PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 December, 2002, 12:00am

It is ironic that, at a time when the United States is in the middle of an escalating confrontation with North Korea over Pyongyang's covert nuclear programme - which violates agreements not just with Washington but also with Seoul - anti-American sentiment should be on the rise in South Korea.

One American official, commenting on Pyongyang's international isolation, said, only half-jokingly: 'The only ally that North Korea has is South Korea.'

Indeed, even in the closing months of his administration, President Kim Dae-jung continued to cling to his 'sunshine policy' of rapprochement with the North while opposing any suggestion of economic sanctions to punish Pyongyang for violating the Agreed Framework, signed with the US in 1994.

Of course, anti-American sentiment is on the rise around the world, not just in South Korea. A 44-nation study by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press showed that, despite an initial outpouring of public sympathy for America following the September 11 terrorist attacks last year, discontent with the US has grown around the world since then, including among Nato allies, in developing countries and, especially, in Muslim countries.

Among Asian countries surveyed, South Korea in particular stood out for its opposition to the US war on terrorism. The survey also showed South Koreans believed the US paid little attention to their country's concerns. According to the survey, South Koreans opposed the war on terror by three to one and, by almost the same margin, saw the US as acting unilaterally in the world.

And while support for the US is strong in Japan and the Philippines - both long-time American allies - South Koreans are much more sceptical, despite their close military and economic ties. About 37,000 American troops are based in South Korea.

In addition, the survey disclosed that 44 per cent of South Koreans have an unfavourable opinion of the US. This compares with 53 per cent of South Koreans who have a favourable view of America, a decline of five percentage points from the previous survey, conducted in 1999-2000.

The negative image of the US among South Koreans was probably affected by the timing of the survey, which was conducted between July and October. This was shortly after an incident in June when two South Korean teenage girls were crushed to death by an American armoured vehicle as they walked to a birthday party on a narrow road. The acquittal of two army sergeants by an American military tribunal triggered angry demonstrations across the country.

But while the deaths of the two girls no doubt added fuel to anti-US sentiment, those feelings themselves are by no means new. A survey published by the Dong-A newspaper two years ago found that only 42 per cent of respondents supported keeping US troops in South Korea, while 15 per cent wanted them withdrawn altogether.

Part of the reason for these sentiments is the changed perception of North Korea, precipitated by the summit meeting in 2000 between North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and Kim Dae-jung. Many South Koreans no longer think of the North Koreans as a serious threat to their country, despite current developments.

At the same time, perceptions of the American bases in South Korea are also changing, with more Koreans believing the troops are there not to protect them, but to serve American interests.

The hostility is troubling the South Korean business community. The country's five largest business organisations, including the Federation of Korean Industries and the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, issued a joint statement on Monday warning against the possible economic consequences of growing anti-American sentiments.

They pointed out that South Korea's economic ties with the US, which account for 60 per cent of investment, were vital to the country. Any boycott of South Korea by Americans, they warned, would be disastrous for the economy.

The presence of large numbers of American troops will inevitably result in incidents from time to time. The best that can be done is to keep them to a minimum and, when incidents do occur, ensure they are handled with sensitivity. But if the troops are to continue to be based in the country, it is vital for South Koreans generally to view the presence as being in their own interests. The US and the new South Korean government elected yesterday have their work cut out.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator

'Perceptions of US bases are changing, with more Koreans believing the troops are there not to protect them, but to serve

US interests'