- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea, March 1 (UPI) — Some 100,000 South Korean citizens rallied in Seoul Saturday to support the U.S. troop presence in the country and condemn North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Staging a rally of their own near the pro-U.S. demonstration were groups decrying the United States and calling for reconciliation with North Korea, underscoring a divisive split in public opinion among South Koreans.

Pro-American demonstrators, many of them Korean War veterans clad in military uniforms, waved U.S. flags in support of some 37,000 American troops stationed in South Korea under a mutual defense pact.

"The rally is against North Korea's nuclear program, for the South Korea-U.S. alliance and anti-(North Korean leader) Kim Jong Il," Kim Sang-churl, a former Seoul mayor who organized the mass rally, told United Press International.

Demonstrators chanted pro-U.S. and anti-North Korea slogans. "We oppose North Korea's nuclear!" "We want U.S. troops!" They released green balloons symbolizing peace on the Korean peninsula.

"We want the Korean peninsula without nuclear weapons and Kim Jong Il," Kim said in a speech at the rally. Several protesters burned a North Korean flag, a portrait of the North Korean leader and a mock missile.

Demonstrators also voiced their objection to U.S. troop redeployment and pullout. "We are firmly opposed to the reduction and redeployment of U.S. troops in South Korea, which will weaken our defense posture and encourage North Korea," Kim said. "Calls for an end to U.S. military presence are a communist unification plot," read a poster.

Demonstrators also urged their newly inaugurated government to join the Bush administration's tough stance against North Korea and firm up military alliances with the United States.

"The best way to secure peace is to be prepared for war," said a placard carried by a war veteran. "We want President Roh Moo-hyun to listen to our voices," the veteran said.

In his first major policy speech since taking office this week, Roh said Saturday he "firmly opposed" the suspected drive to build nuclear weapons.

"North Korea's nuclear issue is the task we should resolve immediately," he said in the speech marking an independent uprising 84 years ago which commemorates resistance to Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910-1945.

But Roh said he would seek a peaceful resolution to the nuclear crisis, saying military action could backfire and result in catastrophe on the Korean peninsula. "If peace on the Korean peninsula is broken for whatever reasons, we would be unable to cope with the horrible consequences," he said.

But tensions were further mounting Saturday as North Korea accused the United States of stepping up spy flights "as a preparation for war" at a time when the United States and South Korea are preparing for a joint military exercise — albeit long-planned — next week.

"The U.S. imperialists committed over 180 cases of aerial espionage against the DPRK (North Korea) in February by mobilizing strategic and tactical reconnaissance planes on different missions," the North's official Central News Agency said

North Korea accused the United States of triggering a nuclear crisis by failing to provide promised energy and disrupting inter-Korean reconciliation.

The defiant communist state also warned it would never yield to U.S. pressure and back down in the mounting nuclear standoff. "The situation is getting tenser with each passing day. The U.S. is entirely to blame for this," KCNA said.

While ratcheting up the rhetoric against the United States, North Korea has pushed for reconciliation with South Korea, in an apparent bid to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

On Saturday, a North Korean religious delegation arrived in Seoul to attend inter-Korean events to mark the 1919 independent uprising under Japanese colonial rule. It was the first time that leaders of the two Koreas have gathered to mark the anti-Japanese uprising since the division of the Korean peninsula in 1945.

"The joint celebration of the ceremonies will be a boon to relations of the North and South, which are moving toward reconciliation, unity and unification," the North's delegation said in a statement.

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