SOUTH KOREA: Growing calls for revision of US troops' status

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SOUTH KOREA: Growing calls for revision of US troops' status

SEOUL — As relations between the two Koreas change, the presence of 37,000 US troops in South Korea is being questioned. Ruling-class politicians have moved to control and contain this growing scepticism.

On July 24, the National Assembly's Unification, Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee adopted a resolution calling for a complete overhaul of the 1967 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), following similar calls by President Kim Dae-Jung.

SOFA provides privileges to US Forces Korea (USFK) that include indefinite and free use of the 96 USFK bases throughout the country, jurisdiction of criminal cases involving US personnel even when crimes are committed against Koreans outside US bases, annulment of local labour laws for Koreans employed by USFK, the right to violate Koreans' private property rights without compensation, exception of USFK supplies from customs inspections, and the USFK not being required to disclose the nature of weapons brought into Korea. The agreement also explicitly states that the US has no obligation to restore the bases to their original state upon departure.

The push for the revision of SOFA has gathered momentum due to a number of revelations and incidents.

Last August, the revelation of a massacre by US troops of hundreds of civilians in the village of Nogun-ri during the Korean War made international news. Testimony from some of the US troops involved, as well as recently declassified Pentagon documents, shed light on a coldly executed operation in which men, women and children were gathered in two tunnels beneath a railway bridge and systematically murdered.

PictureA committee of survivors and victims' relatives is determinedly campaigning for compensation. It held a memorial service on July 25 at the now-infamous twin tunnels.

In the euphoria surrounding the North-South summit in June, the long-held grievances of the village of Maehyang-ri became public. Next to this coastal village is Koon-ni, a US Air Force bombing range that is the largest in Asia. Since the Korean War, the residents of Maehyang-ri have endured massive, daily firing and bombing practice by screaming jet fighters at all hours. Huge explosions and tremors are a part of everyday life around Koon-ni. The result is grave medical and mental suffering, suicide and direct physical injury from the air force exercises.

On June 17, 3000 protesters at Koon-ni clashed with a large number of riot cops. Contingents from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, student groups and progressive organisations were out in force, including the radical Power of the Working Class group and the moderate Democratic Labour Party.

On July 13, an environmental organisation, Green Korea United (GKU), revealed that one of the US military bases in Seoul had dumped toxic waste into the Han River which runs through the capital. Calls mounted for the resignation of the commander of USFK. On July 24, the US 8th Army issued its first official apology in its 55-year occupation of the peninsula.

Demands have focussed on a revision of the terms of SOFA, not a full withdrawal of troops. However, with South Korea's ruling class driving towards reunification with North Korea on its terms, it needs to control the anti-SOFA campaign. If peace is achieved between the Koreas, there is a strong potential for the anti-SOFA sentiment to grow over into demands for the full withdrawal of US troops.

The USFK's presence is about US imperialism's permanent control of the strategic north-east Asian region. This was demonstrated with brutal frankness by President Kim Dae-Jung after the June inter-Korean summit: in reply to the North's renewed call for USFK's withdrawal, Kim made it clear that US troops would remain even after unification.

South Korea's ruling class is reformulating the rationale for the US presence, highlighting the need for "regional security". Its most far-sighted political representatives have embarked on tactics to contain anti-US sentiment in order to protect its alliance with US imperialism.

In mid-July, the liberal Joong-Ang Ilbo newspaper ran a front-page cartoon mocking US troops' exemption from Korea's criminal jurisdiction. At the same time, Kim in an interview warned of the volatility of the mass resentment toward the current terms of the SOFA. On July 25, seven National Assembly deputies inspected Koon-ni as part of their push for SOFA's revision, and 48 deputies joined the call for the USFK commander's resignation over the toxic dumping incident.

The US understands the danger of this agitation. This explains the 8th Army's historic apology and murmurs that Washington may agree to SOFA's revision at talks next month. The US has previously stalled on such talks.

BY IGGY KIM