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Armitage's S. Korea Visit Weighed Down by Anti-American Sentiment - 2002-12-10

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has met with South Korean leaders in Seoul to drum up support for a possible war to disarm Iraq, but the day was overshadowed by growing anti-American sentiment over a deadly accident involving U.S. soldiers. The status of thousands of U.S. forces in South Korea may be reviewed.

Activists gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, ahead of the arrival of Richard Armitage Tuesday. They called for an end to what they describe as U.S. world hegemony.

These are the latest anti-American demonstrations that were ignited last month when a U.S. military court acquitted two American soldiers whose armored vehicle killed two South Korean school girls in June. They want President Bush to apologize personally for the incident and those responsible punished.

Upon arrival, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage paid a courtesy call to South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who warned the issue could affect the close U.S.-South Korean security alliance.

The presidential office said Mr. Kim repeated his call for changes to a bilateral treaty outlining the legal status of 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. Under the current terms, the U.S. Army has jurisdiction over soldiers who commit crimes while on duty in South Korea - something Seoul wants amended.

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 Korean governments have requested that U.S. troops remain to help deter another conflict.

Mr. Armitage conveyed "profound apologies" on behalf of the United States for the deaths of the two girls and said Washington is taking Seoul's sentiments "very seriously." He said the United States had to do its absolute best to be seen as the best possible partners for friends in Korea.

South Korea is Mr. Armitage's second stop in Asia designed to harness support for a possible U.S. led war against Iraq. South Korean President Kim was quoted as saying Seoul would "positively assist" U.S. efforts to disarm Iraq, but no details were given about what form that assistance would take.

During talks with the South Korean foreign and defense ministers, Mr. Armitage also discussed North Korea and recent revelations that it has been pursuing an illegal nuclear weapons program. North Korea has already rejected a request by the International Atomic Energy Agency to accept nuclear inspections. Pyongyang accuses the U.N. organization of being biased and of doing the bidding of the United States.

Following his visit to Seoul, Mr. Armitage will travel on to China and Australia.