SEOUL — A large banner depicting President Bush with snakes in his hair and missiles protruding from his mouth and ears hung behind the lectern, a fitting backdrop for a fierce anti-American diatribe.
"North Korea, Iran, Iraq. An 'axis of evil'? The core of evil is the United States of America," South Korean political activist Paik Ki Wan thundered to a standing-room-only crowd in downtown Seoul on Friday night. "This Bush is a liar, and in Korean custom we do not welcome liars in our homes. We should all rush to the airport and stop him from getting off the plane."
Despite efforts by South Korea's government to keep a lid on anti-American demonstrations, there is a strong undercurrent of resentment toward Bush's first visit here, which begins Tuesday. In anticipation of his arrival, students, religious groups and labor associations have held protests for the last several days.
Today, about 30 university students occupied the Seoul office of the American Chamber of Commerce, saying they wanted to distribute a statement opposing Bush's visit, Korean news reports said. The protesters said they would not leave until Bush apologized for his remarks on North Korea.
Employees fled the building and apparently were not injured, according to the reports. Police were attempting to remove the students.
Although most demonstrations have drawn 1,000 people or fewer, anti-American sentiments are being expressed by the decidedly mainstream. The popular afternoon newspaper Munhwa Ilbo ran a cartoon Saturday of the Statue of Liberty holding warplanes instead of a torch, while the moderate Korea Times opined that the U.S. anti-terror campaign appeared to be going in the wrong direction.
The criticism is surprising given that South Korea is considered among the most steadfast of U.S. allies. The two nations' ties were solidified when the U.S. intervened in the 1950-53 Korean War to repel an invasion by communist North Korea, backed by China. But increasingly, young South Koreans are asking whether, 50 years later, the United States has not become an obstacle to reconciliation with the North.
"Koreans do appreciate what the United States did for us. But now time has passed, and people are starting to think the United States is serving its own interests and not ours," said Shim Joon Hee, a 25-year-old business student who rallied Saturday with about 1,000 others in Seoul's Jongmyo Park.
The most recent source of controversy was Bush's declaration in his Jan. 29 State of the Union address that North Korea is part of an "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq.
The administration's hard line on North Korea runs counter to the "sunshine policy" of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts to open a dialogue with the North.
Despite reassurances from the White House to the contrary, many South Koreans interpreted Bush's speech to mean that the U.S. planned to go to war against North Korea. In an interview on South Korean TV over the weekend, Bush tried to reduce the tension, but the damage had been done. A survey by the ruling party found that South Koreans believed, by a margin of 3 to 2, that Bush's characterization of North Korea was inappropriate. Asked who was responsible for deteriorating relations between North Korea and the U.S., 38% blamed Washington, while 31% said Pyongyang.
"There is a big stream of anti-Americanism on campus, and with Bush's 'axis of evil' remark, it has reached the boiling point," said Shim, the business student.
Much of that sentiment is directed at the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. Plans to build additional housing for the troops at the Yongsan military base in Seoul have roused opposition from civic groups that complain that the U.S. military presence in the heart of the capital is an affront to national sovereignty.
Another case that has piqued anger involves an American civilian employee of the base who was indicted in April by a Korean court on charges of dumping a large quantity of formaldehyde down a sewer drain that flows into a river. The U.S. military has refused to turn over the employee, arguing that the Korean court lacks jurisdiction. The case has prompted regular protests outside the Yongsan base.
Student demonstrations in Seoul over the last few days have focused on reports that Bush is pressuring South Korea to buy U.S.-made F-15 fighter jets for its air force.
"It is the United States that has been promoting wars in order to serve their own interest in selling weapons," said protester Yoon Young Hee, 20, who was at the park.
Not even the U.S. role in the Korean War is sacred. A BBC documentary titled "Kill 'Em All," about an alleged massacre of refugees by U.S. troops in 1950, prompted calls this month for further investigations into the wartime record.