In S. Korea, a Stubborn Stand Against U.S. Military Presence

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 21, 2006

DAECHURI, South Korea -- Here in the marshy heartland of the Korean Peninsula, the rabble-rousing rice farmers of this tiny village are engaged in their own little war against the U.S. military.

With American forces in the midst of their largest regional realignment in decades, the farmlands of Daechuri have been condemned to make room for the expansion of a nearby U.S. base. While about half the residents have quietly accepted a lucrative cash-for-land deal being offered by the South Korean government, a core group of about 70 holdouts have rebuffed all efforts to buy them out.

Their refusals to make way for the base -- or give in to what many of the farmers are calling "American bullying" -- have won them instant hero status among some South Korean labor unions and student groups. Over the past several weeks, protesters have held the largest anti-American demonstrations in South Korea in four years, turning Daechuri into a symbol of their struggle to drive U.S. troops out of the country.

"We are sick of being treated like America's servants!" said Cho Sun Yeh, a fiery 90-year-old rice farmer. Her first home in the area was bulldozed to make room for a U.S. base during the 1950-53 Korean War. After the uneasy truce that left the peninsula divided into capitalist South and communist North, Cho and her husband built a new house a few hundred yards from the base's barbed wire fences.

It is from this home that Cho and her extended family of 17 are refusing to budge. "I am thankful for what the U.S. did to save us from the communists back then, but that was a long time ago and we have paid them enough thanks," she said. "I gave my land up once already, and I am not about to do it again. It is time for the U.S. to leave us alone."

The last stand at Daechuri underscores the significant hurdles that analysts say could set back by years the Pentagon's broad plan to realign American forces in the Pacific.

State-of-the-art military technologies and shifting geopolitical concerns have convinced the Pentagon that it can do with fewer troops and bases in East Asia's largest host countries, South Korea and Japan. In some respects, that strategy is giving anti-American groups in both nations a dose of what they want. In South Korea, plans call for a 33 percent reduction in the U.S. force, to 25,000 troops, and a consolidation of 104 widely scattered military installations into 10 regional hubs by 2008. In Japan, home to more than 50,000 American troops, 8,000 of the 18,000 Marines now based on Okinawa island will be relocated to the American territory of Guam by 2014.

But even as U.S. troops disappear from some communities, their presence is set to increase in others, where they are hardly being welcomed with open arms. Vocal anti-American activists are seizing the moment, calling for protracted demonstrations, insisting the United States pay a larger portion of the realignment costs and supporting politicians who favor even greater troop and base reductions.

"Both Korea and Japan are facing a similar situation," said Seong Ho Sheen, an international relations professor at Seoul National University. "Anti-U.S. anger and resentment are always there, but now you find these groups seeking to use the realignment to bring those sentiments to the surface in both countries."

Sheen and others say demonstrators' efforts have so far met with limited success. Although the protests in and around Daechuri are South Korea's largest in years, they have yet to generate national momentum and still pale in comparison with the wave of anti-American demonstrations that swept the country in 2002. Then, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets after two teenage girls were run down and killed by a U.S. armored vehicle. The vehicle's two crew members were both acquitted of negligent homicide in a U.S. military court.

Recent opinion polls indicate that most South Koreans and Japanese still do not think it is time for the U.S. military to pack its bags entirely. Yet Asian and U.S. officials concede that the realignment is causing new friction -- particularly at the grass-roots level.

In Japan, the U.S. troop presence has been better tolerated than in most other host countries in Asia or Europe -- in part because the size and role of the country's own forces are limited by Japan's pacifist post-World War II constitution. But opposition has been fierce on a local level, particularly in Okinawa, home to the largest concentration of U.S. troops in the country.

That has been due in some part to crimes committed by U.S. servicemen stationed there and a sense that the American military operates above Japanese law. But opinion polls have shown that the huge costs Japan will bear as a result of the U.S. realignment are now generating resentment on a national level.

In recent weeks, Washington and Tokyo have reached broad agreement that Japan would shoulder nearly 60 percent -- or $6 billion -- of the cost of moving 8,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam. But in late April, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Richard P. Lawless shocked Japan by telling reporters in Washington that Tokyo's ultimate cost for the U.S. troop realignment could reach $26 billion.

"This used to be an Okinawa-only issue," said Teruo Onishi, an activist who helped organize a massive but peaceful demonstration against the U.S. military in Okinawa in March. "But now that the rest of Japan is seeing the huge amount we are being asked to pay, people are wondering whether it's really fair for Japanese tax dollars to fund the U.S. military's strategic objectives."

As part of the realignment in South Korea, the U.S. military will return 66 percent of the land it now occupies, including prime real estate in the heart of Seoul, the capital. Residents near the land vacated so far have expressed satisfaction with the drop in congestion and noise from military vehicles.

Still, officials in Seoul and Washington remain mired in tough negotiations over demands by South Korea's Environmental Ministry that the United States cover the costs of extensive and costly reforestation and cleanup.

U.S. officials in South Korea have declined to comment publicly on the anti-American demonstrations. In a statement, David Oten, a U.S. military spokesman in Seoul, said the United States remained "fully committed to completing consolidation as quickly as possible."

But the situation has tried the patience of some U.S. lawmakers. Last October, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) blasted South Korea for "historical amnesia." In a Senate hearing, Clinton added that South Koreans were losing their "understanding of the importance of our position there and what we have done over so many decades to provide them the freedom that they have enjoyed."

South Korean groups supporting the U.S. military presence have criticized the administration of President Roh Moo Hyun for taking too soft a line on the protesters at Daechuri, which is set to be absorbed by Camp Humphreys, the base that will become the new American command center in South Korea. The Seoul government has condemned violent protesters and made several dozen arrests. But it has also said that in a democracy, all voices, including anti-American ones, must be heard.

The holdouts have refused all incentives to leave -- including buyouts of about $170,000 per acre. Authorities say they plan to evict the farmers by force if they do not leave by October.

Farmer Cho says she will be waiting.

"This is my home," she said. "My memories are here, my life is here. I should not have to give that up for anyone."

Special correspondents Joohee Cho in Seoul and Sachiko Sakamaki in Tokyo contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company