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South Korean Police Keep Anti-US Protest Peaceful

A massive display of South Korean police resources kept anti-American protests peaceful and contained near the site of a planned U.S. military base expansion. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Pyeongtaek, South Korea, the protests were less about a parcel of real estate than they were an expression of general anti-U.S. sentiment.

Police helicopters swept overhead Sunday near the city of Pyeongtaek. More than 15,000 riot police hampered the efforts of groups protesting the planned expansion of a U.S. military base.

Protesters spent much of the morning and early afternoon trying to break through police checkpoints to reach the site of the expansion - a tiny rice-farming town called Daechuri.

By late afternoon, about 3000 protesters trickled through to a country road about three kilometers from the site. That turnout was far fewer than the 10,000 activist groups had predicted, and the demonstrations remained largely peaceful.

The United States and South Korea agreed on the Pyeongtaek expansion more than a decade ago. The move is part of a plan to reduce the number of U.S. troops in the country, and allows the military to vacate a large base in central Seoul.

About 29,000 U.S. troops are in the country, a legacy of the Korean War. Fighting in the war ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a peace treaty, so North and South Korea remain technically at war.

Watching the protest from a rooftop, Lee Deok-heon, a Pyeongtaek city official, said very few Pyeongtaek residents were actually involved. Instead, he says, most of the protesters were labor activists and university students from around the country.

Lee says he helped negotiate compensation from the government for most of the residents who are affected by the base. But, he says, radical groups teamed up with a tiny minority of older residents who did not want to leave, as part of an effort to include the controversy into a broader grievance against the United States.

Park Je-hyung, leader of a leftist labor union, says there is no reason for the U.S. military to be in South Korea.

He says he believes South Korea is more colonized now by its alliance relationship with the United States than it was under Japanese imperial rule from 1910 to 1945.

Kim Ji-yeon, who is affiliated with a group anti-American women's group, says the protest is about more than an army base.

She says she believes the U.S. is intervening in every aspect of South Korean affairs - including security, political, and economic matters.

The extreme rhetoric used by many of the protesters reflects a more moderate debate taking place in South Korea's mainstream, as the country tries to adapt its relationship with the United States to changing conditions.

South Korea and the United States find themselves at odds over dealing with North Korea, which is pursuing nuclear weapons and has one of the world's worst human-rights records.

For years after the Korean War, the South was a poor country vulnerable to attack from communist North Korea, and reliant on exports to the United States and other countries. Now, South Korea is a wealthy country and many citizens no longer see the impoverished North as a threat.

Seoul is preparing to negotiate a free-trade deal with Washington, which some South Koreans fear will harm domestic producers, especially rice farmers.