How to Deal with South Korea

Sunhyuk Kim and
Sunhyuk Kim Professor, Department of Public Administration - Korea University
Wonhyuk Lim
Wonhyuk Lim Director, Global Economy Research - Korea Development Institute

March 1, 2007

The United States has been coping with a new phenomenon since 2002: a South Korea that can say “no” to America. Along with Japan and the Philippines, South Korea used to be one of the staunchest U.S. allies in Asia. From 1950 to 1953, 54,000 Americans lost their lives to defend South Korea from North Korean and Chinese Communist forces. The United States has since poured more than $13 billion in economic aid and military assistance into the country, and it still maintains approximately 29,500 troops there. Yet, despite these past and present contributions to its security and modernization, more and more Americans feel that South Korea no longer appreciates their efforts and is growing ungrateful, uncooperative, and in some cases downright hostile. Troubled by the spread of anti-U.S. sentiment in South Korea, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) lamented that South Korea is suffering from “historical amnesia.”1

 Americans experienced a full dose of this new reality in 2002. In June of that year, a U.S. armored vehicle accidentally killed two South Korean middle- school girls. When the driver and navigator of the vehicle were acquitted despite their conflicting statements in a U.S. court-marshal, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets. Ordinary citizens joined candlelight vigils to protest the injustice of the verdict, and some students even burned U.S. flags to express their outrage. In a break with the past, South Koreans were no longer willing to give U.S. military personnel a free pass for the sake of national security.

Anti-Americanism is not a new phenomenon in South Korea. In fact, it constituted one of the strongest undercurrents of the intense and protracted pro-democracy movement of the 1980s. When President Chun Doo-hwan’s military regime brutally suppressed a pro-democracy movement in Kwangju in May 1980, many South Koreans suspected that Washington was behind Chun’s actions.2 The decade was marked by intermittent eruptions of high-profile demonstrations and protests against U.S. support of Chun’s dictatorship, such as the arson at the U.S. Cultural Center in Pusan in 1982 and the occupation of the U.S. Cultural Center in Seoul in 1985.3

Given the appeal of American popular culture and general respect for the ideals of the U.S. political and economic system in South Korea, however, rising South Korean anti-Americanism certainly does not mean rejecting everything associated with the United States. It can be more accurately described as frustration and anger at Washington for general disrespect and certain specific U.S. policies, particularly toward North Korea.4 Conspicuous in the current upsurge of anti-U.S. sentiment in South Korea, however, is that it is not limited to a radical fringe of the dissident movement. It appears to be becoming ubiquitous, in civil society, academia, and even in the government.

The presidential campaign of Roh Moo-hyun, a relatively young human rights lawyer who had never visited the United States prior to his election in December 2002, benefited substantially from the high tide of anti-U.S. sentiment in South Korea. His election is both a significant result and an example of a more self-confident, occasionally anti-U.S. South Korea. This transition is the result of several important changes in South Korea’s economy, politics, and external relations during the past few decades. Some, particularly in the United States, may fear that South Korea has become anti-U.S. and is strategically shifting toward China. Such a conclusion confuses the symptoms of changes in South Korea for their causes. Instead, a combination of South Korean economic development over time, the rise of a new generation in South Korean politics, and changing inter-Korean relations help explain a Seoul that has become more fundamentally independent than anti-U.S. or pro-Chinese.