How anti-Americanism is driving a wedge between the US and South Korea

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 February, 2003, 12:00am

Polls from around the world show that increasing numbers of people believe the US is arrogant, unilateralist and indifferent to key concerns of other nations - even friends and allies. There is a rising belief that the US has become a source of international tension and instability.

This sentiment is especially powerful in South Korea, a nation for which Americans shed their own blood in a civil war, and a front-line ally in the nuclear crisis with North Korea.

The list of South Korean grievances is long and growing. The most recent incidents include:

Anger for the deaths of two schoolgirls accidently run over last year by a US army vehicle. The acquittal of the two soldiers involved set off mass demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of Koreans.

The terms of the Status of Forces Agreement that require US soldiers be tried for crimes committed in the course of their service by US military courts.

Heavy handed US efforts to 'force' Seoul to buy a US-made plane in a competition for the next generation Korean fighter aircraft.

The snubbing of President Kim Dae-jung during his summit with US President George W. Bush in 2001 and the widespread belief that the US is hostile to Mr Kim's 'sunshine policy' of engagement with the North.

All these incidents are laid upon a foundation of bitterness, resentment and victimisation produced by South Korea's status as the junior partner in the security alliance. Last week, Korea specialists and scholars met in Washington to examine growing anti-Americanism in South Korea and the strains in its alliance with the US. The results were not encouraging. Participants were told that anti-Americanism was the result of US policy choices, international economic forces, South Korean political tactics and the structure of the international system. They were told they could blame democratisation, globalisation, Westernisation, modernisation, unipolarity, social mobility, the Korean media, Korea's Confucian heritage and its patriarchal ways.

In short, anti-Americanism is political, economic, cultural, historical, and psychological. It is the product of deep-rooted factors and trends, and triggered by specific incidents.

The most depressing analysis - offered by a Korean - suggested that an anti-American attitude was an 'inseparable part of the Korean national psyche'.

Another long-time observer of the peninsula (not a Korean) suggested that anti-Americanism was the outgrowth of the maturation of Korean democracy. It is easy to forget that anti-Americanism was illegal in Korea until only a few years ago, under the National Security Law.

The political spectrum in South Korea has been extended to the left and, by this analysis, anti-Americanism is a perfectly natural response.

The problem is that democracy is operating in an imperfect environment. In particular, the Korean people are not well served by the mass media.

Criticisms include an unwillingness to provide context or all the facts, a readiness to take sides [and direction from the government or publishers] and even a tendency to make up facts and even entire interviews. Korea has one of the highest Internet penetration ratios in the world, which contributes to the hot-house news atmosphere.

The strains in the alliance have sparked a growing chorus in Washington that is demanding the removal of US forces from South Korea. More level-headed participants cautioned against overreacting to Korean anger and assertiveness.

Korean political insiders acknowledge that president-elect Roh Moo-hyun rode the tide of anti-Americanism to victory in last year's elections and does not have the ties to the US that his predecessors did.

They also maintain that he has the intelligence and political savvy to understand reality. They are confident Mr Roh will move closer to the US and strengthen ties.

Perhaps, but the wedge that is dividing the US and South Korea cannot be dislodged by one man - whether he occupies the Blue House or the White House. Supporters of the alliance in both countries need to work harder to make their case to each public. I recommend they start with a similar conference on anti-Americanism in Seoul.

Brad Glosserman is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think-tank