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No shortage of reasons why South Koreans dislike the U.S.

By Brad Glosserman, The Japan Times, 13 February 2003

WASHINGTON—Opinion polls from around the world show increasing numbers of people believe that the United States is arrogant, unilateralist and indifferent to key concerns of other nations—even friends and allies. There is a rising belief that the U.S. has become a source of international tension and instability.

This sentiment is especially powerful in South Korea, a nation for which the U.S. shed blood in a violent civil war a half century ago, and a frontline ally in the nuclear crisis with North Korea.

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

All of these incidents are laid on a foundation of bitterness, resentment and victimization resulting from South Korea’s status as the junior partner in a security alliance, the belief that the U.S. does not sufficiently appreciate South Korea, the continuing division of the Korean Peninsula and the persistence of Cold War tensions.

Last week, Korea specialists and scholars examined the unprecedented strains in the U.S.-South Korean alliance. The results of that scrutiny were not encouraging. The discussions focused on anti-Americanism—or what should really be called anti-Americanisms. One participant counted more than 15 different versions of the malady during the two days of meetings, prompting speculation that we were talking about different things—or a phenomenon so encompassing as to be virtually meaningless if we are ever going to diagnose or fix it.

We were told that anti-Americanism was the result of U.S. policy choices, international economic forces, South Korean domestic political tactics and the structure of the international system. We could blame democratization, globalization, Westernization, modernization, unipolarity, social mobility, the South 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. One participant preferred the term America-bashing to anti-Americanism.

The most depressing analysis—offered by a Korean, no less—suggested that an anti-American attitude is an inseparable part of the Korean national psyche. This commentator argued that this sentiment is an integral component of a Korean mentality that demands the existence of a them to mirror and unite the us of the Korean nation. Sometimes this tendency resembles scapegoating, but even without specific events to set it off, the need for an external other to define Korean-ness means that some form of anti-Americanism will always be present.

Another longtime Korea observer (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; the National Security Law forbade criticism of the U.S. (praise of North Korea is still illegal, although there is more open sympathy for the North since the historic June 2000 North-South summit). The political spectrum in South Korea has shifted to the left and, by this analysis, anti-Americanism is a perfectly natural response. The alliance has exacerbated the situation: the ability to think like or communicate with Americans has aided upward mobility in South Korea, adding a class element to the mix.

The problem is that democracy is operating in an imperfect environment. In particular, the South 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 direction from the government or publishers (recall that in the aftermath of the Kim-Kim summit, South Korean newspaper publishers met North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and pledged to tone down criticism of Pyongyang) as well as a tendency to make up facts and even entire interviews. South Korea has one of the highest Internet-use 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 U.S. forces from South Korea. More level-headed participants cautioned against overreacting to South Korean anger and assertiveness. Don’t be afraid of differences between the two countries, they counseled. Respect disagreements. Don’t be alarmed about changes in the relationship. Continue contacts and communications and ensure that they go two ways. Informing a partner is not enough; genuine consultations are required. Most important, take nothing for granted. (Curiously, a few months ago, the think tank where I work, Pacific Forum, cohosted a meeting of young opinion leaders that focused on Japan-Korea relations; they reached similar conclusions.)

South Korean political insiders acknowledge that South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun rode the tide of anti-Americanism to victory in last year’s elections—some insist that the government manipulated the demonstrations to shore up his support—and does not have the ties to the U.S. that his predecessors did. They also maintain that he has the intelligence and political savvy to understand reality, and are confident the new president will move closer to the U.S. in the months ahead and strengthen ties between the two allies.

Perhaps, but the wedge that is dividing the U.S. 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.