Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea
Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, 2015
In 2002, a traffic accident involving combat engineers from the US Army’s 2nd Infantry Division in Korea killed two teenaged girls. The accident unleashed a great deal of anti-American passion in South Korea. Calling this “passion” is an understatement. South Koreans arranged themselves in phalanxes at the gates of military bases and carried out hate-soaked riots for months. This author was present during the time and can attest the lunacy extended from the average Korean on the street to Koreans with US citizenship and politically-correct officer’s commissions. This event should really be called the South Korean–American conflict of 2002. It was a sub-lethal war.
This outburst of hatred is documented by David Straub, a US State Department Foreign Service Officer. He was present in Korea at the time, and the focus of this book is on the events of 1999–2002.
According to Mr. Straub, the roots of the South Korean–American Conflict of 2002 stem from President Chun Doo-Hwan’s use of the South Korean Army to suppress “Left-wing” protests in Gwangju in late May of 1980. Hundreds (possibly) were killed during this conflict. Because the South Korean Army is under Operational Control (OPCON) of the United States in the event of war with North Korea, many of the protestors felt that the United States was ultimately responsible for the bloody crackdown.
The Gwangju Uprising marked the generation of South Koreans then coming of age. This generation, called the 386 Generation was moving into positions of power and responsibility in 2002. The 386 Generation was born after the Korean War, grew up (mostly) in times of prosperity, were educated, and were attracted to “progressive” political ideas.
According to Mr. Straub, in Korea the attitudes of the “progressives” are anti-American in the “Noam Chomsky sense.” After Kim Dae-Jung was elected President in 1998 he helped bring the anti-American attitudes to the forefront of South Korean Society. Kim didn’t directly put forward an anti-American narrative himself, instead he did nothing to put any problem with the Americans in general or US Forces in Korea (USFK) in particular into perspective with the South Korean public. He also funded “progressive” non-government organizations (NGOs) throughout South Korea. These NGOs engaged in anti-American metapolitical activity.
Additionally, South Korea’s media became free of any of censorship, and yet the South Korean press did not operate in the highest of journalistic standards. The result was the South Korean Press became increasingly and irrationally anti-American. For example, statements by American Officials in English were disingenuously translated into the Korean language in a way that implied the Americans were disrespectful or rude. The press also insisted American statements and explanations were “insincere” or “disrespectful.” They also highlighted alleged misdeeds, some of which were honest mistakes or exaggerated incidents. One thing to note, accusations about lack of “respect” or “insincerity” are unfalsifiable, and anything can be seen as a lack of “respect” or “insincere.”
Mr. Straub believes that anti-American attitudes took a dark turn in 1999, when a US Army Doctor, Major David S. Barry was stabbed to death in Seoul by a mentally ill homeless man in an unprovoked attack. This madman was clearly influenced by the anti-American atmosphere of the time. The South Korean press memory-holed the murder of Major Barry. That year also saw unprovoked group attacks by South Koreans on lone Americans, and another American soldier was kidnapped and forced to make anti-American statements.
As a political officer at the US Embassy, Mr. Straub was most bedeviled with five incidents:
- The Investigation into the Nogun-ri killings. This is an embellished story about troops in the 7th US Cavalry Regiment shooting refugees in the early days of the Korean War. President Clinton ordered an investigation into the situation and issued a sort of semi-apology to soothe relations. This incident, which was decades old in 1999 and took place in a highly unusual wartime context became a proverbial bloody shirt to anger and arouse the South Korean public.
- The Formaldehyde Affair. This is when a USFK mortician disposed of formaldehyde under outdated procedures by diluting it with water and dumping into a drain where it would be processed at the water treatment plant. The USFK was accused of “poisoning” the drinking supply. Like the Nogoun-ri incident above, this situation was embellished and used to inflame passions.
- The Koon-ni Range Incident. A USAF A-10 pilot on a practice run jettisoned his bombs as per protocol on an uninhabited area after his aircraft had an in-flight mechanical emergency. The Korean activists exaggerated the damages to a (somewhat) nearby village, and the South Korean Press uncritically reported the exaggerations.
- The Apollo Ohno short track incident. During the controversy- and corruption-ridden 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah an Australian judge made a call that disqualified South Korean Kim Dong-Sung costing him the gold. The South Korean public exploded with rage. Among other things, they used cyber warfare against the Olympic Committee.
- The 2002 Highway 56 Tragedy. During maneuvers near the DMZ, a US Army bridge laying vehicle accidently ran over two South Korean school girls. The South Korean public demanded the soldiers be criminally tried on South Korean courts. This demand was part of a metapolitical effort that insisted the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the US and South Korean Governments was unfair. Protests were violent, sustained, and intense. This was the climatic event of the 2002 conflict.
After the South Korean Presidential elections of 2002, the rioting burned itself out. Mr. Straub dedicates his last chapter to examine if anti-American attitudes still exist and if they could arise again. The answer is that there are still anti-American attitudes in South Korea although they pale in comparison to anti-Japanese attitudes. Furthermore, anti-American attitudes could return with the same level of intensity, but it is uncertain how they will manifest or what will cause them. For example, allowing American beef imports into South Korea led to enormous protests in 2008.
There is no work about international affairs packed with insight and hard-boiled experience like that from a Foreign Service Officer in the US State Department. These bureaucrats are the closest thing Americans have to a Roman Proconsul. However, this book aims to promote the status quo in South Korea, so in many ways it misses critical ideas and is a limited work.
American “leadership” is often resented abroad, and that resentment can become quite costly to Americans. This idea makes the costly Cuban revolution of the 1950s easier to understand as well as the costly resentments across the Middle East. In South Korea there is plenty of resentment, and the considerable costs include, along with anti-Americanism, a blank check to South Korea for war as well as the theft of industrial capabilities from the Rust Belt to Northeast Asia.
Americans have an imperfect understanding of the potential of full-spectrum international conflict. Essentially, putative allies can have sharp conflicts with Americans which play out at a near sub-lethal level rather than at the stage of open warfare. Instead of hydrogen bombs, a madman stabs and off-duty soldier to death. University students chain themselves to flagpoles or threaten to set a building on fire. Angry citizens carry out cyber-attacks. Other situations, like refugee movements consisting of military age men, lobbying for H-1B visas, and Orientals dominating STEM departments and squeezing others out, are acts of war by other means.
Americans, even civically active and educated members of the US Military or US Government have responsibilities in so many nations that they don’t fully understand any one particular nation and can be easily caught off-guard. During the same timeframe that David Straub writes of, the soldiers in USFK were rotating through different war-zones with dizzying speed. In 1999, the US military was dealing with peacekeeping in Bosnia, a campaign in Kosovo, and the defense of Kuwait among other operations. Additionally, al Qaeda became active with the East African Embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole. Just prior to the 2002 South Korean–American Conflict, America suffered 9/11 and deployed to Afghanistan and Kazakhstan. Just after the 2002 South Korean–American Conflict, in March 2003, Americans invaded Iraq. Suffice to say, none understood how a bloody, domestic protest in 1980, a controversial call at an ice skating event, and a tragic traffic accident could lead to such an explosion in 2002.
Racial issues and race realism (1). Mr. Straub does remark (negatively) that South Koreans view the world through a racial lens. He argues that they see themselves as racially pure and Americans as a “mongrelized” people. This attitude should give one pause regarding policies that allow Koreans to immigrate or naturalize as citizens.
However, with all racial issues the idea of “mongrelization” is probably a euphemism regarding black soldiers. South Koreans hold blacks in low regard and were brutalized by them in the 1992 LA Riots. They probably don’t appreciate Affirmative Action blacks with senior positions in the USFK or US State Department barking orders at them. In 2002, the commanding general of the 2nd Infantry Division was a black who made a very “ghetto” impression.
Racial issues and race realism (2). Although he pulls his punches, Mr. Straub flatly states that throughout 1999 to 2002 the South Koreans were behaving quite irrationally. All of the five flashpoints described above were small events that didn’t reflect a policy of deliberate hostility on the part of Americans towards Koreans. Of the situation, one could uncharitably say the South Koreans couldn’t collectively connect cause and effect or accurately weigh costs and benefits. To be even more uncharitable, left to their own devices, Koreans create a society like North Korea. While South Koreans rioted, they also flocked to the United States for university training and applied for visas.
Kim Dae-Jung’s actions while president throughout the time deserve scrutiny. As mentioned above, President Kim was anti-American in the Noam Chomsky sense. His attitudes flew in the teeth of the fact that the US Government saved him from death when he was kidnapped and about to be murdered on the orders of South Korean President Park Chung-Hee. Additionally, Kim was given refuge in the United States after South Korean President Chun Doo-Hwan sentenced him to death in 1980. Kim also got as many honorary degrees from American Universities as any politically correct Reverend Crying Negro.
President Kim was also engaged in the “Sunshine Policy” with North Korea. This policy got Kim a Nobel Prize, the world’s biggest award for little if any achievement, given out by a committee of hopelessly naïve Norwegians. It was discovered later that Kim’s appearance of progress was as fraudulent as many Asian achievements. Kim had simply bribed the North Koreans to attend the summits. In the years following the Kim Administration we now know the Sunshine Policy was a failure.
If ice skating and traffic accidents cause a sub-lethal mini-war, what will happen if there is a highly lethal war with North Korea and there is a real setback? Could be bad . . .
American defense of South Korea is an example of what terminally ill Senator John McCain of Arizona recently called a “tired dogma of the past.” The defense of South Korea is a relic of the Cold War which ended in 1991. Today, Americans are intervening in the Korean Civil War which is no longer an American problem. South Korea can easily defend itself from North Korea, and a neo-imperialist venture on the peninsula by Japan is simply unbelievable.
The reason why there is a New Right in the United States is, in part, a rational frustration which many Americans feel regarding American military deployments abroad. South Korea is one such military deployment that deserves a second look. Americans should consider exiting the Korean Civil War before a 140 character tweet leads to bombs.
 In South Korea being Left-wing is only something reserved for Communists or those with North Korean sympathies. The liberals in South Korea refer to themselves as “progressive.” The political parties change names or are replaced consistently, but the ideological commitments remain the same.
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 Mr. Straub argues that South Koreans are more cosmopolitan and educated than Americans. This is highly dubious, a Spec4 in the USFK from the hills of Tennessee will have a high school degree and can easily have been to Germany, Kosovo, and Kuwait before being assigned to Korea. All of those assignments would have imparted a lifelong broadening of horizons for any participant. A Korean protestor in 2002, might have been to University, but had probably never been 50 miles from Seoul.