Anti-Americanism returning in Korea

50 years after war, U.S. troop presence produces frictions

June 24, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SEOUL, South Korea - The U.S. military police stationed at the crest of "Hooker Hill" weren't enough to save Kim Sung Hi.

When the 31-year-old prostitute refused to have sex with Army Spc. Christopher McCarthy earlier this year, the American soldier beat her to death in the back of the New Amazon Club, one of the many bars that line this notorious red-light district in central Seoul.

Hundreds of U.S. servicemen jam the steep, narrow street on weekend nights, often pummeling each other in fistfights and occasionally smashing store signs and breaking beer bottles on cars, merchants say. Kim is the third prostitute to die at the hands of a U.S. serviceman in South Korea since 1992.

"I'm afraid when I meet an American on a lonely street," said a 29-year-old woman who runs a shop near the New Amazon and declined to give her name. Two years ago, she said, a drunken soldier tried to strangle her boss and bit him on the face, leaving gashes that required more than 10 stitches.

As South Korea prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War tomorrow, anti-Americanism is on the rise again.

Earlier this month, a crowd of about 1,000 tore down razor-wire fencing and battled riot police at the U.S. Air Force's Koon Ni range, where local residents have blamed bombing and strafing practice runs for excessive noise, damage and injuries.

Last year, the Associated Press reported that American soldiers slaughtered Korean villagers in the early days of the Korean War.

This month's successful summit between North and South Korean leaders has some questioning the future of the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed here to protect the country.

"Personally, I feel they should go," said Park Hang Joo, a 29-year-old environmentalist who organizes protests at the bombing range. "I believe South Korea has the capability to defend the south."

Park, though, seems to be in the minority. Despite widespread frustration with the privileged status of American troops, many South Koreans have a deep appreciation for what they did during the war. Most don't want them to leave - at least not yet.

"I think the American forces should continue to be here as long as the two nations are divided," said Chung Ju Ha, a 42-year-old autoworker whose father died fighting the North Koreans in 1953. "Only after the unification of the two Koreas will I think about the withdrawal of American servicemen."

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, visiting Seoul yesterday, said a troop withdrawal now would be "inappropriate and premature."

The relationship between the United States and South Korea is close and complex.

As the Americans tried to manage the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, two U.S. colonels literally divided the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel in a 30-minute session without any Korean involvement. The advancing Soviet Union took the north; the United States got the south.

When North Korea attacked to reunify on June 25, 1950, American troops came to the south's defense, waging a war that would leave millions dead or injured.

In the following decades, the United States angered many South Koreans by supporting authoritarian regimes in Seoul to counter the Stalinist government in Pyongyang.

It was against that historical backdrop that demonstrators attacked the U.S. Air Force base this month, after a plane was forced to drop six 500-pound bombs before making an emergency landing. Villagers said the force of the explosions damaged homes and injured people, although a joint Korean-U.S. investigation found no evidence of either.

Environmentalists and critics of the United States seized on the incident to rally protests at the base near the village of Maehyang Ri, about 50 miles southwest of Seoul.

Local residents say practice sessions have caused headaches and cracked walls and contributed to the death of nine people, including a pregnant woman who died in 1967 after she was hit by shrapnel.

"I was eating my breakfast, and I first thought it was an earthquake, so we jumped out of the house," said Park Jang Sun, a 65-year-old fisherman, describing the emergency bomb-drop in May. "I understand the need for having this place, but ... we have suffered for so many years."

After a long lull, small anti-U.S. protests have sprung up recently around the American Embassy in Seoul, although longtime Korea watchers say they can't compare to the violent clashes in past decades.

"I'm not saying we can ignore criticism," said a U.S. diplomat here, but "in the '70s and '80s, you'd have had thousands of people."

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