Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea
By David Straub
Stanford: Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center Books, 2015

NAGANO, Japan–In 1999 David Straub drew what would turn out to be a nightmare assignment, as he relates in an important and compelling new book. Straub’s posting to head the political section in the US Embassy in Seoul coincided with the beginning of a three-year period during which the South Korean news media engaged in “what seemed to be competitive reporting” to cast United States Forces Korea “in the worst possible light.”

First came widespread media and public outrage in response to a 1999 American Associated Press investigation that documented panicked US Army soldiers’ mass killing of suspected North Korean infiltrators in civilian clothing – who turned out to be innocent South Korean civilian refugees – in the early days of the Korean War 49 years earlier.

“Thereafter, almost every week seemed to bring a new Korean report of some fresh American outrage, usually involving USFK,” Straub writes. The list of grievances – some of them blown far out of proportion, according to Straub’s account – grew to include even a fatal traffic accident in which GIs were involved.

“Each new story about alleged USFK wrongdoings provoked the public and in turn spurred the media to discover, exaggerate and sometimes invent other examples of American disrespect and disregard for the Korean people,” writes Straub, who offers a very useful chapter-length case study of each major grievance.

Americans were accused of poisoning, with the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, South Korean allied troops sent to help them in Vietnam in the 1960s and other Korean soldiers serving back home on the Demilitarized Zone. Another charge, in 2000, was that Americans were “dumping toxins into the Han River, poisoning the drinking water of the people of Seoul.” Korean villagers complained of bombing practice runs near their village. The Americans drew further attacks when they resisted changes in the “Status of Forces Agreement” that would permit trial of offending GIs under Korean law.

“There is no evidence that the behavior of USFK and American military personnel toward Korea or Koreans worsened during this period,” Straub concludes. If that sounds as if he felt many Koreans had chips on their shoulders, he doesn’t put it precisely in those terms but does suggest that “the Korea narrative about the 1999-2002 period was a construct that said more about Korea, at least at that time, than it did about actual U.S. behavior during the period.”

“The dominant media narrative that arose during the period from 1999 to 2002 was that Americans, and especially USFK, had no respect for the Korean people,” Straub writes. “Koreans felt (with good reason) that they had lifted themselves up by their bootstraps to build a modern, economically and politically developed country … Yet Americans still looked down on them!”

Where did such hyper-sensitivity come from? “Koreans see their nation’s history, especially in the modern era, as one of victimization at the hands of powerful foreign countries,” says Straub. “Koreans prefer the United States to China, Japan and Russia, but few would trust it implicitly.”

Their “profound sense of national victimization,” he adds, has had not only negative but positive consequences – “inspiring Koreans to make tremendous efforts and sacrifices to defend and develop their country … During the past five decades of almost uninterrupted growth at a pace that most other countries can only dream about, Koreans have been consistently convinced that economic disaster is just around the corner and they are constantly implementing ‘countermeasures’ to forestall it.”

Leaders of a pan-national group to protest the killing of two girls by American soldiers hold a press conference at Incheon International Airport before leaving for the United States to stage a demonstration there in this 2002 file photo. / Korea Times

Gwangju’s ghost

While 1999-2002 saw a particularly intense manifestation of anti-Americanism, the impulse to blame the United States uncritically for problems in Korea had been present earlier. It dated back to the May 1980 massacre by army troops of pro-democracy citizens, which was met by a popular uprising, in the southwestern city of Kwangju (Gwangju under recent romanization rules).

Although it was coup-plotting Korean generals led by Chun Doo-hwan who ordered the troops to crack down on protesters in the city, many younger Koreans became convinced that the United States could and should have prevented the bloodshed. Straub paints a different picture — one that fits with my own reporting at the time — in which US officials were frustrated at their lack of knowledge of and influence over those upstart generals.

Straub, as a young diplomat on an earlier posting, had been in the embassy during the Kwangju crisis and remembers watching as the then-political section head “desperately ‘worked’ the phones in an effort to determine what was happening” in the city, he writes. “This reality that I witnessed was in great contrast to later beliefs on the part of many Koreans that the United States not only knew all about but also supported Chun’s actions.”

Scene from Gwangju Uprising, May 1980

A bit later in that bloody month, after the embassy had learned more about the situation but before troops returned to battle holdout protesters and retake command, people in the besieged city requested that the Americans “do something, anything.” Those appeals were “passionate and well-intentioned, but also unrealistic,” Straub writes. “Chun and his military backers had already risked too much to take orders from Americans.”

Besides, intervention “would have put the United States in an impossible situation. In effect, it would have represented a US assertion of sovereignty over the Republic of Korea.” That would have gone far beyond the mission statement for the US troops present in the country – to “deter another North Korean invasion” like the one that had set off the original Korean War of 1950-53.

The especially intense 1999-2002 bout of anti-American media coverage ended suddenly, Straub relates. He suggests that part of the reason, at least, was a negative turn in North-South Korean relations that thwarted an indirect campaign by a leftist South Korean minority working through NGOs and the media to undermine and ultimately dismantle the US-South Korean alliance.

Those “progressives” had “focused their activism on criticism of alliance institutions and procedures,” Straub writes. “Their aim, however, was not to reform the alliance but to destroy USFK’s reputation and undermine Korean public support for it.”

The episode ended, he says, when Korean leaders, not least of them the newly elected progressive President Roh Moo-hyun, were sobered by the realization they were in danger of alienating American politicians and voters and losing the US troop presence that helped to deter North Korea from undertaking another invasion.

“It is not clear whether the alliance might have fractured had such problems continued many years longer,” Straub writes. “The United States does indeed have major interests in Korea, but … those interests are grounded at least as much in American history and politics as in grand strategy.

Weighing the costs

“For that reason, if the United States were truly rejected by the people of South Korea, a US withdrawal from Korea would not only be possible, it would most likely be inevitable,” Straub writes, pointing to the example of the closure a decade earlier of US bases in the Philippines.

Another flare-up in the future is not out of the question. The US alliance could be tested by disagreements over policy toward North Korea, China or Japan, he writes. (The book was published before Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump threatened troop withdrawal if Seoul doesn’t contribute more; obviously Trump’s election could test the alliance severely.)

However, Straub, currently a researcher at Stanford’s Shorenstein Center, believes that “South Korean attitudes today are largely pro-American” and argues that “South Koreans are not fundamentally or by nature anti-American.”

Bradley K. Martin has focused on Korea and other parts of Asia as a correspondent and historian for almost four decades. He is the author of “Yun Sang-won: The Knowledge in Those Eyes,” a chapter in The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Accounts of Korea’s Tiananmen.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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