South Korean riot police use force to break up a protest in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. Photo: Seokyong Lee / Bloomberg News
South Korean riot police use force to break up a protest in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. Photo: Seokyong Lee / Bloomberg News

Author’s Note: I wrote the below essay back in early 2003 at the height of anti-American sentiment and in the wake of outrage surrounding the accidental killing of two South Korean schoolgirls by a US military vehicle the previous year. Given recent protests against the THAAD missile defense deployment and, especially, the mass cancellation of appearances by K-pop groups (in a misguided gesture-in-solidarity with those commemorating the anniversary of the deaths of the two female students) that were scheduled to perform at a concert celebrating the US-ROK alliance, we may be on the cusp of repeating a regrettable episode in the long history of US-South Korea relations. Surprisingly, the arguments and observations made 14 years ago in the following essay are still applicable now. Indeed, although the key characters have changed, the issues and dynamics that roiled the US-ROK alliance in 2003 uncannily match the situation today. It is my hope that reflecting on this chapter of South Korea’s recent history will help avoid a repeat of it.

The Bush administration’s reticence in confronting the reckless and inflammatory comments made by the newly-elected South Korean president disserves those on both sides of this most critical Pacific alliance who seek a candid reassessment of a relationship forged in the heat of the Cold War. The administration should bluntly remind the new president and his supporters why the United States is there and what that presence has meant to South Korea’s modern history. At the same time, the US can foster goodwill by acknowledging the diplomatic and political slights that have peppered the history of America’s dealings with the South Koreans.

While the relationship remains fundamentally strong, complacency and ignorance of history have begun to rock this half-century-old alliance. South Koreans have only to look across the DMZ to appreciate that the line separating heaven and hell was drawn in the blood of American soldiers whose legacy is carried on by the 37,000 soldiers stationed at the 38th Parallel. As a Korean-American whose family escaped the communist North and eventually found a new life in the US, I am astonished by the myopia that feeds the current tide of anti-Americanism that has swept Roh Moo-hyun into office.

South Koreans have been living with a gun held to their collective head by its belligerent and increasingly paranoid blood-enemy to the north. That Kim Jong Il has not yet pulled the trigger says nothing about his regime’s true intentions – a reunified Korea under communist rule – and everything about the unflagging commitment of American military power, which acts as a barrel aimed at the North’s temple. Yet, it is sad that for a sizeable part of the South Korean public, a lesson lived is apparently not a lesson learned.

President Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine” policy was a courageous attempt at rapprochement but was no less a failure for it. Now, President-elect Roh has promised continued adherence to a discredited diplomacy that mistook bribes and acquiescence for productive engagement. It is time for a tougher approach with a regime that only respects power.

This is not to say that the anger feeding a resurgent anti-Americanism in Korea is without cause or merit. For too long, the United States has often treated its smaller Asian ally as a vassal-state. The belief that the Americans have overstayed their welcome is real, but it is symptomatic of the patronization and disrespect many South Koreans feel at the hands of the United States. In one recent example, the United States’ failure to consult the South regarding its decision to assume a tough posture, in the face of yet another North Korean deceit regarding its nuclear program, bruised national pride, as well as humiliated the South Korean government.

The United States should remind itself that, as an honored guest in a host country, it must work harder to dispel the perception of arrogance and entitlement that informs many South Koreans’ view of the American military presence

Such snubs, however unintentional, open unnecessary wounds that only compound the rage felt over incidents such as the recent acquittal of two US servicemen in the accidental killings of two South Korean schoolgirls. The United States should remind itself that, as an honored guest in a host country, it must work harder to dispel the perception of arrogance and entitlement that informs many South Koreans’ view of the American military presence. The recent rape of Japanese girls by American soldiers stationed in Okinawa only reinforce the ugly notion that the US is a guest who repays the hospitality of its host by assaulting the host’s daughter in his own home.

One constructive step towards fence-mending could be a good, old-fashioned public relations campaign, sponsored by both governments, promoting the shared history and values of the US-South Korean alliance. The campaign should be specifically aimed at South Korea’s younger generations that grew up with a US military presence in their backyard, but without truly appreciating why they were there in the first place.

The now ubiquitous town hall meeting format can be imported to South Korea and feature American and Korean veterans of the war, politicians from both countries, leading critics and defenders of the present-day alliance, and an audience of students. The event could be simulcast on television, radio, and the internet to capture the broadest possible audience among South Korea’s media-savvy youth and older citizenry. The confluence of South Korea’s current political climate, world events, and technology guarantees a lively and, hopefully, educational debate. It would also probably be the most-watched media event since Kim Dae-jung locked hands with Kim Jong Il in the glow of sunshine, the warmth of which has long since faded.

It should surprise no one that the flames of recent hatred toward the US military and perceptions of US foreign policy are being stoked, in large part, by young people. Many of them are at a point in their lives where idealism consumes prudence and wishful thinking has not yet blossomed into wisdom. Much of their ill-informed fervor will pass with time. But, in the face of yet another round of provocations by the world’s lone Stalinist holdout, we cannot afford to simply watch the clock. And what about the generations that will come of age in the future?

Americans and South Koreans on both sides of this internecine squabble must work closely together to strengthen an alliance that remains the world’s best hope in containing the looming threat from the north.

Edward Oh

Edward Oh is a lawyer and writer in Washington, DC. He has published articles on the role of North Korea's ideology and propaganda in its nuclear program.