PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — A large rally protesting the U.S. military’s presence in South Korea passed peacefully Sunday in downtown Pyeongtaek, as did a fervent pro-U.S. counter-demonstration in another part of the city, South Korean police reported.
About 4,500 demonstrators, according to police estimates, rallied outside the Pyeongtaek train station to protest the American plan to move forces to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek. A group called The Pan-Korean National Task Force Against Expansion of U.S. Bases in Pyeongtaek organized the protest.
The Korean National Police and Camp Humphreys officials had braced for possible large-scale violence Sunday, but the task force stuck with its previously stated plan of holding a peaceful protest outside the train station and the Pyeongtaek city hall.
“We feel very relieved not to have any violent scenes be brought about at today’s rallies,” said Pyeongtaek police Sgt. Kim Hwang-ok.
Camp Humphreys is to triple in size by 2008 and become the main U.S. military installation in South Korea. U.S. forces currently in and north of Seoul will relocate to Humphreys under an agreement between the United States and South Korea.
The KNP marshaled about 6,000 officers at the train station, in the commercial heart of downtown Pyeongtaek. It also stationed more than 1,300 officers outside Camp Humphreys on the chance that the demonstrators might depart from their stated plans and rally at the installation.
The demonstration began around 2 p.m. and ended around 6 p.m.
On July 10, the task force assembled some 7,000 demonstrators from around South Korea for a rally in the rice fields just outside the Camp Humphreys perimeter.
That day saw intense close-quarters clashes between South Korean police officers and some protesters armed with pipes and sticks. Demonstrators hauled down a section of the camp fence line. Police reported 60 officers injured; protesters later said many of their number were also injured, and accused police of excessive force.
Task Force leader Kim Yong-han has told Stars and Stripes that the group opposes the Humphreys expansion because it will displace rice farmers who have lived near the installation for generations. And, the group contends, the installation’s expansion will alarm North Korea and thereby risk another war between North and South Korea, among other reasons for the group’s opposition, Kim has said.
“We recognize the Korean citizens’ right to express their opinions,” Maj. Brodrick J. Bailey, a U.S. Forces Korea spokesman, said Sunday night. “It’s their freedom of expression and we recognize and respect their right to do that.”
Kim Yong-han was not immediately available for comment Sunday night.
In a show of support for the U.S. military Sunday, the Korean Veterans Association and Songtan Chamber of Commerce held a rally that drew a crowd police estimated at about 4,000 outside the main gate of Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek’s Songtan section.
The veterans urged support for the U.S. military’s presence on the peninsula and its planned relocation of forces to Humphreys. They also denounced the anti-American activist movement in South Korea, which they said imperiled their country’s security.
More than 700 KNP officers were positioned outside the air base during the veterans’ rally, which began at 2 p.m. and ended around 3:30 p.m. Most of the demonstrators were men and women who appeared to be in their 50s, 60s and 70s, though some looked in their 40s and 30s.
It was a scene of ardent denunciations of anti-American sentiment in South Korea and of groups like the Task Force.
As the rally ended, about 10 demonstrators set fire to a North Korean flag, but KNP officers extinguished the fire and dispersed the group after a brief shoving match.
A Stars and Stripes reporter was approached repeatedly by veterans and other middle-aged South Koreans who wanted American readers to be assured of South Korea’s support for the U.S. military.
“Most of Korean people are with you,” said Sung Ho-kyoung, 70, a resident of Anyang City who said he witnessed North Korean atrocities as a teenager during the Korean War of 1950-53.
“Let your people know that,” he told the reporter. “And don’t let your government … push to withdraw your troops from Korea. Let your people know that. Please!”
“We need the American troops … because we must keep the peace and freedom [on the] Korean Peninsula,” said Lee Seung-ro, 55, of Seoul.
K.C. Lee, president of the Songtan Chamber of Commerce, said during remarks from a speaker’s platform that the community welcomes the U.S. military’s move to Pyeongtaek.
“My dear American friends, we want you to be here,” Lee said in Korean and in English.
Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this report.