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South Korean Forces Clash With Protesters Over Future U.S. Base

More than 200 people are injured as a coalition of activists joins area residents in the most violent anti-American demonstration in years.

May 05, 2006|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — After a day of fighting that left more than 200 people injured, South Korean forces Thursday evening secured the site of a future U.S. military base with water cannons, helicopters and bulldozers.

But the surprisingly violent clashes could set the stage for strained relations between American forces and the community where the U.S. military plans to build its new headquarters.

More than 3,000 South Korean soldiers and riot police officers, many armed with truncheons, clashed with about 1,000 demonstrators at the site in Pyeongtaek, 40 miles south of Seoul, beginning at 5 a.m. Thursday.

The protesters had barricaded themselves in a shut-down elementary school in an attempt to stop the clearing of the site. By nightfall they had been evicted, the school demolished and the site roped off by 18 miles of razor-wire fencing.

"We were crushed and trampled by the South Korean military -- all for the sake of America," said Lee Seong-rip, a protester and staffer for the Democratic Labor Party. "It is a very dark day for Korea."

The U.S. military headquarters in Seoul is expected to be relocated south to the area around Pyeongtaek by 2008. It had been hoped that the move from the capital would ease the long-standing resentment among some South Koreans of the U.S. troops. But anger grew in Pyeongtaek over the need to demolish several sparsely populated farming villages and to clear rice paddies to make way for the new facilities next to an existing base, Camp Humphreys.

About 100 residents of the villages, many of them elderly, were joined in the protest by a broad coalition of activists from anti-military, student, labor and agricultural organizations. South Korean officials accused outside agitators of orchestrating the violence.

"It is unacceptable that some opponents of this national project are taking advantage of local residents by turning it into a political battle," South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung said.

U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow called the protesters a minority who are "out of step" with the sentiments of most residents of the area.

"Most of the people in the community ... are looking forward to the arrival" of the U.S. base, Vershbow said in an interview in Los Angeles, citing its economic benefits.

Overall, he said, the move of the military headquarters from downtown Seoul to Pyeongtaek is an important part of the U.S. effort to "lower our profile" in South Korea and thereby "make it more sustainable politically."

Lee Sung-heon, a spokesman for the activists, said that about 100 people were still being treated in area hospitals as of Thursday night, mostly for head and leg injuries. "They hit us with their sticks and shields," Lee said.

Although U.S. troops were not directly involved in the clash, an American official, who asked not to be quoted by name, said there were fears that any deaths or serious injuries from the incident could inflame resentment against the U.S. It was the most violent anti-American demonstration in South Korea in several years.

A showdown had been brewing for weeks, with activists planting rice seeds and the South Korean military attempting to block irrigation canals with poured concrete. The Defense Ministry had warned on Wednesday that authorities intended to clear the site, and hundreds of activists came from Seoul, some armed with bamboo poles, to defend their ground.

Times staff writer David Lauter in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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