By Michael Abramowitz and Stella Kim
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
SEOUL, Aug. 6 -- As President Bush rode a motorcade out of Seoul air base on Tuesday night, he was greeted by hundreds of people waving South Korean and American flags and signs announcing "Friends Forever." But in downtown parts of the capital, anti-Bush protests drew thousands of marchers, and police used water cannons to keep them at bay.
U.S. officials portrayed the protests as a sign of vitality in one of Asia's largest democracies. The gatherings also reflected persistent resentment here over U.S. pressure to buy American beef and U.S. policy toward North Korea and its nuclear weapons.
"I came to join the candlelight protest to send a message to Bush that he cannot push around weaker nations like a bully," said Park Yong-kyu, 43, an employee of a tourism company in Seoul.
In past months, President Lee Myung-bak's decision to allow the importation of U.S. beef -- which opponents say could carry mad cow disease -- shook his government and provoked huge demonstrations. Bush delayed an earlier visit to South Korea because of the disturbances.
Officials said the tensions are easing now. "It's not the issue it was earlier this year," said Dennis Wilder, the senior Asia official in the Bush White House. "As Koreans have more and more beef on the market, I think they'll become more and more comfortable."
A total of 167 demonstrators were arrested, police said, after clashes broke out between police and anti-government protesters. About 300 protesters staged a sit-in at the city's Myongdong Cathedral.
The two leaders alluded to the protests Wednesday morning just before they sat down for meetings at the presidential residence, known as the Blue House. "The majority of the Korean people are eagerly awaiting your visit," Lee said, "and of course those people [along the motorcade route] . . . were those who were sort of opposed."
"I enjoy coming to a free society where people are able to express their opinions," Bush responded.
Bush arrived here for the first leg of a seven-day Asian tour that will also take him to Bangkok and then to Beijing for the Olympic Games. His presence here was eagerly sought by Lee's government, which took office in a landslide late last year but has struggled to recover from a series of miscues.
Despite Bush's lame-duck status, "he's still the most important figure in global politics, and President Lee needs support from such an important figure right now," said Lee Doo-won, a professor of economics at Yonsei University in Seoul.
The two leaders were scheduled to discuss Wednesday the fate of a flagging free-trade deal they hope to push through their respective legislatures by the end of the year. Bush and Lee, kindred spirits ideologically, also talked about North Korea's nuclear program, and Bush was expected to raise the possibility of more South Korean help in the Iraq and Afghan wars.
Monday is the first day on which the United States can take North Korea off its official list of state sponsors of terrorism, as promised under a recent deal to get North Korea to dismantle its weapons. But unless the communist government there agrees to a plan to verify its recent declaration of its weapons, that date "will come and go, and there will be no change in the situation," Wilder told reporters traveling with Bush.
"We are hopeful that we will be able to reach an understanding with the North Koreans, but we're not at that juncture yet," Wilder said.
At a joint news conference after their meeting, both presidents vowed to press Pyongyang for a concrete mechanism to verify its recent declaration of a nuclear weapons program. Bush said North Korea would not come off the terrorism list if it did not comply.
"They have got a lot to do. They have got to show us a verification agreement that we can trust," he added.
It has been a rocky first year for Lee, a onetime corporate executive who was more pro-business, skeptical of North Korea and pro-American than his two predecessors. That seemed to augur well for U.S. relations with South Korea, one of Washington's most important allies in Asia. About 30,000 U.S. troops are stationed here.
But Lee's approval ratings have plummeted over perceptions that he is too high-handed and that he moved too quickly in opening up South Korea's beef market to U.S. imports. Washington and Seoul renegotiated the beef deal to address these concerns.
Demonstrations for and against Bush's visit started in the scorching afternoon Tuesday, and they picked up as evening set in.
"The U.S. is our ally forged through shedding blood. We must remember that the Americans helped us to chase away the North Korean communists" in the 1950-1953 war, said Oh Seung-ah, 48, a homemaker attending a pro-Bush prayer service in front of Seoul's city hall..
Elsewhere, anti-government protesters rallied. Organizers put their numbers at 10,000; police called it a small fraction of that.
"It is not that I don't like America," said Hwang Jung-sun, 34, a computer specialist. "It is the way Bush throws around his weight. He is not treating South Korea as an ally but as a vassal state. I don't want to accept everything just because the Americans are making demands, like asking to dispatch South Korean soldiers to wars he created and eat the beef when safety is in question."