The American Presence

  • Share
  • Read Later

How long can the U.S. stay?

If next week's summit truly eases tensions on the korean peninsula, South Koreans may soon ask whether 37,000 American troops have any reason to stick around. Some are asking that question already. For 45 years, the United States Air Force has practiced bombing raids at the massive Koon-ni range 80 km southwest of Seoul. Signs are posted with messages like danger. explosive aircraft bombing. do not proceed. The events are carefully scheduled with local residents, and the bombs are just dummies.

On the morning of May 11, however, that tidy order broke down. An American A-10 fighter plane experienced engine trouble and had to reduce its load. It jettisoned six 230-kg bombs--live ones, not dummies--in the waters off Maehyang-ri. Shin Hyun Kuk, a farmer, was sleeping on a couch. The explosions threw him to the floor. When he rushed to a window, he saw a cloud of black dust over Nong Island, one of the target sites. The sea had turned burgundy from churned-up sediment.

None of the residents of Maehyang-ri was harmed, but the episode nonetheless helped rekindle South Koreans' tetchy feelings toward their U.S. protectors, which have flared often in the years since the Korean War ended. There have been other recent sparks. An American soldier charged with the murder of a Korean nightclub hostess in February temporarily escaped from U.S. custody in April. Last October, the Associated Press unearthed a scandal from the early days of the Korean War, in which the U.S. allegedly ordered the bombing and machine-gun killing of hundreds of Korean civilians in a tunnel in Nogun-ri.

These days, umbrage at Americans is mounting. Civil-rights groups are demanding a revision of the agreement between Seoul and Washington that dictates how U.S. forces are policed on Korean soil, and residents around Koon-ni have protested at America's embassy and its military headquarters in Seoul, demanding compensation, an apology, the shutdown of Koon-ni and, at one point, the withdrawal of all American troops from the country. In May, militant students managed to scale the wall of the embassy. Since then, extra South Korean police have been assigned around the building.

The U.S. has long aroused conflicting emotions in South Korea. Its troops are acknowledged as protection against the North. But they are also a daily reminder that South Korea's fate is not entirely in its people's hands--a special irritant in a country deeply scarred by Japanese colonization. The democratic freedoms of the past decade have made it easier to express that unease. When we were poor and dependent on the U.S., we knew we had to bear it, says Shin Hyun Duk, who lives near the Koon-ni training ground and is agitating for the government to relocate local residents. Now Korea is wealthier. I should be allowed to speak out. American troops tend to elicit more gratitude when tensions between the Koreas are high. At times like this, when Pyongyang seems less of a threat, the yankee go home banners come out in force.

Reported by Stella Kim/Maehyang-ri

1945  Korean independence from Japanese rule 1945  Korea divided into Soviet-occupied North and U.S.-military-occupied South

1948  Founding of the Republic of Korea, with Syngman Rhee as President

1948  Founding of Democratic People's Republic of Korea, with Kim Il Sung as Premier

1950  North invades South, triggering Korean War

1953  Armistice agreement ends 36 months of brutal combat between two Koreas

1968  Pyongyang deploys 31-man commando team in unsuccessful attempt to blow up presidential residence in Seoul

1968  North Korean patrol boats seize U.S.S. Pueblo, capturing 83 on board

1969  North Koreans hijack South Korean airliner; 12 passengers still in captivity

1971  North Korean patrol craft seizes crew of South Korean fishing boat

1973  Armed clash between North and South Korean units in DMZ; two South Korean soldiers are killed

1974  North Korean agent fails to assassinate President Park Chung Hee, First Lady killed in the confusion

1974  U.S.-South Korean team discovers underground tunnel near DMZ; North Koreans attempt to blow it up, killing two

1976  North Korean guards wielding axes attack U.N. Command Guards in Joint Security Area, killing two

1983  KBS television special helps reunite 15,000 people scattered across South Korea by the war

1983  Assassination attempt on South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan during Burma visit, 17 killed

1984  Soviet civiliandefects across Military Demarcation Line separating two Koreas, leading to first gunfire exchange in Panmunjon truce zone since 1953 Armistice

1985  First exchange of separated families

1987  North Korean agents blow up KAL plane carrying 115 people

1991  The Two Koreas sign historic Basic Agreement, which includes non-aggression pact and allows for exchange programs

1994  Kim Il Sung dies just weeks before planned summit with South Korean President Kim Young Sam

1994  U.S. and North Korea hold Geneva Talks, freezing Pyongyang's development of nuclear warheads

1996  North Korean submarine carrying 26 infiltrators is discovered on east coast of South Korea; 53-day manhunt results in one captured, one escapee, 24 dead

1998  President Kim Dae Jung announces Sunshine Policy, marking a more flexible approach toward the North

1998  South Korean tycoon Chung Ju Yung crosses DMZ into North Korea with gift of 500 cows

1998  North Korea test-launches missile over Japan, claiming it's a satellite

2000  Two Koreas jointly announce agreement for summit meeting between leaders of both sides

With reporting by Stella Kim/Seoul