- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 11, 2002

SEOUL A top U.S. official said yesterday that Washington is willing to discuss modifying a legal agreement on U.S. forces that has sparked anti-American protests over the deaths of two local girls in a military accident.
"Meetings this week between officials of both our governments will afford an important opportunity to review concrete ideas to improve the operation of the U.S.-Korea Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)," U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in a statement after a meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
Mr. Armitage's visit comes as anti-U.S. protests are sweeping South Korea.
The daily demonstrations threaten to undermine a broad consensus in South Korea to host American troops, which have been based here since the 1950-53 Korean War.
The United States now has 37,000 troops in South Korea. But the military presence has been a source of friction with communities near U.S. bases.
Mr. Kim, whose single five-year term ends in February, said during his meeting with Mr. Armitage that South Koreans "feel great shock and sadness at the tragic deaths of the middle school girls."
The girls were crushed by an American armored vehicle in June as they walked on a narrow road north of Seoul.
Mr. Kim also expressed regrets about the way the United States has handled the accident, referring to last month's court-martial acquittal of the two American soldiers in the vehicle that killed the girls.
He called for Washington's "visible" steps to revise the treaty governing the legal status of U.S. troops in South Korea as part of efforts to soothe public anger.
Under the SOFA accord, South Korea cedes judicial jurisdiction of U.S. troops who commit crimes while on duty.
Mr. Armitage conveyed Washington's "profound apology" over the accident and pledged his country's support for revision of the pact, according to a spokeswoman for the South Korean president.
"We have to do our absolute best to be seen as the best possible partners for our friends in Korea," Mr. Armitage was quoted as saying.
Anti-U.S. protests reached a critical stage in recent days. Tens of thousands of South Koreans have taken to the streets daily demanding changes in the SOFA accord.
The protests have become an issue in presidential elections a week from tomorrow and forced candidates from all parties to distance themselves from the United States.
Protesters continued a candlelit vigil yesterday for an 11th consecutive day near the U.S. Embassy in downtown Seoul.
Mr. Armitage and Mr. Kim also discussed the renewed tension over North Korea's nuclear weapons development program and a potential U.S. attack against Iraq.
Mr. Kim stressed more diplomatic efforts to press North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
Mr. Armitage was greeted when he arrived by fierce protests by anti-U.S. activists. A group of students and civic activists gathered outside the U.S. Embassy and demanded a direct apology for the girls' deaths from President Bush.

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