In 2020, could public anti-Americanism once again roil South Korean-US relations?
It has happened before – in 2002 and 2008. Now, with Washington demanding a stunning increase in payments from Seoul for US troops in Korea, and with North Korea engagement – the only glue binding leftist Korean President Moon Jae-in and right-wing US President Donald Trump – on the verge of collapse, the alliance faces a stress test.
Recent data suggests South Koreans have a positive view of their only ally. Some 92% of Koreans say they support their country’s alliance with the United States, according to a report published on December 16 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, following research on 1,000 South Koreans in December.
However, the day after the report was published in the US, two leftist demonstrations took place in Seoul. Both ostensibly protested the cost-increase demands. but Asia Times barely had to scratch the surface to uncover deeper animosities.
‘US troops get out!’
On Tuesday morning, protesters gathered outside the Korea Institute of Defense Analysis where the annual SMA “Special Measures Agreement” negotiations on the share of costs for US Forces Korea, or USFK – the 28,500 US troops based in Korea – were underway. Demonstrators briefly clashed with riot police blocking the institute’s entrance as they tried to force their way in.
“Stop the negotiations!” protesters chanted. Others held up signs reading “US troops get out!” and “Let’s not pay, let’s charge rent.”
“I came here to be the voice of South Koreans who are against the US pressure for more cost-sharing,” said An Ji-jung, 52, a civic organizer with the minority Progressive Solidarity Party. “It is the US that should pay more – they are using our land for their soldiers!”
It is a majority voice: According to the Chicago Council’s research, 68% of South Koreans say Seoul should negotiate a lower cost than what the US is demanding; 26% say Seoul should refuse to pay. According to multiple reports citing anonymous sources from both Seoul and Washington, the US is demanding $4.7 billion, though US negotiators have recently said this is overstated. Last year, Seoul paid just under $1 billion.
But some demonstrators went further. “I think US forces should get out completely,” said Cheon Jin-hee, 32. “USFK is a symbol of the Cold War.”
“I think the alliance should end at some point – it started with the division of the Korean peninsula,” said Song Ah-reum, 28. “It should finish, to move the Koreas closer together.”
The same evening, in a plaza directly in front of the US embassy, another demonstration took place. There, protesters hefted candles and donned illuminated red horns as a sign of anger.
“Korea is angry! Trump is trying to get money from other countries. The US is humiliating Korea!” thundered one speaker. “Some people say it is good to have the US here to protect us – but I don’t think so! Do we have to pay for all these US weapons?”
Banners read “Alliance?” “Extortionist!” “We won’t pay!” and “US troops get out!” while images of US aircraft carriers and troops played across an LED screen. Students ripped apart a giant US flag while a punk rock song, “Why are you acting as if you own this land?” played.
“We are against the US government’s policy on the peninsula,” said Kim Su-chan, 38, a unionist. “They have interrupted inter-Korean relations.”
“Ultimately, USFK should be removed because they are not here to protect us against North Korea, they are here to fight against China,” opined a 27-year-old student who gave her name as “Ms Lee.”
“This protest is basically against the cost-sharing, but the reason we are here is USFK is here, so the goal of the protest is to get US troops out,” said a 40-year-old researcher who gave her name as “Ms Bang.” “It is better to have South Korea and North Korean come together than have a US alliance.”
Asked about public support for the alliance, she questioned the Chicago Council data. “I don’t think 92% of Koreans support USFK – maybe 50% or 55%,” she said.
Yet in a country where demonstrators can number in the hundreds of thousands, Tuesday’s protests were tiny: Perhaps 500 persons, total.
In recent years, however, there have been far, far bigger protests against the US.
The United States is South Korea’s only treaty ally, and Koreans were staunch US Cold War allies, fighting alongside GIs in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. More recently, Koreans troops have played non-kinetic roles in US-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The US is also Korea’s number two trade partner and home to a 1.8 million strong Korean-American community. US culture – from blue jeans to burgers to Hollywood – is ubiquitous across Korea.
Yet anti-Americanism – a broad and emotive force that pushes back against what is perceived as an unequal relationship, and which is largely (though not exclusively), animated by US troop issues – has existed in the body politic since 1980.
That year, Seoul’s authoritarian government deployed paratroopers to crush pro-democracy protests in the city of Gwangju: A massacre ensued. While the killers were Korean, many South Koreans believed Washington green-lighted the operation. Subsequently, US cultural institutes in the country were sacked, and US athletes were booed during the 1988 Olympics.
In the 1990s, Koreans were further angered by US market-opening pressures, and in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, public, media and regulatory ire impacted US businesses that acquired distressed local assets, notably private equity fund Lone Star.
But USFK remained the lightning rod. In 2002, anti-Americanism exploded after two schoolgirls were killed by American troops in a road accident.
Hundreds of thousands demonstrated against the legal status of GIs in Korea – who are subject to US, not Korean law. Signs went up in forbidding Americans entry to restaurants, and the American Chamber of Commerce’s Seoul office was ransacked. Several off-duty US soldiers were detained by student radicals and forced to apologize on-camera, and a US officer was stabbed to death in Seoul’s foreign quarter, Itaewon.
The brouhaha contributed to the victory of leftist candidate Roh Moo-hyun in that year’s presidential election and led some officials in the US to question the future of USFK. Still, after Roh’s victory, the anger simmered down.
But in 2008, after local media alleged that the US was selling BSE-infected beef to Korea, massive protests again shook central Seoul. When the allegations were proven false, anti-Americanism subsided, and nationalist sentiment refocused on Japan over historical and territorial issues.
Today, US troops have largely vacated their vast, intrusive and high-profile base in central Seoul, and a process is underway to transfer wartime operational control of South Korean troops to South Korean command.
Yet incidents continue.
In 2015, the then-US ambassador to South Korea was slashed in the face by a knife-wielding pro-North Korean activist. In 2016-17, protesters blocked access to the site of THAAD, a US anti-ballistic missile battery. And the current ambassador’s residence was broken into in October by students protesting the USFK cost increase.
These incidents – and Tuesday’s protests – are not the conflagrations of 2002 and 2008. But the outlook for 2020 suggests far greater numbers could hit the streets.
2020: A perfect storm?
With a Korean parliamentary election in April and a US presidential election in November, the political temperature will rise in both countries next year.
The outcome of the ongoing SMA cost-sharing negotiations will require parliamentary ratification, meaning it could well become an electoral issue.
“Depending on how the Americans move ahead with the negotiations and how this looks to the Korean public, it could play out fairly negatively,” James Kim, a research fellow at Seoul’s Asan Institute, a think tank, told Asia Times. “There is likely to be an element on the left who would like to exploit this for political purposes.”
A conservative group of senior ex-servicemen, the Korean Retired Generals and Admirals Defending the Nation, expressed their concern in an email sent to foreign reporters. Defining cost-sharing talks as “the pivotal issue that will make or break the fate of the [South Korea]-US alliance” the group said, “We urge the Moon administration to…prevent the [South Korea]-US alliance from becoming broken off.”
All this suggests a major irony: Korean leftists and anti-Americans making common cause with the rightwing Trump, who is keen to bring GIs home.
Still, the alliance was strained well before Trump’s steep price demands were delivered.
Washington was angered when Seoul, engaged in a historical/diplomatic/trade spat with Tokyo, announced the cancellation of a military intelligence sharing agreement with Tokyo this summer. Subsequently, Seoul – likely under US pressure – made a humiliating, last-minute U-turn on the issue.
Meanwhile, many South Koreans are already frustrated by their inability to interact economically with North Koreans due to US-led sanctions.
All this leaves Moon’s and Trump’s engagements with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un the only major political tie binding them. Now, signals suggest that Trump’s engagement policy with North Korea is on the brink of collapse.
If that happens, it could open a policy chasm between Seoul and Washington – particularly if Trump threatens military action against North Korea.
“If there is a fall out between Trump and Moon, that would provide ammunition for the anti-American crowd,” Don Kirk, a columnist and author of Bases of Discontent, which covers US bases in Korea’s Jeju and Japan’s Okinawa, told Asia Times. “That certainly could bring out anti-American demonstrations.”
And demonstrators could mass in far larger numbers than the modest throng seen on December 17, one protester warned. “In 2002, the protests started small but then expanded,” said Kim, the unionist. “The same thing may happen next year. “