Dozens of South Koreans took to the streets of Washington, DC Thursday in support of small farmers forced to relocate to make way for a massive new U.S. military base in their country. President George W. Bush was meeting with his South Korean counterpart just steps away in the White House at the time.
On Tuesday, it took 10,000 South Korean police to dislodge the protesting farmers.
"They are elderly farmers," Kyo So of the group Korean Americans Against War and Neoliberalism pleaded from the protest outside the White House.
"They have been living there for many years. They turned the old wetlands into arable farmland. They raised their children there. They don’t want to move."
The US military is increasingly unpopular in South Korea.
Outside the US base about 40 miles south of Seoul, protesters painted "NO USA" on buildings and stood on rooftops in a brief attempt to stop construction crews from tearing down about 90 homes.
Police had blockaded roads leading into the township, preventing more protesters from entering the area. Helicopters kept an eye on the protesters.
"The government says they’ll move the rest by October, but the sentiment in Korea is that the government is going too far and is using too much force. They are very angry with the government," So added.
The US military plans to build new facilities on the farmers’ land in order to improve quality of life for American soldiers stationed in Korea. According to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, those amenities include a new fitness center "complete with a gym, indoor pool, running track, and four-story parking garage."
In addition to an eight-lane, 25-meter indoor swimming pool, the center will feature a 626-foot indoor running track; separate rooms for cardio fitness, circuit training, free weights, and group exercise; basketball and racquetball courts; a martial arts training room; and climbing walls, the newspaper added.
The confrontation and construction is part of a larger redeployment of the 35,000-strong US troop presence in Korea. Under the terms of an agreement between Washington and Seoul, American troops are being moved away from major population centers and the North Korean border.
Paradoxically, observers say, that could increase the likelihood of war on the Korean Peninsula.
"It’s an offensive move," argued George Katsiaficas, a researcher at Harvard University’s Korea Institute and president of the Peace Island Foundation. "It takes American forces out of the range of North Korean artillery and creates a situation where the United States could attack North Korea without Americans necessarily being directly threatened in the immediate counter attack."
Katsiaficas doesn’t believe war with North Korea is imminent, but he sees the redeployment of US troops in South Korea as part of a larger strategy by the Bush administration.
"Right now the governments of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea are all preparing for a US attack," Katsiaficas added. "They all believe a US attack is coming because the neoconservatives in Washington are pursuing a very aggressive military policy. The Iranians are preparing for an attack modeled on Israel’s attack on Lebanon. So the North Koreans would be remiss not to consider this realignment as a way for the US to position itself in a way so that it could make such an attack."
The South Korean government supported the redeployment as a way to minimize contact between Korean civilians and US soldiers, who have committed high profile rapes and killings in recent years.
The South Korean government is also endorsing the troop shift in order to leverage more authority over its own military, which has been under US command since the Korean war ended more than 50 years ago.
It’s that quest that brought South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun to Washington this week. Roh has pushed for regaining wartime control by 2012 as part of efforts to bolster the country’s self-defense posture. The Bush administration responded that it would prefer the United States hands over control as early as 2009, presumably freeing Washington to focus on military priorities in other areas of the world.
That plan is under attack by the right in Korea.
Before South Korea’s president left for Washington, a group from South Korea’s main opposition Grand National Party staged a sit-in in front of the National Assembly building, calling on Roh to withdraw his transfer plan during the summit with US President George W. Bush.
A few dozen Korean Americans protested the handover plan outside the South Korean consulate in Honolulu this week as well, arguing that the move would leave South Korea vulnerable to an attack from the North.