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From: azyssfwo@eqvhzi.org (Irina Ballard)
Subject: South Korea: acquittal of U.S. GIs fuels outrage
Newsgroups: soc.culture.african
Sender: Peter Burt
Message-ID: <1042662977.693886@news1.lynx.bc.ca>
Date: Wed, 15 Jan 2003 20:14:08 GMT

South Korea: acquittal of U.S. GIs fuels outrage

By Patrick O’Neill, posted on soc.culture.african newsgroup on 15 January 2003

The acquittal by a U.S. military court of two soldiers—charged with negligent homicide when their vehicle fatally crushed two schoolgirls—has sparked protest rallies, marches, and other widespread expressions of outrage. The anger at the U.S. government has reinforced the already deep popular sentiment in favor of reunification of Korea, whose partition for the past half century has been imposed by the tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed on the Korean peninsula.

Politicians in Seoul, reminded daily of the unpopularity of the U.S. presence and the widespread opposition to threats of U.S. military intervention, have publicly taken some distance from the Bush administration’s policy of tailored containment toward the workers state in north Korea.

The two girls were killed June 13 by a 50-ton mine-clearing vehicle involved in military exercises near the De-Militarized Zone that divides north from south. The great majority of the 37,000 U.S. soldiers in south Korea are stationed near the zone. Rapes, murders, and other crimes against Koreans perpetrated by U.S. troops have been the focus of past protests. Demonstrations, both at the time of the killings and now, have called for the scrapping of the State of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which places the U.S. troops beyond the reach of Korean authorities.

While some demonstrations were organized at the time of the deaths, the soldiers’ exoneration sparked much wider protests in the capital city of Seoul as well as Pusan, Kwangju and other south Korean cities. The outrage has found many different forms, from restaurant owners in Seoul who posted signs barring soldiers from their tables, to students who broke into an army camp on the outskirts of the city.

The government of President Kim Dae Jung was unprepared for the groundswell. The day before the announcement of the verdict a presidential security secretary dismissed demonstrators as a small group of radical people.

‘Wellspring of resentment’

Even the U.S. capitalist media, which often dismisses south Korean protesters as wild-eyed extremists, has reported a little bit of the real sentiments of millions, many of whom increasingly see Washington, not north Korea, as their biggest threat. New York Times correspondent Howard French reported December 23 that the protests have revealed a deep wellspring of resentment of the large United States military presence here and of what many South Koreans feel is their relegation to the role of barely listened-to junior partner.

At the same time, he acknowledged, feelings toward North Korea have softened.

Thousands of people rallied in downtown Seoul on New Year’s Eve, where more than 10,000 cops blocked the marchers’ planned route to the U.S. embassy. Min Keong-min, joining the rally with his two daughters, told a Reuters reporter that he was skeptical about Washington’s claims that north Korea has stockpiled nuclear weapons. If they do, he said, I don’t think north Korea is going to aim them at south Korea. The north probably built them to protect itself from the United States.

Choi Hee-byong, one of the organizers of the Seoul protest, told the Korea Times that participants were demanding a direct apology from the United States and a revision of the legal code governing U.S. troops here.

On the eve of the December 31 protest the south Korean government and the U.S. command scrambled to cosmetically amend the code, giving south Korean authorities an increased role in investigating abuses.

When it was first imposed in 1966, the SOFA gave U.S. soldiers virtually complete immunity from prosecution by Korean authorities. Two years ago Seoul was given jurisdiction over cases involving murder and rape charges against U.S. military personnel. The increased powers do not extend, however, to soldiers on official duties.

Opposing candidates in the recent presidential elections in the south called for the agreement’s revision, including the representative of the Grand National Party, which presented itself as closer to Washington in the campaign. It was Roh Moo Hyun, however—the candidate of Kim Dae Jung’s Millennium Democratic Party—who benefited electorally from the changed situation. Roh picked up support both through his declarations of sympathy for the protests and his pledges to continue Kim’s policy of negotiations with the government in the north. At the same time, he called for self-restraint on the part of the protesters.