Clashing opinions in U.S. debateLiterally at the city's crossroads, Seoul's City Hall Square has long played center stage for Korean history's dramas.
In the 1980s, tear gas filled the plaza as thousands of student activists protested the military regime of Chun Doo Hwan. Last summer, the Red Devil soccer fans imbued the square with a crrimson tide. And since December, it has glowed with the candlelight of mass anti-American rallies.
But a new movement has reclaimed the square since Jan. 11, with a decidedly more pacific message than its predecessor. A sea of green balloons filled the square around 3 p.m. Sunday as more than 50,000 people, mainly Christians, gather for a demonstration.
English slogans read: "Korea and U.S.A are blood brothers," "We want the U.S. military," "We reject the anti-American movement" and "Lord, give us real peace on the peninsula."
Quite a contrast from the Yankee-go-home pack, which has toted banners like "We demand the U.S. military leave the peninsula," and "Punish the Murderous American GIs," a reference to a June accident in which two U.S. Army soldiers maneuvering an armored vehicle struck and killed two Korean teenage girls.
Along with the green balloons, which are meant to symbolize peace, those gathered for the "Prayer Meeting for the Nation and Peace" also held up miniature Stars and Stripes; Taeggeukgi, Korea's national flag, and even some blue-and-white United Nations flags.
In contrast to the anti-American rallies, this time the U.S. flags were neither ripped nor lit on fire.
As religious hymns boomed through amplifiers, various ministers took to the stage to pray for the nation's peace. The largely middle-aged crowd, meanwhile, ardently waved placards and echoed their spiritual leaders' prayers.
"I'm proud to take part in this noble event for my country and people," says Kim Dong-sam, a 52-year old Seoulite waving an enormous U.S. flag.
The human spark for these peace rallies was the Reverend Gil Ja-yeon, the next leader of the Christian Council of Korea. Mr. Gil said he worried that the candlelight protests overstepped their limit.
"The young and the progressive should know that what they do can cause serious harm to our country," he said, as preparations began for last Sunday's rally. "All the more, we should not forget that more than 33,000 American soldiers died for us in the Korean War. South Koreans and Americans in this sense are blood brothers, not enemies who fight each other."
Heart-warming words, perhaps. But Mr. Gil insisted he is not pro-American. "We are just anti-anti-American," he said.
So these rallies have cleaved into two groups: the card-carrying anti-Americans and the Christians. The former group feels no allegiance toward the latter, but so far the two have peacefully coexisted around City Hall Square, thanks in part to separate time slots.
"We don't feel it's necessary to deal with the anti-anti-American rallies by those religious groups," said Chae Hee-byung, a leader of the Pan-National Committee, an organization formed to protest the American presence.
Anti-Americanism has clearly entered a new phase. And it's also mellowed out somewhat.
The number of participants at the candlelight vigils boiled at 100,000 a day in December; now, it simmers with only several hundred a day.
Seeking to assuage Americans, President-elect Roh Moo-hyun earlier this month told U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that "anti-American sentiment is limited to a very small group of people."
But Hong Se-hwa, an editor of The Hankyoreh, a local progressive newspaper, disagreed with that sentiment.
"Candlelight vigils are the symbols of people power," he said, "and the fact that Christian groups came out to the front is significant."
Religious groups tend to be the last part of the social structure to take visible action, he said, adding that Christians' participation "mirrors the weakening of the right wing of society, even though they don't want to admit it."
While the square has been a dither with rally fever, a small Asian fusion restaurant located in a nearby underground arcade experienced its own form of protest over a controversial sign that appeared in newspaper photographs worldwide.
The owner of Zeno, Lee Chang-yong, was once determined not to serve a drop of water to Americans, and hung out a board that stated in a bold, Roman font: "Americans are not welcome here."
The sign no longer appears on the restaurant's glass wall, however; the most visible wall decoration is a giant poster of the American musical "Chicago."
Mr. Lee changed his mind after receiving a moving letter from a Korean-American in Los Angeles.
"It said that my feelings are all understandable, but that the sign is making Korean-Americans' lives harder in the U.S.," he said. "After I read the letter, I took off the sign right away."
Mr. Lee's Web site, www.e-zeno.co.kr, became paralyzed with both hate mail and supportive letters from all over the world after the sign hit the news wires. A manager said that most of the staff had opposed the sign, but Mr. Lee was adamant.
"Many American customers who didn't know about the sign flared up when they saw it," the manager said. "Some even had quarrels with their Korean girlfriends over the sign."
Although Zeno's sign is gone, anti-American signs on 10 nightclubs around Hongik University -- better known as the Hongdae club district -- survived. One big bright yellow sign, reading "Due to previous bad experiences, GIs are no longer permitted to enter Hongdae clubs," still claimed space at the door of the Hodge Podge club yesterday.
Club owner Chae Hee-jun, who initiated the policy, conceded that enforcement has loosened a bit -- at least during weekdays. "GIs are a sizable part of our customer group and many clubs have voiced their concerns over this policy," he said.
"These days, some clubs let in GIs who have been steady enough visitors to become our friends. But that's limited to weekdays. On weekends and on Club Days, we stick to our principle to check ID cards of all the customers."
Lest anybody forget, the peninsula also hosts a dedicated core of pro-American Koreans like Cho Nam-hyeon, a spokesman for the conservative Free Citizens' Alliance of Korea.
During an interview at his office near the U.S. Army's Yongsan Garrison, Mr. Cho asserted that anti-Americanism is ridiculous nonsense. "There is no doubt that the deaths of the two girls should be mourned," he said. "But the thing is, it was only a traffic accident. No reason to get mad."
Mr. Cho theorizes that the U.S. maintains a military presence here to spread Pax Americana, while for Koreans, their presence is a matter of life and death.
"The U.S. government is not stupid enough to keep its army based in Korea if it does not see any benefit," he said. "In this sense, those candlelight vigil people telling the U.S. Army to leave the peninsula are going too far."
Mr. Cho's organization went so far as to buy a newspaper ad to express concern over rising anti-American sentiment. "The Anti-American groups are just taking advantage of the deaths of the girls. They are agitating for the withdrawal of the U.S. Army," he said. "What for? For North Korea?"
Whether pro-American, anti-American or anti-anti-American in nature, rallies -- along with the attendant burning wicks and green balloons -- are here for the foreseeable future. A candlelight vigil is scheduled for tomorrow outside Kyobo Book Center, near City Hall Square. The green balloons, meanwhile, will fill the sky at 2 p.m. on Feb. 9 at Busan Station Square.
by Chun Su-jin