Image: South Korean protesters
Ahn Young-joon  /  AP
South Korean protesters wearing masks of President Bush and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, left, perform during a rally against Bush's visit in Seoul, South Korea, on Tuesday.
updated 8/5/2008 9:46:16 PM ET 2008-08-06T01:46:16

President Bush on Wednesday brushed off the raucous demonstrators who protested him as he opened a three-nation visit to Asia, saying it's a sign of citizens living in a country where they are free to speak their minds.

The dueling demonstrations by prayerful, flag-waving supporters and rowdy protesters doused by police water cannons reflected sharp political divisions in the U.S.-South Korean relationship, which has endured volatile moments this year, but is still reliable and vital for both sides.

"I enjoy coming to a free society where people are able to express their opinions — and your country is a free society," Bush told South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Lee sought to downplay the protests.

"The majority of the Korean people have been eagerly waiting for your visit," said Lee, who noted that thousands of people had gathered on Tuesday in Seoul to pray for Bush and the future of the U.S.-South Korea relationship.

"And of course behind these people there were those who were sort of opposed," Lee said in a wry reference to the thousands of anti-Bush protesters.

Bush laughed at the way Lee phrased that.

"I admire your forthrightness, your integrity and your deep love for the people of Korea," Bush said, sitting across from Lee at a large oval table at the presidential mansion.

People were waving American and South Korean flags as Bush's limousine neared the mansion where he met Lee, a pro-American leader who took office in February. Lee's approval ratings tumbled when he lifted a ban on U.S. beef despite public fears about its safety. The public outcry prompted street protests that drew attention worldwide earlier this year.

The two leaders walked down red-carpeted steps and on to a manicured lawn where they were greeted by South Korean troops and a military band. Behind the troops, Bush could gaze at the skyline of Seoul through the sunny morning haze.

As Bush arrived on Tuesday evening, 30,000 people held an outdoor Christian prayer service to support him. His motorcade sped by pockets of people smiling and waving U.S. flags his way.

Rioters hit with water cannon
Later, an estimated 20,000 anti-Bush protesters gathered downtown. Riot police blasted them with water cannons as they tried to march onto the main boulevard. Police warned the crowd that the liquid contained markers to tag them so they could be identified later.

The U.S.-South Korea bond has had other tests this year, too.

A trade deal Bush wants with South Korea has been buried by Congress. And a seemingly obscure change in how the U.S. classifies a set of islands drew widespread anger in South Korea, prompting Bush officials to abruptly reverse course.

Despite Tuesday's protests, the United States has a good standing with the Seoul government. The United States has quietly maintained a long-term troop presence in South Korea, now numbered at almost 30,000, since intervening in the 1950-1953 Korean War.

The countries are also at the heart of an international effort to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons. Bush has indicated he will remove North Korea from the U.S. terror blacklist, but not unless Pyongyang allows its dismantlement effort to be verified. The White House is tamping down expectations about an Aug. 11 date by which North Korea is expected to agree to an inspection proposal.

Bush comes with thanks to South Korea for contributing help in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was expected to ask Lee for more troops in Afghanistan, where violence is back on the rise.

Free trade efforts
Also on the agenda will be efforts by both presidents to have their legislatures approve a free trade agreement, with estimates it could increase bilateral trade by 25 percent. But with free trade deals with Colombia and Panama stalled in Congress, the prospects for ratification by the end of the year are unlikely.

Bush will meet with U.S. troops based in South Korea, as he did during a stopover in Alaska, where he expressed gratitude for their role in fighting terrorism.

"About a year ago, people thought Iraq was lost and hopeless," Bush said at Eielson Air Force Base, where he posed for photos with airmen and soldiers and worked the crowd, at one point lifting a baby in the air. "People were saying, 'Let's get out of there, it doesn't matter to our national security.'

"Iraq has changed — a lot — thanks to the bravery of people in this hangar and the bravery of troops all across our country. The terrorists (are) on the run. The terrorists will be denied a safe haven, and freedom is on the march. And as a result, our children are more likely to grow up in a peaceful world."

Bush's Asia trip also includes stops in Thailand and China. In an interview aboard Air Force One with The Washington Post, Bush said it was "really hard to tell" whether human rights in China had improved over the past eight years.

Bush said he speaks candidly with Chinese President Hu Jintao about human rights, but he skirted a question about a pre-Olympics security drive by Chinese authorities.

"They're hypersensitive to a potential terrorist attack," Bush said in the article for Tuesday's editions of the paper. "And my hope is, of course, that as they have their security in place, that they're mindful of the spirit of the Games, and that if there is a provocation, they handle it in a responsible way without violence."

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