The victory of the liberal Roh Moo-Hyun in the December 19 South Korean presidential elections has been presented in the Western media as a source of future tension with Washington. Roh, a long-time liberal and human rights advocate, when compared to his more conservative opponent, Lee Hoi-Chang, does represent a more challenging partner for future South Korean-U.S. relations. The new president’s stated aims include continuing the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea, renegotiating the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) for the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, and maintaining a more independent foreign policy in international and regional affairs. However, it is difficult to argue that anything Roh does could place more tension on Seoul’s relationship with Washington than the Bush administration’s unilateral foreign policy.

Indeed the current (and immediate future) state of South Korean-U.S. relations is the result of much deeper currents. Anti-Americanism has been on the rise since the end of the cold war due in part to a perception that the absence of a serious global security threat vitiates the need to tolerate U.S. arrogance and unilateralism. In South Korea, the success of the Sunshine Policy has further reduced the perception of threat from across the last cold war frontier in Asia. The combination of reduced threat and U.S. unilateralism in South Korea has created a situation that does not augur well for future bilateral relations. Anti-Americanism in South Korea, a once-close and passionate supporter of U.S. policy, has risen to alarming levels.


Anti-Americanism is neither a new nor an understudied phenomenon but rather a sometimes-fashionable and popular trend that has ebbed and flowed with bouts of American interaction and isolation in global affairs. America has oscillated between the role of savior and great Satan more than once throughout its short history. But it was the outpouring of anti-Americanism after September 11 that surprised most Americans. Hardly before the embers had cooled, it seemed as if solidarity had changed to animosity on a near global scale. Succinctly stated in Asia Week magazine: “Chinese reacted with a touch of sympathy, some scepticism, and a large dose of anti-Americanism to the terrorist attacks against the U.S.”1 Similar reactions could be found worldwide from Germany to South Korea.

Much of the criticism derives from the rise in the role played by American foreign policy in domestic politics across the globe. More than 40 years ago, Hans Morgenthau in his classic Politics Among Nations stated that there is a point where the traditional distinction between foreign and domestic policy tends to break down. With rapid advances in communication, this point of distinction has become more blurred than ever before. The morality, mores, and law adhered to in a domestic context are anticipated and expected in an international context. The failure of the Bush administration to recognize the role of American foreign policy in the domestic politics of individual countries is represented by its retreat from multilateralism toward a policy firmly entrenched in unilateralism.

The Bush administration’s detachment from multilateralism has been marked by the failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol, preconditions for America’s participation in the International Criminal Court, abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in favor of National Missile Defense (NMD), and trade measures such as the farm bill and steel tariff increases. Every measure has further widened the gulf between the U.S. and the international community at a time when globalization is bringing the international community closer together. Even in the aftermath of September 11, a majority (55%) of Europeans, ostensibly America’s closest allies, considered U.S. foreign policy to blame for the attacks.2 In the same poll a majority of Europeans ranked the Bush administration fair or poor in its handling of international issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict (74%), the situation in Iraq (71%), and global warming (77%).3

The current strategic situation has placed unilateralism firmly on the policy agenda, and President Bush’s unilateralism allows only for black and white. Bush’s September 20, 2001, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” attitude has served to polarize public sentiment. Since then, Bush has reiterated his position, which is based upon the division of the world into good (America and its loyal allies) and evil (all that oppose America). In effect, unilateralism has become the new focal point in U.S. foreign policy doctrine, and this has sparked a sharp rise in anti-Americanism. In an April poll conducted for the Council on Foreign Relations, an overwhelming majority viewed American unilateralism negatively, with 85% of Germans, 80% of French, 73% of Britons, and 68% of Italians considering the U.S. to be acting in its own interests in the war on terror.4 The formulation of a good-versus-evil battle with all the comic book terms—e.g., “Axis of Evil”—has served to strengthen anti-Americanism in many countries already harboring nascent antipathy to American policy.

South Korean Anti-Americanism:
Cultural, Economic or Just the Axis of Evil?

An American soldier was detained by an angry mob, forced to watch an anti-American demonstration at which he was photographed, videotaped, and forced to make a public statement demanding justice from the United States. He was then taken to another location to apologize to the cochairman of an anti-American organization…

It is hard not to conjure up images of a poor American GI being bound, blindfolded, and dragged, then driven in a beat-up old Peugeot along dusty narrow roads, all to the background sound of evening prayer echoing along bullet-ridden stucco walls. However, this particular event did not occur in Lebanon, Iran, or elsewhere in the Middle East but rather in affluent, uptown Seoul in September 2002.

Anti-Americanism was once viewed in South Korea as unpatriotic and radical. The cold war birthed the South Korean state, the result of political and strategic decisions in Washington to contain communism in North Asia. Its continued existence required a long, bitter war in which approximately 36,000 American soldiers died beside more than one million South Koreans. In cold war rhetoric, to be anti-American was to be radical and pro-Soviet, and hence an enemy of the state.

In the early years of the Republic of Korea, anti-Americanism was just that—radical. It was limited to an extremely small number, who risked both arrest and imprisonment under the National Security Law (1948). That law was used primarily by the Rhee administration to ensure support for his conservative right-wing power base. Its use also ensured that anti-Americanism remained the exclusive domain of radicals willing to risk arrest. Effectively, anti-Americanism was ensconced within Marxism-Leninism, where it remained until the advent of the democratization movement.

With the democratization movement, South Korean anti-Americanism emerged from the confines of Marxism-Leninism and radicalism and invaded the realms of Korean nationalism and legitimate mainstream political discourse. Further, the post-democracy period has allowed a reinterpretation of Korean history and a reevaluation of the Korean national identity. This reinterpretation and reevaluation changed the understanding of anti-Americanism in the minds of both the elder and younger generation in today’s South Korea.

The first stage of the democracy movement began during the increasingly repressive regime of South Korea’s first president, Rhee Syngman. On April 19, 1960, students took to the streets to demonstrate the corrupt electoral processes of the March election, in which Rhee claimed 90% of the vote. Large-scale riots began in Masan, reverberating across the nation until martial law was proclaimed. Rhee was forced into exile, and in his place was formed South Korea’s first democratic government—the Second Republic. The government created a new bicameral legislature and reduced the powers of the executive. Open and democratic debate flourished, accompanied by a free and independent press. Rhee’s exile marked the end of the first stage of the democracy movement. Prodemocracy activists laid a wreath at the statue of General MacArthur in the belief that the American government had assisted in Rhee’s removal. It would be one of the last times that many Koreans viewed U.S. policy as supporting democracy in South Korea.

On May 16, 1961, the Second Republic and its democratic ideals came to an end, supplanted by the military rule of Park Chung-Hee. The second stage of the democracy movement (1979-80) began with demonstrations in Pusan and Masan in response to regime attempts to clamp down on an already-dissatisfied populace. After the assassination of President Park and the partial reforms of interim President Choi, the democracy movement, largely based among students, grew to include the labor movement and the Catholic Church. In response, martial law was declared across the entire country, and future presidents Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae-Jung were arrested. In the bloody climax on May 18, 1980, military special forces quashed a demonstration in Kwangju, causing the deaths of between 230 (the official death toll) and 2,000 (human rights group Asia Watch’s death toll). The use of Korean special forces—nominally under the Combined (U.S.) Forces Command—to quell the uprising has become a cause célèbre of the anti-American movement. Democracy had failed a second time, and this time America was to blame.

At the end of the second stage of the prodemocracy movement, popular sentiment toward the U.S. became more critical and more violent. This was reflected in the 1980 arson attack on the U.S. Information Center in Seoul, the 1982 arson attacks on the U.S. Cultural Center in Pusan, demonstrations before the visit of Ronald Reagan in 1983, and the occupation of the U.S. Cultural Center in Seoul, during which protesters demanded an American apology for the Kwangju massacre.

The third and most recent stage of the prodemocracy movement occurred in 1987, when demonstrators took to the streets to protest plans by General Chun Doo-Hwan to transfer power to retired General Roh Tae Woo under an unchanged and undemocratic Constitution. This time, the universal popularity of the reform movement was overwhelming. On June 29, Roh announced an eight-point democratization package accepting all the reforms sought by the opposition. The June 29 Declaration led to the first democratic presidential elections and the presidency of Roh Tae Woo.

The democracy movement moved progressively from one stage to the next, gaining a wider base of support and legitimacy. The radical and largely student supporters of the first stage had expanded to include labor, the Catholic Church, Buddhist groups, housewives, and even elements of the military, weakening the government’s ability to classify dissent as unpatriotic or seditious. In fact, the opposition came to have more respect and legitimacy than the government.

Meanwhile, a transformation of anti-Americanism was occurring. Washington’s “hands-off” attitude toward South Korean politics amounted to tacit support for the unpopular, repressive regimes, opening the U.S. to accusations of complicity in the repression of democracy. Anti-Americanism was no longer unpatriotic, seditious, or radical but had become, like the democracy movement, respectable and legitimate.

In the inevitable reevaluation of the democracy movement, scholars have studied the role of the U.S. carefully. Revelations of American complicity in the continued repression of democracy have led to a growing cynicism regarding America’s place in Korean history. The permission granted by U.S. General Carter Magruder to the Korean Army to dispatch troops in the Masan Riots (1960) during the first stage of the quest for democracy and the more controversial decision to release troops from the Combined Forces Command to suppress the Kwangju uprising (1980) have highlighted American interference. Other commentators cite the historical role of the U.S. in Korean affairs, including American disregard for the U.S.-Korea Treaty of 1882, intended to protect Korea from imperialist designs, and the Taft-Katsura agreement of 1905, which exchanged Japan’s agreement to the American annexation of Hawaii for America’s agreement to Japan’s annexation of Korea.

Thus, a new understanding of American involvement in Korea has emerged. Whereas America was previously viewed as a strong supporter of democracy guided by Wilsonian values, it is now popularly considered hypocritical, calculating, and self-driven. This same reinterpretation of American values and revelation of U.S. hypocrisy has legitimized and widened anti-Americanism throughout the third world, mirroring complaints across the globe.5 Current anti-Americanism in South Korea openly reflects public responses to perceived threats regarding economics, culture, and national identity.

Economic Origins of Anti-Americanism

South Korean economic anti-Americanism first appeared during the 1980s. Consistent reform of trade policy—commencing with the Park regime’s export promotion in 1960, the Chemical and Heavy Industry initiative, and the export-oriented consumer products drive–led the South Korean economy to achieve a trade surplus with the U.S. for the first time in 1986. Already feeling the strain of a large trade deficit with Japan, Washington reacted with a concerted effort to open South Korean markets to U.S. exports. U.S. interests in trade reform with Korea stretched from agriculture to protection for intellectual property rights.

Public reaction to U.S. efforts to pry open Korea’s markets was strong. To Koreans, U.S. trade policy seemed more like trade warfare, more like the gunboat diplomacy of the 19th century than a pact between allies. Occurring only a short time after the Kwangju massacre, when speculation and revelations of American complicity were rife, Washington’s move to boost U.S. exports fueled further rage. Sectors that traditionally had been pro-American, in particular industrial leadership and agriculture, became vehemently anti-American. Irritation also increasingly focused on the instruments that America used to open Korean markets. Most Koreans linked the U.S. with the international economic system. GATT, and later the WTO, seemed to be tools controlled by the U.S. government.

This general perception was reinforced by the IMF’s role in the 1997 Asian economic crisis, which had a profound effect on South Korea. The IMF period was considered a national shame, equated in hyperbolic terms to the Japanese occupation. In Korea the crisis was attributed jointly to the financial policies of the Seoul administration and to the failure to control chaebol (conglomerate) borrowing. However, blame was also leveled at the United States. The ineffectual policies that the IMF applied in the early stages of the crisis wreaked social havoc in South Korea. These policies were actively and vociferously supported by the Clinton administration.

Cultural Origins of Anti-Americanism

Cultural anti-Americanism has always existed in South Korea, albeit less overtly than in France or the rest of Europe. The Korean version manifests itself more as a positive projection of nationalism than a negative reaction to American culture. Due to the extreme differences in culture, the American way of life has never been able to permeate Korean society as fully as it could in Europe.

Despite what pundits casually dismiss as conservatism or parochialism, there has always been contempt for foreign fashions in Korea by the older generations. The most potent forms of cultural anti-Americanism, however, have been based on economic rationales. During the trade wars of the 1980s when the government was forced to allow the importation of foreign (particularly American) goods, consumer movements such as the “buy Korean” campaign created obstacles for foreign imports. At first encouraged by the government, until control was lost, these movements became so effective that they still affect consumer sentiment twenty years later, forcing President Kim Dae-Jung to encourage Korean consumers to buy foreign cars in order to avoid further complaints by foreign manufacturers about social barriers to imports.6

Korea has maintained local content laws for media, including movies, advertising, print, television, radio, and retransmission of foreign satellite broadcasts. Traditionally, government efforts to maintain local content have not been focused on America but rather on Japan. Until 1998, Korea maintained a ban on imports of Japanese pop cultural items, including films and music.

The strongest and most pervasive form of anti-Americanism in South Korea is based on national identity. In South Korea the foundations of national identity are weakened by the government’s reliance on an external power. South Korea’s exercise of supreme power within its (theoretical) territorial borders is limited by the claim to sovereignty over the whole peninsula—and the actual rule over the northern half of the peninsula—by a hostile regime. In addition, authority even within the South’s borders is fettered by the existence of an alternative military force structure, the United States Forces Korea (USFK). North Korea has in the past refused to negotiate with the South, preferring to deal directly with the U.S., signaling where it believes real power lies. Finally, South Korea does not have complete control over its resources, armed forces, and population. The Combined Forces Command of the USFK maintains operational control.

Anti-Americanism, based on perceived threats to national identity, manifests itself in a variety of ways. Most recently the Winter Olympics ice skating affair, in which an American ice skater won a gold medal after the disqualification of a South Korean skater, caused an outpouring of emotion in Korea. In a poll conducted by the journal Sisa, 65% of respondents said that the “unfair” decision to award the gold medal to the American skater, Anton Ohno, was a reflection of American self-righteousness.7 The loss by Korean skater Kim Dong-Sung to Ohno generated a storm of protest and raised grave security fears for the World Cup soccer match between the U.S. and South Korea. Internet bulletin boards were flooded with notices such as: “The United States should leave the peninsula at once.”8

The Ohno affair gained such popularity that a veritable pop culture emerged around anti-Americanism. The word “Ohno” entered the Korean language as both an expletive and derogative term. More than 16,000 angry email protests caused the shutdown of the U.S. Olympic Committee website. Yoon Min-Suk, a composer of several leading anti-American songs, expressed popular sentiment with the words of his song F$&#ing USA, sung by Park Sung-Hwan:

Did you see the short-track [skating] race?
Are you so happy over a gold medal?
A nasty country, F$&#ing USA.

Such as you are, can you claim that the USA is a nation of justice?
Why on earth don’t we say what we have to?
Are we slaves of a colonial nation?
Now we will shout: No to the USA…

Erupting into the blatant anti-Americanism spawned by the Ohno ice skating affair, the real reasons for resentment simmered just below the surface. The Ohno affair is symbolic of the perceived overwhelming U.S. assault on South Korean national identity, as evidenced by the tendency of web pages and chat rooms covering the event to mention other issues, most notably the USFK. The greatest source of tension contributing to anti-Americanism based on national identity is the American military presence. The USFK is the subject of an abundance of complaints related to the deaths of two teenage girls during a training exercise, the Yongsan military base in downtown Seoul, lax environmental standards at U.S. bases, inadequate revision of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), and other issues.

On June 16, 2002, two teenage girls were killed in a road accident in Yangju (north of Seoul) involving a USFK tank on the way to training exercises in the area. The tragic accident grew into a major issue centering upon the presence of American forces in South Korea. The extremely emotional nature of the accident galvanized growing anti-American sentiment to such an extent that both governments expressed alarm. At the vortex of the issue was the USFK refusal to release the two soldiers to be tried under South Korean jurisdiction after a request by the South Korean Justice Ministry. Under the SOFA, the USFK is not required to relinquish jurisdiction for incidents that occur during training.

The event has sparked what is considered to be the strongest anti-Americanism in South Korea’s history. Unable even to buy a Coca-Cola due to shopkeepers’ refusal to sell American goods, expatriates were turned away by storefront signs brandishing statements such as “We do not serve girl killers—Americans go home.” The daily protests outside the American embassy in Seoul and the Yongsan military base grew to demonstrations of more than 300,000 people in Seoul and Busan, thousands more in rural and provincial cities, and protests by South Korean communities in the U.S, Australia, and Germany.

The mere presence of USFK bases and training facilities provokes criticism. South Korean national identity is weakened by Seoul’s inability to control the use of territory within the nation’s borders. The U.S. base of Yongsan, which covers 630 acres in downtown Seoul, is an obvious reminder to South Koreans of this compromise of sovereignty. The irony of the base’s location at the old Imperial Japanese headquarters is lost on few. Calls for the base’s relocation have been denied for lack of an appropriate alternative location. The base also gained notoriety over the dumping of formaldehyde in the wastewater system, polluting the Han River. During the investigation it was determined that a civilian employee was ordered by a commanding officer to pour the toxic chemical down the drain. Anti-American sentiment expressed in street demonstrations was based not only on the pollution but also on the inability of the Ministry of Justice to prosecute the matter under the SOFA.

The SOFA remains at the center of many civic group protests. Of particular irritation is the protection afforded to the USFK for crimes committed while on duty. The last SOFA revision, which occurred in 2001, increased South Korean jurisdiction for crimes committed by off-duty U.S. soldiers, made provisions for the protection of Koreans working on U.S. bases, and set out environmental protection guidelines to be followed by the USFK. Despite the changes, there remains a large movement opposed to the current agreement.

The Axis of Evil

The State of the Union address by George W. Bush on January 29, 2002, lumping North Korea with Iraq and Iran as an axis of evil, received about as much support in South Korea as in North Korea. The speech triggered vitriolic anti-American statements in Internet chat rooms, street protests in Seoul and Pusan, and even a scuffle in Parliament. South Korean popular sentiment was summed up in a statement by Parliamentarian Song Sok-Chan: “Mr. Bush is an evil incarnate who wants to make the division of Korea permanent by branding North Korea part of the ‘axis of evil.'”9

The recent unilateralist policy of the Bush administration has especially precipitated anti-American passions in South Korea. The state of North-South relations reached a pinnacle during the Leaders Summit of June 2000, when the ultimate goal of all Koreans—a peaceful reunification—seemed possible. An evolutionary change of thinking occurred with Kim Dae-Jung’s Sunshine Policy: the idea that North Korea was the “enemy” dissipated and was replaced by steps toward “friendship and brotherhood.” The new way of thinking spread widely, despite failures in the policy as early as three months later. In November 2000 a Dong-a Ilbo poll showed that 59% believed “the possibility of war had almost disappeared following the North-South Summit.”10 The continuing evolution in thinking is evidenced by the cancellation of the Defense Ministry’s 2002 White Paper due to an unwillingness to designate North Korea as the “primary enemy” and the inability to find an alternative expression.11

During the Clinton administration, U.S. rapprochement with North Korea was based upon engagement. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang on October 23, 2000, and plans for a presidential visit were suggested. South Korean commentators were aware of the change in policy that would occur under a Republican administration led by George W. Bush, and Korean academics noted the problems facing future North-South relations in an article aptly subtitled “the workload has increased.” Interviews conducted with academics from major universities concluded, “the emergence of the Bush administration will considerably influence North-U.S., South-North, and South-U.S. ties.”12

Indeed, anti-Americanism has increased since Bush’s inauguration. The administration first isolated South Korea diplomatically with its National Missile Defense (NMD) plans. North Korea was a primary target of the NMD system, which was opposed by China and Russia, South Korea’s powerful neighbors. If ever the Korean saying “a shrimp between whales gets its back burst” applied, it was in this circumstance. Polls showed that by January 2001 a significant difference in popular views about the future of the Korean peninsula existed between the U.S. and South Korea. In South Korea 73% considered the unification of the two Koreas likely in the near future compared to only 28% in the United States.13 Public opinion in South Korea also sharply opposed both the NMD scheme and American unilateralism.14

During 2001, press reports increasingly remarked on the rising tension between South Korean and U.S. foreign policy goals. This continued up to September 11, which strained relations even further. After Bush’s Axis of Evil address, more than 56% of South Koreans considered the designation inappropriate, and 48% felt that the speech catered to U.S. domestic concerns, neglecting South Korean interests.15

The unilateralism of the Bush administration has affected South Korean perceptions of America and its position in Korean affairs. In February 2002 a poll in the Sisa journal revealed that over 56% of South Koreans had recently changed their opinion of America for the worse, and 41% even considered China a closer ally of South Korea than the U.S.—only 30% chose the United States.16

More recently, the emergence of the American preemptive strike policy has threatened to drive an even wider wedge between Washington and Seoul. Bush’s National Security Strategy 2002, submitted to Congress in September, solidified the policy of preemptive action that emerged within the new security environment following the terrorist attacks one year previous:

The United States has long maintained the option of pre-emptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction—and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves…17

The use of anticipatory action to avert imminent threats is not new. Such steps were taken by the Reagan administration in Grenada (1983) and by the Bush Senior administration in Panama (1989). However, the current utilization is different in two key aspects. First, potential preemptive strikes are not confined to the American “backyard” but rather span the globe. Second, this behavior has been transformed into policy rather than being viewed as just one of several options. Logically extending this new policy to the Axis of Evil speech bodes ominously for South Korean-U.S. relations. Scholars have noted that the American policy may be based less on forestalling an impending attack than on taking advantage of currently favorable conditions.18 Fears that an American hard-line approach to North Korea may eventually transform into preemptive action that would destabilize the region have already discomfited Asian politics.

Both President Kim Dae-Jung and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi have urged the U.S. to open dialogue with North Korea.19 After the revelation of North Korea’s nuclear program, President Kim again felt the need to call on the White House to take a softer stance toward North Korea.20 The divergent views between the U.S. and South Korea regarding North Korea have been intensified by the fear that President Bush’s preemptive strike policy may extend to North Korea, particularly in the wake of its nuclear revelation. Inevitably South Koreans view recent U.S. policy in North Asia—from NMD to hard-line approaches with North Korea—as divergent from their interests.

Bush’s division of the world into two camps of good and evil coupled with his first-strike policy has forced South Korean society into a difficult choice between support for the White House vision of the world or Kim Dae-Jung’s vision of a united Korea. The continuing rise in anti-Americanism is the result of this choice. With the election of Roh Moo-Hyun in the December presidential elections, the big question now is not whether anti-Americanism will persist but to what extent it will affect the policy of the new president.

The Victory of Roh Moo-Hyun

Roh Moo-Hyun was born in 1946 and is considered in South Korean politics as somewhat of a spring chicken—too young to remember the Korean War but old enough to remember the sometimes-brutal military dictatorships of Chun Doo-Hwan and Park Chung-Hee. Also unlike the majority of South Korean political hopefuls, Roh is a self-made man. Unable to attend the prestigious law schools or foreign universities patronized by Korea’s elite, Roh rose from relative poverty to become a successful lawyer. His clean and refreshing image netted him an overwhelming sweep of the youth vote in the December 2002 election.

However, the presentation of Roh as a radical in the Western media is unjustified. His opponent, Lee Hoi-Chang, sensing popular sentiment, also hinted toward a revamping of the South Korea-U.S. relationship and the renegotiation of the SOFA. The election of Roh represents the will of the people in the now-firmly established South Korean democratic process. Both candidates finessed the strong surge of anti-Americanism nurtured by Kim’s Sunshine Policy and fanned by the Bush administration’s hard line. The most significant result of Roh’s victory may be its ability to awaken the Bush administration to the growing resentment in Seoul toward unilateral U.S. foreign policy.

Roh has promised to immediately investigate options for the renegotiation of the SOFA, to continue reconciliation with the North, and to initiate a new independence in the pursuit of foreign policy. As yet he has not announced his international policy team. Needless to say, with the current nuclear situation in North Korea and rising levels of anti-Americanism at home, the new international policy team will face a stiff challenge when Roh takes office in February. But by far the greatest challenge—avoiding permanent damage to South Korea-U.S. relations—can only be surmounted by commitment to a reinvigorated, responsible, and strong partnership by parties on both sides of the Pacific.

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