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S.Korean Protesters Greet U.S. Envoy Armitage

South Korean protester scuffles with riot police in front of the U.S. Embassy during an anti-U.S. rally in Seoul, Dec. 10, 2002. Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage flew into South Korea Tuesday for talks with top officials as angry protesters rallied to oppose his visit and American pressure on Iraq.

The South Korean leg of Armitage's four-country Asian tour to canvass support for U.S. policy on Iraq is expected to be the most delicate, coinciding with rising anger over an accident in which two girls were crushed by a U.S. army vehicle in June.

The grisly accident -- and the U.S. court martial acquittal last month of two soldiers that operated the tank-like mine-clearing vehicle -- has unleashed the largest wave of anti-U.S. sentiment in South Korea in recent years.

With a December 19 presidential vote just over a week away, the presence and legal status of the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea have become an emotive election issue -- overshadowing problems such as North Korea's nuclear arms program.

A small group of protesters gathered outside the U.S. embassy before Armitage's arrival in Seoul and demanded an apology for the girls' deaths and said they opposed U.S. "world hegemonism."

"Oppose the war on Iraq! End U.S. hostility toward North Korea! Condemn the Armitage visit!" declared the protesters.

South Korea President Kim Dae-jung, due to step down in February after serving a single five-year term, has voiced concern that furor over the girls' deaths could weaken the country's 50-year-old security alliance with the United States.

Armitage, who was in Tokyo Monday, will meet Kim and South Korea's foreign and defense ministers Tuesday. His trip will also take him to Beijing and Canberra.


Armitage said in Tokyo Monday President Bush was willing to be patient with Iraq but Baghdad would be disarmed eventually if it did not disarm itself.

"He would much prefer to have Iraq disarm herself," Armitage said of Bush.

"But, as the president said, 'If Iraq won't disarm, then eventually, Iraq will be disarmed'," Armitage told reporters.

Armitage is also expected to discuss North Korea, which Bush has branded part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and Iran. Washington says Pyongyang has admitted to pursuing a nuclear arms program, in violation of a 1994 non-proliferation pact.

"I don't know how we'll eventually get a solution," Armitage said in Tokyo, referring to communist North Korea's nuclear arms scheme. "We're content to let diplomacy work," he said.

The two main presidential hopefuls have voiced support for an alliance dating back to when U.S.-led U.N. forces helped South Korea beat back an invasion from North Korea in 1950.

The ruling party contender Roh Moo-hyun and opposition candidate Lee Hoi-chang have also embraced the anti-U.S. protesters' call for revising the bilateral pact that defines legal jurisdiction of U.S. troops in South Korea.

Angry that no one was found criminally responsible for the girls' deaths, South Korean activists want the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement altered to allow local authorities to prosecute cases involving U.S. troops on duty.



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