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More South Korean Protests Over Acquittal of US Soldiers - 2002-12-02

A group of South Korean activists have left for the United States to protest the acquittal of two U.S. soldiers charged with the deaths of two schoolgirls in a road accident. The case has sparked widespread anger in South Korea. There have been almost daily demonstrations since the verdicts were announced two weeks ago.

The seven South Korean activists are members of civic organizations opposed to the U.S. military presence in the country. The United States has maintained a military presence in South Korea since the Korean War ended in an armistice nearly 50 years ago. Technically, North and South Korea are still at war, and successive South Korea governments have requested that U.S. troops remain to help deter another conflict.

The South Korean activists hope to go to the White House and the United Nations to protest the acquittal of the two U.S. servicemen. They want a personal apology from President Bush.

Sergeants Mark Walker and Fernando Nino were cleared of criminal negligence by separate U.S. military courts last month. The two soldiers were driving an armored vehicle that crushed two South Korean schoolgirls in June.

South Korean activists have dismissed the trials as a sham. They want the servicemen be handed over to a South Korean court for trial. Under a bilateral agreement, the U.S. military has jurisdiction over soldiers who commit crimes while on duty. It can decide on a case-by-case basis whether to hand soldiers over to South Korean authorities.

The case has provoke simmering resentment in South Korea and regular public demonstrations.

Over the past few days, hundreds of South Korean students demonstrated near the U.S. embassy in Seoul. They held a candle-light vigil for the two schoolgirls and a handful of demonstrators shaved their heads to protest the verdicts.

Other protesters have gathered near U.S. military bases around the country over the past several days. On at least two occasions, protesters have broken into U.S. bases. On Sunday, four protesters were arrested after two of them climbed a water tower on one base.

The public anger has cost one South Korean news anchor her job. Over the weekend, announcer Hwang Jong-Min said she felt ashamed of reports that students had broken into a U.S. military base as part of demonstrations. Viewers flooded the state broadcasting station, KBS, with calls protesting her comments, and she was forced to resign.

In a message conveyed by the U.S. ambassador to South Korea last week, President George Bush apologized for the deaths of the two girls and said he would work to ensure that such an accident would not happen again.