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OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — Outgoing South Korean President Kim Dae-jung told U.S. and South Korean airmen recently that a majority of South Koreans support the U.S. military presence.

“They do not wish for a full withdrawal of U.S. forces,” said Kim, who leaves office in February after a five-year term. “Withdrawal of U.S. troops is being called for by a very small minority and will disappear with the dissipation of public support.”

Kim visited the South Korean Air Force Operations Command on Dec. 27 at Osan Air Base, where he was joined by U.S. Air Force officers during the hour-long tour. He visits South Korean and U.S. troops at the end of each year, according to officials.

“The combined defense posture is all the more important as the status of South-North relations is not one of peace,” he said. “When I delivered this message to the people, there was no dissent.”

But Kim did say South Koreans are seeking a different approach with the U.S. military.

“The Korean people desire a mature evolution of relations between our two countries, including a sincere apology for the training accident that led to the schoolgirls’ death and the SOFA issue,” he said.

Because of the close military relationship, South Korea has become a first-class nation, Kim said, and is a major information technology power.

“I will speak with pride and dignity to President Bush as the ROK-U.S. combined defense posture is needed for peace on the Korean peninsula, stability in northeast Asia and for preserving the lives of the Korean people and its armed forces,” he added.

U.S. and South Korean relations have been strained over the past seven months.

Violent protesters have thrown Molotov cocktails, rushed gates and clipped fences during demonstrations.

Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea’s president-elect, campaigned for a fairer relationship with the U.S. military, but just days after the election told protesters to cool off. While sometimes bashing the United States during the campaign, Roh has backed off his strong language and encouraged both countries to cooperate on issues such as the status of forces agreement.

On Monday, Roh called for the South Korean military to set up a contingency plan to offset any U.S. troop reduction. He indicated the United States has considered trimming forces in the past and said the issue is “coming up again,” but he gave no indication how he learned that.

“President’s Kim’s comments were a direct affirmation of the important role the ROK-U.S. military alliance has played in preserving the rights and liberties of a free democratic society here in the Republic of Korea,” USFK Commander Gen. Leon LaPorte wrote in a statement to Stars and Stripes. “The president expressed his appreciation for the commitment and dedication of our military forces that allow the people to feel safe as they go through the routines of their daily lives, and as they execute their basic rights as citizens of a democracy as observed in the recent presidential election.

“President Kim also spoke passionately about the economic prosperity of this great country and the peace and stability that makes that prosperity possible,” LaPorte wrote. “He made it clear he views the ROK-U.S. alliance as essential for our mutual national interests and that the majority of the Korean citizens view the presence of U.S. forces here in Korea in the same way.

“The president’s words of respect and admiration for the efforts of our combined military defense team were uplifting and important to the morale of our service members and their families.”

Maj. Timothy Dunster, commander of the 607th accounting and finance squadron, appreciated the respect Kim showed the armed forces.

“With everything that has been going on with the election and with the court case, it was a really nice gesture on his part not just to visit a Korean base but also invite some Americans to see him,” said Dunster, who shook hands with Kim and posed for a picture.

Col. P.K. White, commander of the 51st operations group, said the alliance with South Korea is one of America’s strongest.

“I thought [the speech] was great,” White said. “Honestly, we’ve had some fairly challenging times here on the peninsula since the death of the two girls. To have the president come out and kind of affirm the military alliance … was certainly helpful.”

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