South Korea: Rumsfeld beset by protests

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s visit to South Korea last week provoked stormy demonstrations over a period of several days. It was Rumsfeld’s first visit to the country as Bush’s defense secretary, and one of his main objectives was to discuss South Korea’s planned troop deployment to Iraq to help with the U.S. occupation.

At least 1,500 students and labor activists rallied in downtown Seoul on Nov. 15, the day before Rumsfeld’s arrival.

“No South Korean soldiers to Iraq!” they shouted, shaking their clenched fists in unison. They carried banners and chanted slogans describing Rumsfeld as a “warmonger” and opposing his visit. Hundreds of riot police were at the scene, but no clashes were reported.

In recent months, over 350 organizations in South Korea have been holding protests and rallies, circulating petitions, and publishing statements to stop the deployment of new troops to Iraq. The country has been deeply divided on the issue.

Nevertheless, South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun announced on Nov. 11 that he will dispatch 3,000 combat and non-combat soldiers to Iraq. Rumsfeld had reportedly demanded that South Korea provide 5,000 combat troops, so the lower number has been interpreted as a rebuff to the Bush administration. It remains unclear, however, as to how soon and where the South Korean troops will go, and what proportion of them will in fact be engaged in combat operations.

In a related development, Seoul ordered 464 South Korean troops already stationed in southern Iraq to suspend their operations outside coalition bases following a deadly suicide bombing in Nasiriyah on Nov. 12.

When Rumsfeld arrived at the Defense Ministry on Nov. 17 for talks with his South Korean counterpart, Cho Young-kil, antiwar protests were so fierce that Rumsfeld was forced to enter the building through a side gate. “No blood for Bush” was one of the chants. “Don’t make our young men the bullet shields of the U.S.” was another.

Rumsfeld’s trip comes at a time when new diplomatic overtures are being made to resume six-way talks with North Korea to discuss a year-long crisis around nuclear issues. A South Korean official indicated that a new round of talks could take place on Dec. 17 in China.

It also comes at a time when the U.S. is “repositioning” its troops in South Korea. While the change reflects a pulling back of about 15,000 troops of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division from the frontline demilitarized zone with North Korea, critics charge that the pullback may actually heighten the danger of an air or missile attack by the U.S. against the North by removing U.S. troops from the area adjacent to the DMZ. Peace activists have urged vigilance.

The United States has about 37,000 troops in South Korea. Those troops and the many U.S. military bases in the country have given rise to a huge popular movement demanding their departure. About 200,000 people in Seoul and 60 other cities demonstrated under the slogan of “U.S. out!” on June 13.