[NOTEBOOK]Protest flames burn with a purpose

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[NOTEBOOK]Protest flames burn with a purpose

Scene No. 1: May 25, 1980, a government office in Gwangju. Citizens hold a rally protesting a siege of the city by paratroopers. They cheer at the news that a U.S. submarine is spotted off Busan. They put up posters that welcome the submarine. They think that the submarine has come to Korea to protect them.

Scene No. 2: May 23, 1985, the American Cultural Center, Euljiro, central Seoul. Seventy-three students from five universities occupy the center and demand apologies from the United States. They say that the United States is responsible for the massacre in Gwangju five years before.

Scene No. 3: Dec. 7, 2002, Gwanghwamun intersection, downtown Seoul. Citizens -- mostly students and Internet users -- hold lighted candles and ask for an apology from U.S. president George W. Bush for the deaths of two local girl crushed under a U.S. Army vehicle during a military training exercise.

The above three scenes show how Koreans' views of America have changed over the decades. During the 1980 Gwangju democratization movement, Gwangju citizens regarded America as their guardian angel. They thought America would protect them as it did during the Korean War by sending its troops to the peninsula.

After the mid-1980s, however, a change took place among some university students. They said America was responsible for the Gwangju massacre because U.S. troops in Korea, who were in command of Korean troop movements at the time, approved the troop movement to Gwangju, an event that killed hundreds of Gwangju citizens. But there were only a few who denounced America at that time. Those who voiced anti-American views were subject to punishment.

What is the situation now? The candlelight protest that memorialized the two teenage girls and that asked for a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement, the rules governing U.S. troops in Korea, does not include anti-American chants. Strong rallying cries such as "Yankee, go home" are not heard at these vigils. A presidential candidate was blocked from speaking against the United States during the protest because citizens did not want a politician speaking during these rallies.

The protests against the acquittals of the two American soldiers who were charged with negligent homicide in the road deaths of the two girls never seem to cease. Entertainers and athletes participated in the candlelight protest originally suggested by an Internet user. Professors, lawyers and writers have joined the protests. Tomorrow, more than 100,000 people are expected to join a candlelight protest in front of City Hall, the spot where waves of red-clad World Cup fans congregated last June.

Why such strong support for candlelight protests? The protests are expressions of regret for the two girls who were crushed before they bloomed into young women. The protests are manifestations of respect for lives and human rights. Thus, the events are not necessarily anti-American protests, but protests toward America, which is different.

The Korean and American governments should work together to prevent the current protests toward America from being transformed into anti-American rallies. Citizens from the two countries must throw themselves into the matter with enthusiasm. The endeavor on the American side, in particular, is urgent. Even though the American legal system is different from the Korean one, Koreans do not understand why the two soldiers who killed the two girls were found not guilty in U.S. military courts-martial.

A U.S. soldier recently wrote the newspaper Stars and Stripes, published by the U.S. Defense Department, that the company commander in charge of the two American soldiers should be held responsible for the girls' deaths.

The soldier wrote, "If we had used the bypass [a road wider than the small and crowded road on which the accident occurred], the whole thing would have never been a problem."

This case should be a candle that enlightens U.S.-Korean relations. The two countries should work together respecting each other. The protesters should never use violence. Finally, any exploitation of the protests for political purposes should never be allowed.

* The writer is the crime news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Shin Sung-ho

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