[A-List] South Korea: the blowback continues
michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Fri Dec 20 02:39:24 MST 2002
Anti-Americanism all the rage in South Korea
By Michael Taylor
Asia Times, December 20 2002
SEOUL - It is mid-morning on a freezing weekday in central Seoul, and this
reporter has an hour to kill before conducting his next interview. The
coffee shop in the labyrinthine underground passage linking City Hall with
nearby office buildings and several international hotels seems like as good
a place as any. Or perhaps not, for he is a US citizen and pasted on the
front window is a large sign: "AMERICANS ARE NOT WELCOME HERE!!!" After a
quick test of the staff's resolve, it becomes evident that they mean what
they say - no service for Yankee.
"Many Westerners call Koreans xenophobic, but I don't agree with that," says
a Western business lobbyist based in Seoul. "They just have a healthy
mistrust of foreigners." Perhaps, but these are certainly not the healthiest
of times for US-South Korea relations. Anti-Americanism, which is never far
from the surface here, has flared anew after a resurgence of nationalistic
pride in the wake of South Korea's successful co-hosting of the World Cup of
Football last summer, and amid the run-up to the presidential elections. The
immediate catalyst: the acquittal of two US servicemen who caused the deaths
of two Korean schoolgirls in a horrific accident last June. The teenagers
were tragically killed when the 50-ton track vehicle operated by the
soldiers ran them over during a training mission.
There are about 37,000 US troops in South Korea, and legal jurisdiction over
any crimes they commit is decided by the Status of Armed Forces Agreement
(SOFA) between Washington and Seoul. This pact only allows Korean courts to
handle cases involving US soldiers who commit crimes when they are off duty.
Because the servicemen were on duty at the time of the accident, the US
military had jurisdiction over the investigation, and last month an army
court cleared the soldiers of any wrongdoing.
That decision has resulted in massive protest rallies, including a
demonstration of a reported 50,000 angry citizens in front of the US Embassy
on December 15. The protesters are calling for the two soldiers to be tried
in a Korean court and for a permanent change to the SOFA. Perhaps more
frightening for foreign residents are the increased reports of attacks on US
soldiers, including the attempted stabbing of an army officer late Sunday
outside Yongsan US Army Base in the capital city.
The current anti-US fervor is largely a youth movement, and has been egged
on in part by supporters of the two major candidates in Thursday's
presidential election, both of whom are eager for young people's support.
While the phenomenon has spread from radical extremists into mainstream
politics, it seems to reverberate at a level far deeper in Korean society.
Yet those who are calling for a withdrawal of US troops are, in the words of
a Korean cliche, like frogs looking at the world from the bottom of a well.
Koreans like to say that their country has been invaded more than 900 times
throughout history, a slight exaggeration unless one includes minor border
skirmishes. But the nation spent centuries as a vassal state under the
suzerainty of the Chinese imperial court, which nonetheless never managed to
co-opt the country and make it part of China. More recently, Korea suffered
brutal treatment at the hands of Japanese colonizers, whose notorious abuse
of the nation to feed its military-industrial machine is bitterly remembered
by young Koreans - who did not experience it - today.
However, this was not the only nation to suffer as an unwilling member of
Japan's "East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere". Fear of resurgent Japanese
militarism prompted China's support for North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung's
invasion of the South in 1950. After the ceasefire in 1953, the continuing
presence of the US military in South Korea has served China's purposes
almost as well as if the Chinese had won the war.
"It is often said that US troops are here to protect South Korea against an
invasion," says a foreign consultant and 15-year resident of Seoul. "But the
reality is that they're here to ease China's fears by shoring up its borders
against another invasion." He adds that the real buffer for China is not the
demilitarized zone (DMZ), the thin strip of land separating the two Koreas
at the 38th parallel, but rather "everything from the DMZ north to the
Chinese border ... I always tell my Korean friends, 'Go demonstrate in front
of the Chinese Embassy if you want to see US troops removed from your
Kicking the US troops out is an ever-popular idea, and one voiced by
President Kim Dae-jung during his successful election campaign in 1997. Yet
just as with his campaign pledge to "renegotiate" South Korea's bailout
package with the International Monetary Fund, he wisely abandoned the
rallying call after stepping into office. Because of the obvious security
risks, any departure of US troops would be accompanied by the exodus of
foreign investors, who have played a critical role in the rebuilding of
South Korea's economy since the Asian financial crisis that first hit South
Korea in November 1997. Government figures show that as of September, US
investors accounted for 54 percent of the nation's cumulative foreign
Yet both Korean and foreign business leaders are afraid that the current
round of America-bashing, which has included boycotts of US goods and
companies, will have repercussions on Korean trade with the United States.
Judging by previous boycotts, the impact on US firms is likely to be harsh.
For example, a similar but less virulent upsurge of anti-Americanism
followed a controversial speed-skating contest in last winter's Olympic
Games and a subsequent and unfortunate Jay Leno joke about Koreans eating
dog meat. Angry young Koreans responded with a boycott of US goods and
services that resulted in a 15 percent reduction in sales at South Korean
The current boycotts are likely to be even more damaging to US restaurant
chains (or eateries that are perceived to be from the US), as well as
consumer-goods companies and automobile manufacturers. "I am so sad because
of the death of our two schoolgirls but given the Korea-US relations, we
have to consider the economic losses and gains," Korea Chamber of Commerce
and Industry (KCCI) chairman Park Yong-sung said in a radio announcement.
Likewise, Jeffrey Jones, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in
Korea, warned last week that the demonstrations and violence could lead to
an anti-Korean movement in the United States. Bilateral trade reached US$52
billion in 2001, and the United States is South Korea's largest export
market. However, this relationship will be at risk if the simmering anti-US
Observers say that the United States handled the deaths of the girls in a
very poor manner politically, with President George W Bush's condolences
issued via his ambassador in Seoul and largely falling on deaf ears. Last
week, Bush finally expressed his personal condolences for the girls' deaths
during a phone conversation with Kim, but it was too late to stave off the
"Koreans, like everyone, are a very proud people, and the US is not
recognizing some of the changes," says an observer. "Many in Washington
think Koreans should simply be grateful that 40 years ago we supported them
and 37,741 Americans gave their lives to make this a free and successful
place - to give them the right to burn our flag, which Koreans like to do
from time to time. And yeah, they should be grateful - but we haven't done a
very good job of helping them to remember why."
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