One of the things that protestors in South Korea know is that the local riot police have ample experience with demonstrators. While a viable democracy, South Korea has seen out-of-control street riots in its turbulent past. Now authorities across the political spectrum are unwilling to allow anyone to go too far. Peaceful demonstrations? Sure, but don’t press your luck. While American demonstrators – including the most violent – are accustomed to being treated with kid gloves; in South Korea the gloves are off.
This is something that career protestors Cindy “Peace Mom” Sheehan and Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin might want to keep in mind while they cavort throughout South Korea on their Quixotic mission of preventing the U.S. military from expanding a base south of Seoul and demanding immediate negotiations with North Korea, NOW!
By short background, the presence of large numbers of American military in the Yongsan Base located in the middle of Seoul has long been a contentious issue with Koreans. Its presence was a needless source of friction in a bilateral relationship that has had its share of disagreements anyway. Originally a remote base outside of the city, urban sprawl has progressed over the decades so the base is now in the geographic center of the bustling city. Aggravating the situation a major roadway bisects the base. Overhead walkways were added years ago to expedite pedestrian traffic, but impatient Korean drivers are forced to wait through two stoplights while on-base vehicles cross the road.
Meanwhile, negotiations for relocation of the American forces to the Camp Humphreys area, located in Pyongtaek about 45 miles south of Seoul, and Taegu, about 70 miles southeast of Seoul, have been underway for years. After adjacent land was purchased by the Korean government for expansion of the Pyongtaek base, the relocation out of Yongsan is finally underway to the delight of both South Koreans and Americans.
To the surprise of many, including no doubt the Korean government, Sheehan and Benjamin decided to shadow President Bush on his Asia trip to protest expansion of the Camp Humphreys site. Along the way they are also protesting the new Free Trade Agreement between America and South Korea, as well as demanding negotiations with North Korea. It is a collection of issues that are unrelated, somewhat mundane, and of little public interest, especially in America.
Sheehan, Benjamin, and 16 fellow Americans accompanied by a handful of South Koreans met with villagers who do not want to be relocated and demanded work cease. AFP reports that construction near Pyongtaek has met “strong protests from activists and villagers” who will be displaced from their homes or farmland. Translated, this means that fewer than 100 villagers don’t want to leave despite the generous compensation paid by the Korean government for their land. This is sad but it happens worldwide in these cases. Open support for the villagers’ protest has come from virulent anti-American, strongly pro-North Korean groups in South Korea including hard-Left student movements, labor organizations, and Communist sympathizers. Reports from South Korea note that without this support the village protests would have “faded away” long ago, but that the anti-American spin gives the local media an excuse to pack cameras down to Pyongtaek on slow news days.
…And for Sheehan and Benjamin to pack their bags. Sheehan bragged to reporters, “Believe me, we will be passing along these [villagers’] concerns to the Pentagon, to the Congress, to the people of America and we will be doing every thing we can as Americans to correct this situation in South Korea.” Benjamin added, “There is no way that I feel my family will be more secure or that Korean families will feel more secure by expanding the Camp Humphreys base and taking land from people who have farmed there for generations.”
Dissatisfied with the lack of attention their presence generated in sleepy Pyongtaek, Sheehan and Benjamin trucked north to Seoul where they tried unsuccessfully to crash the gates at the Yongsan Base. The American Commander-in-Chief, crusty four-star General Burwell Bell, wisely refused them entrance to the base and virtually ignored their pathetic demonstration. Assembling outside of the gate – blocking traffic on the busy thoroughfare, a move that risked being beaten to a pulp by road-rage-possessed South Korean commuters, taxi drivers, and truckers – the demonstrators were outnumbered by South Korean police in full riot gear. Media swarmed like flies, outnumbering both police and protestors.
With her usual eloquence and reason, Cindy waved her American passport and noted, “My father served at this base. I have the right as an American to come onto this base.” Well, Cindy, actually you don’t. Access to U.S. overseas bases is not automatic but is left to the discretion of the local commander. Many American expatriates working in or visiting Seoul over the years have wished to come onto the base but were denied access if they had no official reason for entry. Apparently General Bell was not convinced of Sheehan-Benjamin’s need to enter.
In reaction to the protest the U.S.-Korean Combined Forces Command issued a statement not naming the demonstrators but upholding their right “to express their opinions.” The statement noted parenthetically that the South Korean general officer who was General Bell’s deputy was rotating that day and that both he and his replacement “are great patriots and have dedicated their lives to protecting freedom, to include the right to protest, here in Korea.” Good night, Cindy and Medea, and good luck.
In what has become her cynical default position, Sheehan held up a photo of her son and “posed for photographers,” while insisting, “we are not against the troops themselves, we’re against their leaders who deploy them carelessly.”
The facts are known about Sheehan and Benjamin: “Mother Sheehan” called terrorists in Iraq “freedom fighters,” and Benjamin has tried to convince soldiers to declare themselves conscientious objectors so they can be sent home. Both present American armed forces as a plague on the earth. At least General Bell had one opportunity to deny Cindy Sheehan the use of American servicemen as a prop for an anti-troop message.
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