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Young East Asians Learn About Impact Of U.S. Forces In Korea


August 21 2003

Ariana Paula Lau was "shocked" to see a vast array of munitions cases and to hear the deafening sound of explosions when she visited a small Korean town recently, 50 years after the Korean War ended.

The young Macau woman was one of 15 Catholic college students from East Asia who were in South Korea Aug. 4-11 on an "exposure trip" to gauge the impact of expatriate military forces on the security of local people.

Joined by 15 Korean participants, the students from Hong Kong, Japan and Macau become involved in the program to experience what it is like for Korean people to live in the presence of U.S. troops.

The program, partly seminar and partly first-hand experience, was organized by the Seoul Federation of Catholic Students (SFCS) and the Asia Pacific Team of the International Movement of Catholic Students (IMCS). The IMCS has been organizing such activities since 1998 to help students develop awareness of their own reality and to raise their voices within their respective regions.

The students went to the Catholic Center at Myongdong Cathedral in Seoul to attend lectures on the U.S.-Korea Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which regulates the U.S. military presence in South Korea, as well as on the history of U.S. forces in East Asia and the political situation in the region.

But the trips to U.S. military bases seemed to help the participants most to understand how local people are affected by soldiers on duty and off duty. The students visited the U.S. Kooni Firing Range and a U.S. Air Force bombing training site in the Maehyang-ri area, 60 kilometers south of Seoul in Gyeonggi province. They also went to U.S. army camps in Paju, 30 kilometers northwest of Seoul, and the commercial sex area of Dongducheon, 40 kilometers north of Seoul, near a U.S. military camp.

Michael Uhm Ki-ho, secretary general of the Manila-based IMCS Asia Pacific Team, told UCA News that this year´s theme, "The Impact of Foreign Military Troops on Human Security," was chosen because of increasing U.S. military operations in the world, such as in Iraq this year and earlier in Afghanistan.

"By experiencing the lives and environment of people living under the influence of U.S. troops, we could see how people of the area lose the right of self-determination and how their human security is threatened," he said.

Macau´s Lau was shocked to see so much military activity so long after the Korean War (1950-1953), which ended with the formal division of the peninsular into North Korea and South Korea. She also questioned why U.S. forces remain in South Korea. American soldiers may need target practice, she told UCA News, but that makes the local residents appear to live on a "battlefield."

In Maehyang-ri, the students carried pots of flowers as they entered the firing range on Nong Island, the exercise target islet. After forming a cross with the flower pots, they prayed for peace. They then took spent ammunition scattered on the islet to create another cross beside the flower-pot cross.

At Dongducheon, they visited Saeumteo, an NGO working for "gijichon" women who depend on prostitution and commerce with U.S. soldiers. They listened to the women and saw rehabilitation work that an NGO does for them.

The students also visited Yangju, north of Seoul, where two 14-year-old schoolgirls were killed in June 2002 when a U.S. armored car ran over them on a narrow country road during a military exercise. That incident sparked a huge public outcry and much debate over the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea, especially concerning the SOFA pact.

Some people with whom they spoke insisted that the U.S. forces contribute to South Korea´s security against communist North Korea. Others said the U.S. military should allow the soldiers who manned the vehicle to be tried in a Korean court, even if SOFA unfairly grants primary jurisdiction to the United States for crimes committed by American soldiers while on duty in South Korea.

Law Lap Man from Hong Kong is pleased with the exposure experience. "It was a good chance to know Korea´s reality," she told UCA News. "Through the trip, I could feel with local residents who cannot exercise their self-determination and who suffer from the U.S. military."

Father Francis Xavier Na Seong-goo of the Seoul Federation of Catholic Students explained to UCA News that this year´s program aimed not only to investigate the serious aspects of foreign forces, but also to encourage young East Asians to construct a demilitarized peace zone in their region.

"People can easily think the matter has nothing to do with them," Father Na remarked, "but this program gives them substantial exposure and a chance to express solidarity with local residents." He added, "Through this program. I hope that a peace network can develop among young people in East Asia."

The U.S. forces first came to Korea to disarm Japanese soldiers after World War II and withdrew after a Korean government was installed. But when the Korean War erupted, they returned and have remained ever since. In all, about 37,000 U.S. servicemen are stationed in more than 90 U.S. military bases.