Anti-US voices surge in streets of a major Asian ally

Anger over military accident leads to huge South Korean protest of US troop presence.

Three men sporting "anti-US buttons" huddle behind a downtown bank. They are braving freezing weather to make candleholders for a protest one block over that drew 40,000 Koreans - the largest demonstration ever against US troops on the peninsula.

All three men, employed by the bank, are in their 30s. None accepts President Bush's apology by telephone Friday to President Kim Dae Jung for the deaths of two 14-year-old girls in a military accident. Two US soldiers were recently acquitted on charges stemming from the incident, which has become a seemingly unquenchable source of anti-US feeling for Koreans under 40.

"I'm anti-Bush, and I'm anti-US," says one. "What we want is an official apology from Bush, not a phone call. We want the US out of Korea. Then the North and the South can unify and make a strong nation."

Such sentiment among younger generations continues to reach new levels of expression in this major Pacific ally - at least prior to presidential elections Thursday. Those elections, the first in five years, will bring to high office one of two very different candidates - one pro-US, one less so - who will shape the status of a 50-year US presence here, as well as approaches to the isolated state of North Korea.

The protest started mid-Saturday with about 5,000, swelled to a police estimate of 40,000 by 7 p.m., and seemed to include a cross section of mainstream Seoul. Students waved "Yankee Go Home Flags." Families with small children holding candles listened as a Korean girl band sang lyrics tailored for the occasion with refrains like "Bush apologize!" Protesters clustered under flags ranging from feminist associations to Tae kwan do clubs and chanted "Down, down, USA."

Largely organized by hundreds of politically left "civic groups" through the Internet, and duplicated in some 70 cities around the South, the crowd in Seoul moved from the holiday-festooned city hall plaza, through police blockades, to the statue of ancient General Lee Soon-shin - which is within shouting distance of the US Embassy.

Younger riot police, wandering through the city afterward, admitted they let the protesters through, "since many of us do feel sympathy with them, and we weren't going to let them go all the way to the [US] Embassy," as one put it.

Anti-US sentiment here reflects a complicated mix of emotions and aims. It draws largely from a Korean desire to feel unified as a nation. Koreans feel great pride in their economic surge, their world-beating computer-chip industry, and their skill in sports on the world stage - all coming from a nation of only 48 million. Thus, Koreans want "equal treatment" with the US on their own soil and a renegotiation of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) governing the terms of US troop presence.

The sentiment also feeds off local leftist politics, often pro-North, that are popular among younger people. In addition, many Koreans refer to a global perception of US "arrogance," that has run high as the Bush administration lays plans for a regime change in Iraq.

But the deaths of two Korean girls this June provided a focal point for long-dormant national and cultural feelings. Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-son were crushed by a 57-ton tank during exercises near the DMZ. Two soldiers were driving the tank, which travels at about 15 mph; one of the drivers was talking with his company commander and did not hear a warning, according to a South Korean investigation.

Originally the US had no plan to prosecute the soldiers, calling it an accident that fell under civil law. But the South Korea justice department requested the soldiers be turned over to face criminal charges in a Korean court. After Korean outrage, the US agreed to try the soldiers under military tribunal.

US officials say Korean press coverage was biased - accusing the US of brushing aside the incident too quickly. By mid-fall every US official from the base commander to Secretary of State Colin Powell had expressed regret. But official sorrow never kept pace with convulsing tides of popular argument here. Two weeks ago, feelings went sky-high after the military tribunal acquitted the two tank drivers. A majority of younger Koreans interviewed at the rally say they feel the US soldiers deliberately ran over the girls, offering several conspiracy theories for this view.

Much of the organization behind the rally seemed to come from professional activists with pro-North Korea backing and political parties like the communist-leaning Korean Democratic Labor Party (KDLP), whose workers were out early Saturday helping with sound equipment and staging. Top KDLP official Kim Bae Gon started off the event with a series of hard-hitting questions, such as "How many lives will the US take away from the Korean people?"

Korea has a culture of public protests. On any given Sunday, Seoul echoes with chants for government workers rights, immigrants visas, and other demands. But Saturday's rally was the biggest since the World Cup, which itself was the biggest since 1987. "The World Cup obliterated the fear of gathering together as Koreans," says Kong Too-chun, a law student at Seoul National University. "People had plaza-phobia, but no more. I think the fear of making anti-US rallies is also leaving."

Still, there is a real question about how deep the anti-US sentiment goes - one that may in part be answered by Thursday's election. "So many of us don't think this way. I want this to be understood," says social worker Peter Kim. "We think this is just foolish, it isn't mature. We can't just rewrite the SOFA agreement. We think this is tied up with sympathy for North Korea."

Still, the size of the emerging anti-American sentiments has grown so quickly since the US tribunal that now all the main presidential candidates say they support a rewriting of SOFA.

Moreover, the political atmosphere created by the protests may benefit the ruling Millennium Party candidate Roh Moo-hyun, since it will bring out younger voters who often ignore Korean politics. Mr. Roh, heir of current President Kim Dae Jung, takes a softer line toward North Korea and has been less critical of anti-US troop sentiments.

The protest may also undercut the bounce that main opposition candidate Lee Hoi-chang hopes to gain by North Korea's threat last week to restart its nuclear program and halt international surveillance of sensitive plutonium fuel rods. Mr. Lee is considered to advocate a tougher stance toward the North, and to be more pro-Bush administration.

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