Strong Voices From South Korea

Joint press conferences by high level officials have a tendency to produce little news, and are often more interesting for what they allude to than what is said clearly.

So it was with the one held, an hour late (no reason given, which lends itself to any sort of speculation one would like), by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon.

Trying to do her diplomatic best in the company of the next Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ms. Rice told questioners that she "did not come to South Korea, nor do I go anyplace else, to try to dictate to governments what they ought to do."

But she added: "Everyone should take stock of the leverage we have to get North Korea to return to the six-party talks."

The reference was to cutting back on two projects involving North and South Korea that reportedly provide the communist regime in the north with up to a million dollars a month — some of which is believed to have paid for the nuclear program.

Washington would like the programs curtailed as leverage against the North Koreans, but to say so might be construed as meddling.

But the Secretary of State needn't have worried about skirting the issue. It's out in the streets here on a regular basis, and provides an insight into the character of the nation that has dragged itself from dictatorship to the world's tenth strongest economy in a mater of a few decades.

A serious role in that transformation has been played by car-maker Hyundai, which also has a major stake in the two projects on the North Korean side of the de-militarized zone, the DMZ.

A small but well-organized segment of society here does not think such dealings are right and proper, and they demonstrate against them on a regular basis, in a right and proper way.

At about the same time Ms. Rice was in meetings with the government here, about forty well-dressed, middle-aged men and a few equally well-groomed women gather in front of Hyundai's main Seoul offices to protest.

They unfurled a banner imploring people not to go to the tourist complex, and waved small Korean flags.

The Press had been informed it would start at 11 a.m., and it did. By my count there were 24 journalists on hand, including reporters, photographers and camera crews. They lined up along the side of the road, leaving the sidewalk clear for passersby.

A dozen or so police in riot gear stood guard at the front door of the Hyundai building, although the protestors were no more likely to storm the building than I was to understand the speeches without an interpreter.

But they were great to hear, delivered in gravelly voices that Hollywood would have envied.

One man called for a complete boycott of Hyundai products, an unlikely event, but devastating if it ever happened given that by an unofficial count (mine) seven out of ten vehicles going by in the steady stream of traffic were Hyundai products.

A banner with pictures of the complexes in question and a symbol of Hyundai was laid on the sidewalk. A large X was spray painted across it, and then everyone went on their way, right on time.

They even took the banner, rather than doing the normal thing at demos and burning it.

That happened at another protest on Sunday, when not only North Korean flags and photos of the communist regime's leader Kim Jung Il were burned, but so was a twenty foot long replica of a rocket with his name on it.

The protestors at that event also took note of the economic ties, and called on the government to cut them.

And when they were done, right on advertised schedule, they even swept the ashes of the burned posters and rocket up, and put it all in a rubbish bin.

So, if the Secretary of State was worried that mentioning certain issues might cause trouble, well, it just shows she's never been to a South Korean protest.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.