Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Under fire from critics who accuse him of pandering to leftists, liberal South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has vowed to punish anti-American student activists who broke into a U.S. military facility last week.
Roh's office announced Sunday that the president has ordered the authorities to deal strictly with the Hanchongnyon (Federation of Korean University Student Councils) group, after a dozen of its members took part in last Thursday's protest.
The students entered a live-fire military shooting range, shouted anti-American slogans, clambered onto an armored vehicle, and burnt a U.S. flag, demanding the withdrawal of the 37,000 troops deployed in the country.
Hanchongnyon, a left-wing group that is supportive of the communist regime in North Korea, was banned by the Supreme Court in 1998.
Since Roh entered office earlier this year, however, he has taken a more lenient stance towards it, and just two weeks ago, the Justice Ministry offered a deal to about half of the 152 members of the group who are on a prosecutors' wanted list.
In a first step towards legalizing the organization, almost 80 of those 152 fugitives were given the opportunity to surrender to the authorities. If then cleared of serious criminal charges, they would be free to go.
Last week's incident took place at the Rodriquez shooting range in Pocheon, some 30 miles northeast of the capital, Seoul.
The U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) decried the protest, saying it put soldiers' and civilians' lives in danger and demanding that those involved be prosecuted.
USFK commander Gen. Leon LaPorte warned Seoul the incidents of that type could facilitate the spread of anti-Korea sentiment in the U.S.
A series of large anti-U.S. street protests late last year, and reports that GIs were being harassed, prompted some conservative U.S. commentators to call for a withdrawal of the American forces, who are deployed to protect South Korea against hostility from the communist North.
The protests coincided with the presidential election campaign, during which Roh, a former human rights lawyer who once called for the U.S. troops to leave, spoke of the need to re-align the 50-year-old military alliance with Washington.
After Roh won, however, he assured the U.S. of his support. He also pushed through a measure in support of the American-led war against Iraq, despite considerable domestic opposition.
Thursday's break-in at the firing range came as an embarrassment to the president, after he had taken a more tolerant view of the radical student organization.
Conservative opponents berated Roh, saying his lenient approach was directly responsible for the provocative action.
Hong-Sa-duck, a leading lawmaker in the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) which dominates the National Assembly, said at the weekend many lawmakers felt the situation was getting out of control because of Roh's pandering to groups supportive of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
The president had vowed to protect the nation and honor the constitution, but his behavior had shown a tendency to do the opposite, he charged.
A conservative group within the GNP, called Concerned Lawmakers for True Unification and Solid Security, said in a statement Sunday that Roh's government should be held responsible for aggravating friction with the U.S. by protecting radical groups.
An official at the presidency said Roh had "expressed deep regret over the incident and ordered strong measures to prevent such an incident from happening again."
Roh's foreign policy adviser, Ban Ki-moon, said the president's views were delivered to the USFK and the U.S. Embassy.
An embassy spokesman said from Seoul Monday charge d'affaires Mark Minton was grateful to have received a briefing from the government on the actions to be taken in the wake of the security breach.
Thirteen people, the 12 students and a journalist who accompanied them, were arrested at the weekend in connection with the break-in.
Roh's prime minister, Goh Kun, also called for stern measures against the radicals, and hinted that the government's conciliatory approach toward the organization would be reviewed.
"What they did violates national interests and public sentiment and is indeed an act that benefits the enemy," he told a cabinet meeting.
The Free Citizens Alliance, an anti-North Korean group, criticized the student federation, as did the Korea Herald in an editorial.
"Its members were unwise to manifest that they are not prepared to renounce their platform of violent struggle and fealty to the North's ideology," the paper said, adding that the Roh government had lost "much of its justification" for its proposed move to legalize the group.
Police chiefs have undertaken to beef up security near U.S. installations. The national police are responsible for security outside the perimeter of bases.
USFK public affairs officer Lieut.-Col. Steven Boylan said Monday the actions being taken by the authorities were a matter for the South Korean government.
"All we have asked is that the current laws that were violated by the illegal entry be followed," he said.
Boylan said in a phone interview the USFK was pleased at the support seen from Korean citizens and media commentators, who strongly opposed the illegal activity.
"We know that the view expressed by this student group is a minority view," he said, adding that this was evident from the military's own media relations programs as well as from public opinion surveys and the views expressed by various organizations in the country.
"We know that the Korean public understands why we are here and supports it."
Speaking about last Thursday's protest, Boylan said it was especially dangerous because "weapons of various calibers" - from small arms to tanks - are tested at the range.
The protestors could have been seriously hurt or killed, and their presence could also have placed soldiers' lives at risk, he said.
Some of the students had climbed atop a Bradley fighting vehicle and may also have been hurt while being removed from their perch 8-12 feet above the ground.
Furthermore, heavy, large-wheeled and tracked vehicles move around the site, and with unescorted people "running around uncontrolled" the dangers were obvious, Boylan added.
Last summer, two Korean schoolgirls were knocked down and killed by a heavy Army vehicle in an accident on a public highway.
It was that tragedy and the acquittal of two GIs in a subsequent court-martial that fuelled the anti-American protests later in the year.
The presence of U.S. forces on the peninsula is a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, when American-led U.N. forces fought the invading communists. Hostilities ended in a truce, so the two Koreas remain technically at war.
North Korea's attempts to expand a nuclear arsenal have led to the most serious security crisis in the region in a decade. Multiparty talks aimed at resolving the standoff are planned for later this month.
See Earlier Stories:
Anti-US Protests: South Koreans Anxious About 'Backlash' (Jan. 10, 2003)
Chilly Winter Looms For American Troops In Korea (Dec. 9, 2002)
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