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South Korea's President Calls for Changes in Military Accord with US - 2002-12-03

The South Korean president directs his cabinet to find ways to improve a bilateral military agreement governing the legal status of U.S. troops in the country. His call follows public outcry over the acquittal of U.S. soldiers in the deaths of two South Korean schoolgirls.

According to the transcript from a cabinet meeting Tuesday, Mr. Kim said the controversy surrounding the trial of two U.S. servicemen should serve as a lesson and prompt changes in the military accord.

The Status of Forces Agreement was signed in 1966 and has been revised twice, each time giving South Korea greater control over U.S. soldiers in criminal cases.

Last month, separate U.S. military courts cleared a military driver and navigator in the deaths of two South Korean schoolgirls. Their 50-ton armored vehicle crushed the girls during a military exercise in June on a village road.

Many South Koreans think the trials were biased in favor of the soldiers and the verdict sparked public outrage. Activists have called for the soldiers to be handed over to South Korean authorities and have demonstrated almost daily against the U.S. troop presence.

Some of the demonstrations have been violent, with demonstrators throwing gas bombs at U.S. military facilities. President Kim said he condemns the violence. He said that while constructive criticism of U.S. policies is permissible, indiscriminate anti-American sentiment does not serve the national interest.

With his presidential term due to end in February, it is unlikely that Mr. Kim's administration can achieve major changes to the bilateral military accord. However, it will probably be on the agenda at the annual meeting between the South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jun and his counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld, scheduled for Friday in Washington.

The upcoming elections have turned the Status of Forces Agreement into a hot political issue, with politicians seizing on the public's outcry.

Thirty-one lawmakers from rival political parties submitted a draft resolution to the National Assembly demanding that the accord be revised to give the South Korean government jurisdiction over American soldiers who commit crimes while 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.