Bush Arrives in Seoul, Anti-U.S.Protest Fizzles
SEOUL, Aug 5 - U.S. President George W. Bush arrived in South Korea on Tuesday for talks focused on communist North Korea and was greeted by a minor protest aimed mostly at his host instead of a big anti-U.S. rally that had been expected.
In a surprise boost for Bush, who has largely managed to set aside prickly issues with Seoul, it was a rally in the city centre in support of what is likely to be his last visit to East Asia as president that ended up attracting a huge crowd.
"I came to pray for the country to come together and with President Bush coming, for his visit to go smoothly," Lim Ji-young, 23, said against a background of gospel music at the pro-U.S. prayer rally of an estimated 15,000 people.
There was little sign of the widespread anger that had sparked weeks of mass anti-government protests after President Lee Myung-bak agreed to completely end a ban on U.S. beef imports, which had been barred five years earlier over mad cow disease concerns.
Some 20,000 police have been mobilised for the Bush visit and easily outnumbered a few hundred anti-Bush protesters who were dispersed with a brief burst of water cannon.
A Reuters Television cameraman said he saw police arrest at least a dozen protesters.
A senior U.S. official said the furore over beef had receded as an agenda item in the meeting with Lee after the two sides reworked an April deal to open what was once the third-largest foreign market for the U.S. product.
"That agreement seems to be working extremely well," Dennis Wilder, the White House National Security Council's senior director for Asian affairs, told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Before his trip Bush also quickly defused potential anger at Washington's position over the sovereignty of a desolate group of islands claimed by both South Korea and Japan.
His trip to Asia will take him to Bangkok on Wednesday and then on to Beijing for the Olympic Games.
Lee had agreed to the beef imports in April during his first overseas trip after taking office. Bush hosted him at Camp David, hoping the deal would lift a major barrier to the U.S. Congress approving a free trade deal with Asia's fourth largest economy.
But anger at home over the beef accord became a lightning rod for mass protests that signalled wider dissatisfaction with the conservative Lee government, which has seen its popularity tumble in less than six months in office.
Hours before Bush arrived, the South Korean government announced that quarantine inspectors had allowed in the first shipments of U.S. bone-in beef for five years.
U.S. and South Korean beef will be on the menu when the two leaders have lunch together on Wednesday after their morning talks and a joint news conference.
Wilder said Bush and Lee will discuss progress in verifying North Korea's account of its nuclear weapons programme and their free trade deal, signed by the two governments last year but yet to be ratified by either's legislature.
While Pyongyang could be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism as early as Aug. 11, that would not happen until an agreement was reached on verification, Wilder said.
Analysts said ties between Seoul and Washington have improved under Lee after cooling under his left-leaning predecessor, who was seen as too soft on North Korea.
There are about 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea in case of attack by the North, with which no peace treaty has yet been signed to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.
Wilder said Bush also wanted North Korea to allow an open investigation into circumstances surrounding the shooting of a South Korean tourist last month. (Writing by Jack Kim, editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Paul Tait)
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