.

In Maehyang-ri, the residents feel "uneasy psychologically" and have less enthusiasm for life, says Chon. Raising livestock here is impossible. Because the rice paddies and fishing grounds within the range are off limits on weekdays, the village suffers economically too, he says.

Rumors even spread that the US might be using depleted uranium bullets at the bombing range, a claim the US military denies, saying the armor-piercing bullets aren't used on practice targets. An environmental group reported that soil within the range contained heavy metals in concentrations far beyond safe levels. The Defense Ministry says it will conduct an environmental impact assessment with the US.

Yesterday, South Korean and American officials concluded there was no evidence of damage or injury caused by the May 8 bombing. They said that the bombs were dropped into the sea, 2 kilometers from the village - too far away to cause damage.

On an earlier visit to Maehyang-ri, officials explained that the pilot followed procedures. "It's unfortunate there was a malfunction of the aircraft, but ... we did the safe thing," says a US military spokesman.

South Korean officials have proposed to relocate the village, but in the past offered a pittance for the villagers' land, says Chon. He believes the military actually prizes having the village nearby because it makes the practice runs more realistic for pilots. Chon wants high-level American and South Korean officials to come here to make a public apology and close down the range.

Moving the bombing range is unrealistic, say officials. In an Indiana-size, mountainous nation of 45 million, spare land is a rare commodity. Because it involves national security, the range is probably there to stay. Pilots must practice to maintain a credible military deterrent against North Korea.

But if given a good deal, probably 100 percent of residents would move, says Chon. He hasn't relocated because this is his home. Like other villagers, he lacks skills or the savings to go elsewhere. Besides, being descended from 11 generations of fishermen, he figures he can outlast the US military.

As one farmer says, "When times were hard, the US gave us lots of help." But people are tired of the noise and "nowadays, they think more about the quality of life."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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