South Koreans Protest Expansion of U.S. Base

Thousands of South Koreans demonstrated in Seoul on Sunday, protesting the expansion of a U.S. military base a few miles south of the city. U.S. forces currently stationed near the demilitarized zone and in Seoul will be transferred to the larger facility in Pyongtaek, a city of 350,000 people. Twenty people were arrested in the largely peaceful demonstration.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

In South Korea this weekend, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest the expansion of an American military base. Twenty people have been arrested in what were mostly peaceful protests.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports from South Korea that the demonstrations highlight the country's ambivalence towards the U.S. military presence.

LOUISA LIM reporting:

Villagers come out of church. It's a sunny Sunday morning in Daechuri.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

LIM: But the peace is broken by a helicopter overhead. This village, 40 miles south of Seoul, is the epicenter of protests over the U.S. military presence in South Korea. The American Army is reducing its forces. Most that stay will be moved to the nearby Camp Humphreys. That base will expand, swallowing the village's land and Daechuri Village itself.

Ms. Eeh(ph) (Resident, Daechuri Village): (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: How are we going to live, Ms. Eeh says. We've been farmers for generations, but we haven't been given enough compensation to buy land and houses. The old people cry when they think about it.

She's preparing spicy cabbage and pickled cucumber lunches for 200 protesters. She's angry, like many others here.

Mr. MOON JUNG-HYUN (Priest and Civic Activist): Look at that. They're stretching as far as horizon. All this rice fields going to be taken by Korean government and U.S. soldiers. How pity.

LIM: Moon Jung-hyun is a priest and a well-known civic activist working with the villagers. His presence has turned a land dispute into something bigger.

Mr. JUNG-HYUN: Korea is an independent country. We don't need foreign forces. We have to defend our country by ourselves. So ultimately I say U.S. troops should get out of this country.

VILLAGERS: (singing in foreign language)

LIM: The villagers sing as they prepare to symbolically reclaim the land they've lost. But with 18,000 soldiers standing guard over their fields, they can't get close.

(Soundbite of protesters yelling)

LIM: Several miles away in Bunjunvi(ph), police scuffle with protesters, who are calling for U.S. withdrawal from South Korea. The issue's putting strain on the alliance between the two countries, according to Professor Jung-hoon Lee from Yonsei University.

Professor JUNG-HOON LEE (Yonsei University): If the South Korean government continues to show a rather compromising attitude towards the protests, somehow delaying the whole process of the relocation, then I think it will have a very serious ramification for the U.S.-Korea alliance, which could eventually lead to further pullout from Korea of the U.S. forces, particularly the ground troops.

(Soundbite of protesters)

LIM: Thousands attended a candlelit vigil the night before in Seoul. A block away, Mr. Kim(ph) served soup made out of silkworms to the protesters. He doesn't agree with them.

Mr. KIM: (speaking foreign language)

LIM: America's our friend, he says. They fought for us 50 years ago. When military bases move out of Seoul, local businesses will lose money. We want the Americans to stay here. Surveys show this is the view of the quiet majority.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: But it risks being drowned out of the debate by a vocal minority.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Daechuri Village, South Korea.

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