- The Washington Times - Monday, January 20, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea, Jan. 20 (UPI) — Tens of thousands of Christians and anti-communist activists rallied over the weekend to support the U.S. military presence in South Korea and condemn North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program.

The demonstration, countered by a group of some 30 protesters, was one of the first pro-U.S. gatherings in a country that has seen the presence of U.S. forces become a major issue that have hurt relations between the United States and South Korea and have played a part in efforts to convince North Korea to abide to proliferation agreements.

"We support U.S. military presence here," "Lord, we need U.S. troops," chanted the crowd that packed the plaza in front of Seoul City Hall. Banners and placards read: "We oppose withdrawal of U.S. troops," and "(South) Korea and the United States are blood brothers."

Participants waved South Korean and U.S. flags and released tens of thousands of green balloons, shouting "Peace in Korea."

Police said about 40,000 people turned out at the rally, but organizers claim nearly 100,000 citizens joined the pro-U.S. demonstration. The gathering was the biggest pro-U.S. rally in South Korea. Generally, fewer than 10,000 people participated in rare pro-American rallies.

The demonstration was organized by the General Association of Christian Organizations, a major conservative Christian umbrella group. A progressive group, led by the National Council of Churches in Korea, has campaigned for reconciliation with North Korea.

Organizers of the pro-U.S. demonstration warned that widespread anti-American sentiment in South Korea might lead to the withdrawal of U.S. troops and endanger the country's security. "Any anti-U.S. activities should stop for national security," said Choi Sung-kyu, a priest who organized the rally.

The pro-U.S. demonstration followed months of spreading anti-U.S. protests sparked by a road accident in June in which two South Korean schoolgirls were struck by a U.S. Army vehicle and killed. The two soldiers involved were cleared of any wrong doing by U.S. military courts.

Anti-communist activists said North Korea sympathizers have orchestrated the anti-U.S. protests, calling for the withdrawal of 37,000 American troops stationed as a deterrent against North Korea.

Kim Won-joon, a 62-year-old Korean War veteran, said he was worried that young South Koreans failed to understand the North Korean threat. "Anti-American protests are dangerous for now. It is a time for an anti-North Korea and pro-peace movement," he said.

North Korea has called on South Korea to "pool their efforts" to cope with "a U.S. design to start a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula."

Anti-U.S. protests have lessened President-elect Roh Moo-hyun visited the main American military base in Seoul last week, in a bid to address concerns about his controversial posture on the U.S. military presence in South Korea.

Roh, a long-time reform advocate and human right activist, has showed a negative attitude on Seoul's long tradition of pro-U.S. policy. He had even demanded the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

In an effort to quell the concerns, Roh stressed the role of U.S. troops and expressed support for their efforts to safeguard the security of the country.

Roh, who takes office on Feb. 25, also said that the anti-U.S. sentiment only represents a minority of South Korean people.

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