Protesters hurled rocks, bottles and eggs during a demonstration yesterday at a war memorial housing a statue of US General Douglas MacArthur, who landed behind North Korean lines a half-century ago and led UN forces in a counterattack that turned the tide of the Korean War.
A handful of anti-MacArthur demonstrators marching at Freedom Park were met by thousands of his supporters who pelted them with objects and shouted invective in the western city of Incheon -- the site of MacArthur's 1950 landing.
South Koreans still argue over whether MacArthur's memory should be revered or banished from the peninsula. Calls for the statue's removal have been made daily for the past two months.
Police were out in force to prevent violence, and no injuries were immediately reported.
"MacArthur is a general of blood and tears. He can't stand in this place which symbolizes peace and freedom," said Yoon Han-tak, 70, a retired schoolteacher.
But Song Chul-young, 61, a marine veteran, disagreed.
"Around the statue stands numerous invisible soldiers that fought with him. To take his statue down is to eliminate their souls," he said.
The argument for the removal of the statue, erected in 1957, came to the fore in 2002 when two schoolgirls died in an accident involving a US army vehicle. Their deaths spurred a tide of anti-American feeling and fueled resentment over the continuing US military presence in South Korea. Police have guarded MacArthur's statue around the clock ever since.
Most involved in the debate are elderly with personal memories of the Korean War and the bitter ideological struggles that the country went through in its early years.
"MacArthur is a war criminal who massacred numerous civilians at the time of the Korean War," anti-US groups said in a plea submitted to South Korea's National Human Rights Commission last month.
"To induce or force children to respect such a person by erecting a statue of him and teaching them that he is a great figure is a national disgrace and greatly injures the dignity of our people," they said in the plea.
Kim Soo-nam, 65, who heads another anti-US group, painfully recalled the behavior of US troops during the war.
"They sat in their jeeps and scattered biscuits on the ground. The poorly dressed young children would swarm like ants, and they took photos of that," he said.
But those who want to keep the statue -- mainly war veterans, some of whom fought alongside MacArthur in his landing operation -- are just as firm in their belief that the general's image should remain.
"Not even dogs forget their benefactors," said former South Korean Ambassador to the UN Park Keun, who spoke at a news conference on Friday staged by a veteran's group.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency even noted the memorial controversy in a report this month.
Some observers are linking the MacArthur controversy to current relations between the South Korean government and the US. The Seoul-Washington alliance has undergone a transformation, with South Korea becoming increasingly assertive; President Roh Moo-hyun promised in his successful 2002 election campaign not to "kowtow to the Americans."
"There already are concerned voices about the abnormal condition of US-[South] Korea relations. Imagine the scene of MacArthur's statue being taken down broadcast live in homes in the US and worldwide," the Dong-A Ilbo daily wrote in an editorial last month. "History shouldn't be garnished or vandalized with ideology."
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