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Asia Thursday, 15 March, 2001, 11:05 GMT
US soldiers tread carefully in South Korea
A South Korean mural depicting anti-USA sentiment

By Jenny Walmsley

Saturday night in Itaewon, the entertainment district of South Korea's capital, Seoul: a blur of neon, and alcohol; pop music pouring from the bars, and chaotic traffic on the streets. A group of off-duty American soldiers enjoy the nightlife, socialising, drinking, chatting-up local women.

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They are part of the 37,000-strong US military contingent still stationed in South Korea more than fifty years after the outbreak of the Korean war. The American troops have, this last half century, been acknowledged as vital to peace on the peninsula, defending the Republic of Korea, from the Communist North. But now the soldiers in the bars can never completely relax - they are advised by the US military authorities to operate a "buddy system", and not go out alone, and it is not only North Communist spies who they are wary of nowadays.

A number of US military personnel have been attacked by South Koreans who object to their presence. South Korea is no longer an undeveloped agrarian backwater, but a major industrialised country. Wealth and urban development have brought the US forces into direct contact and conflict with the local population, creating a wave of social tensions.

Not far from Itaewon, the Yongsan U.S.military garrison sits on some of the most prime real estate in the capital. Nearby, a large red-light district has mushroomed where hundreds of bar girls ply their trade. They're social outcasts, despised in Korea for selling sex to foreigners. Some of the women are left pregnant, unable to prove their children's American paternity, and unable to claim support from the American authorities. Sometimes they suffer violence at the hands of their young American clients.

"Mrs Park", a former bargirl, who has turned to Saewoomtuh (Sprouting Land), a charity that provides practical and emotional help for these women, explains that some cases of violence are not reported for fear that the bars will be closed down. But, even when crimes have been reported, one of the greatest causes of resentment has been that the American servicemen involved in crimes have been able to seek refuge on their military bases, where the Korean authorities have had no jurisdiction.

The Status of Forces Agreement between the US and South Korea has regulated these issues since it was negotiated during the height of the Cold War, in 1966. Popular pressure has now forced amendments of SOFA. The Americans have made concessions in terms of their conduct and on issues of sovereignty. Lee Jiang Hee, a professor of Law at Hankuk university, explains that the murder of a waitress in 1992 sparked the campaign to revise the law.

Residents of old people's home in Mae Hyang Ri playing "Baduk"
But it is not only urban areas which have been affected by the US military presence. In Mae Hyang Ri, a small fishing village on the western coast of the country, residents have lived with the largest bombing range in Asia on their doorstep for five decades. At the old folks home, elderly villagers remember life before the Americans arrived. Initially they recognised the need for the American presence, now, however, they are bitter about how that presence has affected their way of life. They claim that several villagers have been killed or injured by ammunition; that their property has been damaged by the constant roar of fighter planes overhead, and that villager suffer psychological stress because of the noise and concerns about their safety.

They have been campaigning to have the range closed, and their demands attracted media attention in the Summer of 2000 when a US airplane jettisoned live ammunition near the village. Demonstrations have been fuelled by students and political activists bussed in from the capital.

This man claims he was hit by a stray bullet from a US chopper
The American military is being forced to respond to this kind of popular pressure. They have ceased low-angle strafing exercises at the range near Mae Hyang Ri. But they maintain that villagers are not in danger from military exercises as long as they observe safety warnings. But military command recognise the need to improve public perception of their role. They invite students and locals to visit their military bases, and encourage military personnel to become involved in community activities.

New US recruits to Yongsan military garrison on their first day in South Korea
Every day new recruits arrive in Korea from America to begin a one year tour of duty. Acclimatising them to the country and its culture is a major military concern. During induction briefings they are reminded of the history of the country, and given guidance on how to conduct themselves. They are warned about demonstrations outside the military bases and advised to avoid them. Colonel Samuel Taylor, the Public Affairs Officer for United States Forces in Korea, maintains that the battle is two-fold: to make servicemen aware of their responsibilities, and to explain the military mission to South Koreans.

The US mission has not changed. Political analysts are keen to emphasise that the military threat from North Korea continues and that South Korea's strategic military position means discussion of US military withdrawal is premature.

Jeon Jae Wook, foreign policy advisor to the main opposition party, though recognising legitimate concerns about the negative impact of US military presence, believes that criticism should not be allowed to undermine the drive for unification on the peninsula. Like the new Bush administration in the United States, he believes it is important that the South not make too many unilateral concessions without efforts on the part of North Korea to reduce military tensions.

A woman preparing "Kimchi", an immensely popular Korean delicacy
Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: how Kimchi, a dish of fermented, heavily spiced vegetables, is a national food obsession, and a meeting with the man who broke the bank in Korea's recent economic crisis, and now works as a waiter.

Hear former bargirl, 'Mrs Park'
reveal how some crimes by US soldiers were often left unreported
Listen in on a US military induction briefing
warning American soldiers about their behaviour
Opposition politician Jeon Jae Wook
explains how anti-American sentiment started in South Korea
See also:

08 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
13 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
12 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
22 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
01 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
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