SEOUL — Business owners outside Osan Air Base say speculation the U.S. Army may move its peninsula-wide headquarters to their area may result in more anti-American protests.

But Casey Lee, Songtan Chamber of Commerce chairman, is warning protesters to stay out of his area and away from his American customers.

A handful of businessmen informally formed a “special strike force” about five years ago to block sporadic protests against America and the U.S. military, Lee said.

He said the group saw a need to form officially about a year ago as anti-U.S. protests became increasingly violent and frenzied after two 13-year-old South Korean girls were crushed to death by a U.S. military convoy. During the angry summer and fall, protesters attacked U.S. soldiers and illegally entered and firebombed U.S. installations across the peninsula.

The protests faded early this year, as North Korean rhetoric became increasingly threatening and as South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun pushed for less anti-U.S. sentiment. But with the recent announcement that Yongsan Garrison will be moved out of the heart of Seoul “as quickly as possible,” Lee fears the worst.

He said 200 of the roughly 500 merchants outside the base now belong to his strike force — but participation will swell if protesters, mainly college-age, target the Songtan area again.

The shopping area outside Osan is well-known across the Pacific. Daily military flights from Okinawa and mainland Japan bring base community members searching for hand-tailored suits, leather jackets, customized satin sheets and “mink” blankets.

Lee said his group watches what’s happening and takes advantage of South Korea’s Congregation and Demonstration Law, which prevents opposing groups from holding rallies at the same spot.

Last August, the businessmen learned that anti-American protesters were planning a rally outside Osan’s main gate. They beat the protest group to the punch and requested a permit to rally outside the gate with a pro-America message. The anti-base group was forced to stand about 500 yards away, with hundreds of Korean National Police separating the groups.

Lee said his goal is to prevent violence.

“We have a rule not to hurt anyone,” he said. “We … push people and sometimes swear to threaten, but no violence is allowed.”

But confrontations between the businessmen and the protesters often turn ugly.

At last August’s protest, Lee told Stars and Stripes he was keeping a close eye on his people, who, armed with sticks, wanted to battle the protesters. When a small delegation of college students approached the businessmen to talk, several shop owners were physically restrained from attacking the students.

And when a small group of protest leaders was allowed to approach the base’s gate, a brawl erupted but quickly was snuffed by Korean National Police.

Lee also recalled a confrontation with about 300 students from the Korean Federation of University Student Councils. He said his shopkeepers prevented the students from getting out of their vehicles.

“We even cut off their megaphone line they were using to voice their opinions,” he said.

He said his group will install a loudspeaker so leaders can call business owners quickly in an emergency.

The leader of one of the anti-military groups questioned the legality of Lee’s strike force.

“Stopping anti-American protesters wouldn’t be democratic,” said Lee So-hui, a manager with the National Campaign for Eradication of Crimes by U.S. Troops in Korea. “If the rally is legal, and if the rally should be stopped for some reason, it should be done by South Korean policemen, not by those people. They should take a legal route.”

But he also said he understands the business owners’ motivation.

“For them, it is [a] pretty natural reaction,” Lee said. “It may be a matter of life and death as … most customers are coming from a U.S. base. They probably have mixed feeling toward U.S. troops. Even if they don’t like them, they have to live with them to survive.”

Local police officials, contacted by Stripes on Wednesday, said they knew nothing about the businessmen’s group.

Col. Gregg Sanders, 51st vice wing commander at Osan, provided a written response to a Stripes query.

Casey Lee “continues to be an avid supporter of the Republic of Korea-United States Alliance, the U.S. military and family members,” Sanders wrote.

He said Lee was honored as Osan’s Good Neighbor of the Year.

But “there are some citizens who use their legal right in this democratic society to voice opposition to the American forces being here in Korea,” Sanders wrote.

“Although we don’t like to hear that some of our neighbors are not pleased with us being here, we aren’t opposed to their right to protest, as long as they do it safely, and don’t cause harm to us or themselves.”

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