S. Koreans hold pro-USFK rally near Osan base
OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — More than 400 South Koreans gathered outside this American air base Wednesday to support the U.S. military and call for an end to North Korea’s nuclear-arms development.
The rally was an oddity following a month with tens of thousands of anti-American protesters filling the capital’s streets demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops and a revision of the legal guidelines governing servicemembers in South Korea’s legal system.
The catalyst was the acquittal of two U.S. soldiers who were manning an Armored Vehicle Launched Mine Clearing Line Charge that crushed to death two 13-year-old South Korean girls in a June 13 convoy accident. Activists wanted the soldiers tried in the South Korean legal system, but the status of forces agreement between the countries gives U.S. officials primary jurisdiction over crimes committed by on-duty troops.
Violent protests rocked the nation’s streets when the soldiers were acquitted in late November. Critics called the trial a sham, and protest groups declared war against U.S. Forces Korea.
At Wednesday’s rally, speakers said they want their government to put an end to the “instigators who are trying to split … the alliance between the United States and Korea.”
Song Yong-in said the June accident was tragic but shouldn’t be used for political purposes.
“I heard the families each got 200 million won [about $169,000] for compensation,” he said. “What else do they need?
“We should mourn for the dead girls, but we shouldn’t let it be used by some instigators working for North Korea.”
Song said the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country would lead to a “second Korean War.”
Organizers from The Assembly of Pyongtaek Citizens also called for president-elect Roh Moo-hyun to shun President Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy,” which stresses peaceful engagement via economic assistance and diplomatic favors.
So Sok-ku, a lawyer, told the audience, bundled up in winter coats in the frigid weather, that Kim’s policy doesn’t work.
“President Kim … insisted on the Sunshine Policy, and we had to follow it since he said it was for peaceful unification, but what happened? His policy is taking off South Koreans’ coats and make us shiver with this cold,” So said.
“We are in serious danger right now. I heard that I should not attend this rally if I want to live, but I’m here to sacrifice my own life for the security and democracy of this country.
“This government knew three years ago that North Korea was developing nuclear weapons, but they still offered economic aids even after they knew of the ongoing schemes.”
The base gates remained open during the rally and U.S. troops could be seen walking in and out of the installation, a marked difference from procedure during anti-base protests.
In a written response to a Stars and Stripes query, Brig. Gen. William L. Holland, 51st Fighter Wing commander, said, “I think the pro-American demonstration finally represents the majority and not the vocal minority of the Korean people.
“They are expressing that they understand the military’s mission is to protect the security, safety and stability of all Koreans, whether they know this or not.”
Air Force Staff Sgt. Justin Parker threaded his way through the crowded sidewalks toward the front gate.
“I respect what they’re doing,” Parker said. “It’s good to see people of this country still have our back.”
The crowd roared its approval during more than two hours of speeches, waving the flags and chanting “long live Korea” and “long live the Korea-U.S. alliance.”
Most told Stripes they agreed with what they were hearing.
“We can’t beat North Korea if war occurs, and I know the hardships of war and the probable situation we’re facing,” said 51-year-old Han Du-hui, who works on base. “We shouldn’t trust North Korea yet.”
Choe Sung-kyu of the Casey Lee tailor shop said most of his customers are U.S. servicemembers. He thinks the overall South Korean economy would suffer if the United States withdrew from South Korea.
“We may have to pay more taxes, and we can’t defend ourselves,” he said. “If there was a boycott of Korean products in the [United] States, we’d be in serious economic trouble.
“I experienced the Korean War, and there are a lot of things … young Korean people do not understand about wars.”
Many speakers called the nation’s youth to task for the recent swell of anti-Americanism.
Han Sang-chol, a 30-year-old base employee, wasn’t happy with the criticism.
“I’m against the withdrawal of USFK, but I can’t really agree with what the speakers are saying,” he said while leaving the rally. “Not every young person is really immature and violent.
“I guess they just ignore what young people are talking about,” he added, referring to the rally speakers. “I felt really bad. I did my military service, so I know how important USFK is here.”
One man jumped on stage toward the end of the rally and told the audience he was so angry that he wanted to write a message in his own blood.
Chong Jin-mo knelt on stage and bit the end of his finger, drawing blood. While another man held a sheet of paper, Chong squeezed blood from the wound and wrote, “Oppose the withdrawal of USKF,” in smeared red Korean letters. The crowd chanted his name, and he held the paper triumphantly above his head.
As the rally ended, leaders burned a huge sign depicting North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, clutching a nuclear missile. Two former South Korean marines also burned a North Korean flag.