Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A newly-formed alliance of prominent South Koreans is preparing to hold what they predict will be a huge rally Saturday aimed at sending clear messages to leaders in Seoul, Washington and Pyongyang.
The demonstrators will urge their newly-installed president, Roh Moo-hyun, to take a firmer approach toward North Korea, and to safeguard the South Korean-U.S. military alliance.
To President Bush and the U.S., they will signal their support for a strong bilateral alliance and appreciation for America's sacrifices over the past half-century, while appealing against any move to reduce the 37,000-strong U.S. military presence.
And of North Korea's Kim Jong-il, the gathering will demand political reforms, religious freedom and an end to weapons of mass destruction programs.
In sum, a spokesman for the organizers said from Seoul, the rally aims to counter the perception that South Korea is going soft on the communist regime in the North, while edging away from a close military alliance with the U.S.
A culmination of events in recent months has helped to create that impression.
The court martial acquittal of two American GIs involved in a traffic accident last June in which two Korean teenagers were killed sparked strong criticism. A series of "candlelight vigils" for the pair soon began to take on an anti-American flavor - hijacked, some say, by pro-North Korean activists.
Then came reports of individual U.S. soldiers being verbally or physically assaulted by Koreans, and several businesses put up signs warning Americans they were not welcome.
In the U.S., conservative voices began calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea.
Meanwhile a presidential election campaign was offering voters a choice between a pro-U.S. conservative and a liberal who called for a re-balancing of the Seoul-Washington alliance and sought closer engagement with Pyongyang. The liberal, Roh, won.
All this was happening against a background of increasing belligerence from the North Korean government, which moved to restart a frozen nuclear program, accused the U.S. of planning to attack, and demanded bilateral talks - a demand rejected by Washington.
With Roh now in office, and U.S.-South Korean talks underway on issues surrounding the American military presence, a new factor has emerged in the form of the "March 1 national rally" camp.
"If we, the Korean majority, who respect and trust the U.S. forces in Korea, stay silent, Americans will misunderstand our intentions, causing damage to the Korea-U.S. friendship and as well as to our own national interest," it said in a statement this week.
Among the leaders are three former prime ministers and other political, civic, military and religious leaders.
A key organizer is Kim Sang-chul, a former mayor of Seoul and jurist who now heads an organization helping North Korean refugees, large numbers of whom have been fleeing their impoverished homeland, mostly via China.
A spokesman for Kim Sang-chul said in a phone interview Thursday that it was way past time the true Korean voice was heard.
"They are not the majority, just an active minority that includes many young and uninformed people," he said of the protestors who have been on the streets in recent months.
Saturday's rally in Seoul is being billed as anti-nuclear, anti-Kim Jong-il, anti-withdrawal of U.S. troops, and pro-unification of the Korean peninsula.
Organizers are hoping for a turnout of one million, but realistically will be happy with 500,000, said Kim Sang-chul's spokesman.
"We want to tell the world that this is the majority opinion. We are worried that there is not much voice against Kim Jong-il, his human rights violations and oppression of his own people."
'Biggest crisis in half a century'
March 1, known as Independence Movement Day, is a significant day for Koreans. On that day in 1919 there were nationwide protests against Japanese rule. (Japan forcibly annexed Korea in 1910 and occupied the peninsula until the end of World War II in 1945.)
"A lot of [the movement's leaders] are older citizens, and some of them say this is the most difficult crisis facing us since the Korean War."
South Korea is one of the world's most wired countries, and much of the organizing for the anti-U.S. rallies has been done via the Internet.
The new movement has now taken its battle to the Internet too, setting up a website called savekorea.net.
It has found strong support from the country's biggest newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, which said in an editorial this week, the concerns the organizers were expressing portrayed the "desperate sense of danger" they felt concerning the country's future.
It praised them for countering what it said was the distorted view that "the U.S. wants a war, while the North wants peace."
The movement should be seen as "a turning point that recovers balanced sense in society over national security issues," the editorial said.
Not all South Koreans are happy about the plans for Saturday.
A group of civic, religious and academic leaders including Roman Catholic Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan called a press conference expressing concerns about what they saw as a polarization of views in society.
It pointed out that a second rally is planned for Saturday, by an anti-war group.
"It is becoming clear that our society is divided over issues regarding [North Korea's] nuclear program and peace," said the figures in a signed statement.
"We are concerned that this kind of confrontation and conflict will further fuel the crisis and hostility on the Korean peninsula."
The statement took issue both with North Korea's nuclear ambitions and U.S. military intentions toward the North.
Asked about these leaders' concerns, the March 1 rally spokesman said they were trying to walk a middle line.
He dismissed the notion that society was deeply split, saying the rival rally, billed as an "anti-war" protest, was likely to be a small affair.
He noted that 100 members from a North Korean "peace organization" had arrived in Seoul to participate in that event.
"They are so-called religious leaders, but we know there is no religious freedom in North Korea, only Kim Jong-il religion."
In the spokesman's view, many of the previous anti-U.S. rallies had been infiltrated by North Korean "instigators.".
A number of North Korean spies had been freed from South Korean jails in recent years, he said, and many believed they may be actively fomenting pro-Pyongyang and anti-U.S. sentiment in the South.
Korean-American organizations plan to hold a pro-U.S., anti-Pyongyang demonstration in front of the White House in Washington DC on Saturday.
Letter Sent to President Bush by March 1 Rally Organizers
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