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
By Andrew Salmon
SEOUL ― Americans with a limited knowledge of Korea might have been forgiven for believing that South Korea was a distant friend, one that harbored warm feelings toward a wartime ally and key trade partner. In late 2002, that comfortable assumption was shattered.
On June 13 of that year, on a country lane near Uijeongbu, a US military vehicle crushed two teenage schoolgirls, Shim Mi-sun and Shin Hyo-soon, to death. American troops, led by their divisional general, held a candlelit vigil at the site of the tragedy, and send messages of condolence and regret. The soldiers in the vehicle were arraigned for a court martial. But with South Korea putting on its best face ― the 2002 World Cup was underway ― the incident generated little friction.
Strong anti-American undercurrents had started flowing earlier in the year.
In January, U.S. President George W. Bush, by including North Korea in his “Axis of Evil” had opened a deep policy fissure between himself and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, a fissure that undermined the bold new engagement policy Kim was championing.
In the February Winter Olympics, an Australian referee disqualified South Korean speed skater Kim Dong-sung, leaving American Anton “Apollo” Ohno with the gold. Koreans were outraged; headlines were shrill and hate messages surged across the Internet. The same month, the offices of the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul were invaded by student radicals, who smashed open a 45 floor office window to protesting Bush’s upcoming visit. Some $100,000 of damage was done when riot police moved in to evict them.
Yet these incidents were a zephyr in a (very small) tea cup compared to the storm about to break.
The World Cup turned into a giant street party, with hundreds of thousands, then millions, of South Koreans surged onto city streets in a party that more pure passion than your average revolution. Outside observers were astonished at the show of goodwill. Korean’s brand visibility soared. But once the Cup was over, a different fever gripped the nation’s youth.
In their court martial, the American soldiers involved in the road accident were acquitted. Bush apologized over the incident in a telephone call to Kim. Compensation was paid to the grieving parents.
Hundreds of thousands of protestors hit the streets holding candles ― little knowing they were mirroring the earlier GIs’ ceremony, which went unreported by local media. Giant photographs of the two girls ― martyrs more than traffic accident victims, it seemed ― were brandished aloft. The mass emotion recalled some of the World Cup’s carnival atmosphere.
But things got edgier. A renegotiation of the Status of Forces Agreement governing the U.S. military presence was demanded. Pop stars started singing anti-American songs. Giant American flags were torn, burned and trampled. Bases were attacked. A newsreader who commented negatively on one base attack found herself desperately out of touch with public opinion: she was unceremoniously booted from her job. The conservative voices that had customarily supported the U.S. were not only silenced, they jumped on the bandwagon.
And as passions grew increasingly heated, things got personal. Americans were appalled at what they considered emotive, inaccurate and biased reporting of the accident. A downtown restaurant achieved 15 minutes of fame when its “Americans Not Welcome” sign was featured in international newspapers. A U.S. embassy staffer, walking to work, passed a group of demonstrating nuns whose charity projects the Americans had supported: the nuns were wearing “F…ing USA” badges. A U.S. general was filmed weeping at the protests. A New Zealand preacher was assaulted on the assumption that he was American. And a U.S .soldier was stabbed.
What rocked Americans was that the spark for all this had been an accident ― unlike a deadly naval skirmish that appeared to have been deliberately engineered by North Korea on the same day as the last South Korean match of the World Cup.
Across the Pacific, patience began to wear.
Korean diplomats visiting the U.S. were asked if they knew the names of the two girls who had been killed. Of course, they replied, every Korean knew those names. A U.S. diplomat read out another list of Korea names. Were they familiar with these names? The listeners were mystified, until their hosts informed them that they were the South Korean sailors killed in a naval skirmish.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was reportedly seething to see pictures of protestors attacking U.S. bases and put in the train a process that would downsize US forces in Korea and transfer command responsibilities.
And all this was taking place against the backdrop of a presidential election. The left-leaning but inexperienced Roh Moo-hyun ― his only previous high level government positions had been as fisheries minister ― beat out the hapless right wing candidate Lee Hoi-chang, who had swung with the political winds and attempted to side with the protestors.
Once Roh’s victory was confirmed, attempts were made at damage limitation. With talk about Korea’s sovereign credit ratings being downgraded due to the nationalistic climate and Roh’s inexperience, the President-elect addressed a breakfast meeting of foreign chambers of commerce in Seoul.
And observers pointed out that Korea’s jeans-wearing, hamburger-loving, Hollywood-besotted youth were not anti-American per se; they were anti-U.S. policy at a time when many persons worldwide were dismayed by the Bush administration.
While passions continued to sputter in the economic sphere ― the U.S. private equity fund, Lone Star walked into a wall of hurt when it came under public, media and bureaucratic attack during and after its investment in Korea First Bank in 2003 ― the streets cooled.
A strong, and often prickly strain of nationalism has deep roots on the peninsula. Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel are familiar with the saying that their nation has been, historically, a “shrimp between whales” ― a small country trapped between the giants of China, Japan, Russia, and more latterly, America. And Korean history, dating back centuries, has been lived in the shadow of not-always-benevolent overlords. For millennia that was China; in more recent memory, it has been America.
It was in the late 19th century that Korea lost control of her destiny amid the wrack of international power-politics: Fought over by Russia, China and Japan; she was then colonized by Japan. Divided by the great powers in 1945, she was rocked by a civil war that sucked in outside forces which upped the devastation to apocalyptic levels. Finally, the nation was left divided, desolate and embittered.
Given this multiplicity of tribulations, it is unsurprising that in the classroom, Koreans are taught that they have been customarily victimized by foreign nations. This was a theme that the left would take up with a vengeance.
Though the United States had been Korea’s main ally in the Korean War, and her economic benefactor in the years hence, anti-Americanism raised its head less than three decades after the 1953 armistice.
Following the Gwangju Massacre of 1980, the dictatorial regime of ex-general Chun Doo-hwan regime closely identified itself with Washington ― a fact that even some American diplomats were uncomfortable with. As the left, especially on campuses, grew radical in response to the repressive policies of their authoritarian government, the U.S. came to be identified as an enemy. Even today, many Koreans harbor suspicions that the United States somehow supported the Gwangju killings.
Vocal U.S. demands for Korean market opening from the late 1980s onward further eroded America’s image, to the point where, come the 1988 Olympics, Eastern bloc teams were rapturously welcomed, while Americans were booed. And the high-profile presence of GIs in a racially homogenous nation constantly grated. Bases proved a lightning rod for frequent public anger, and it was, indeed, a military-related killing incident which lit the fuse on the 2002 protests.
The Targets Shift
It was not just America. Korea’s newly assertive nationalist street also expressed its wrath at Japan and China.
Due to colonial history Japan has always faced hair-trigger nationalistic sensitivities in Korea. In 2005, with Koreans already angry over the visits by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the notorious Yasukuni Shrine, those sensitivities went critical.
That summer, the then-Japanese ambassador called a press conference at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club to discuss the Korea-Japan Friendship Year. The issue of the long-disputed East Sea island of Dokdo (or Takeshima, as it is called in Japan) was not mentioned, but was finally raised during a question at the end of the session. (This writer attended that fateful lunch; I don’t remember who asked that question, but it was posed in Korean.) The ambassador carefully stated his government’s view that the island was Japanese territory, then moved back on-topic.
His words, reported out of context, were splashed across Korean front pages. High-emotion protests were unleashed, against and outside the Japanese embassy. Flags were burned, one protestor sliced off a finger in protest, and members of an association of retired commandos shot fire arrows into the ambassadorial residence. The luckless ambassador was recalled to Tokyo, but the damage had been done.
Dokdo, Yasukuni, comfort women, history textbooks, alleged refusals by Tokyo to apologize “sincerely” for past depredations and even the name of the sea between the two countries would overhang Tokyo-Seoul relations for the remainder of the Roh administration.
China did not escape the furies. In 2004, South Koreans were infuriated that the Chinese government was claiming Goguryeo ― a dark age kingdom that straddled present-day Manchuria and North Korea ― was subordinate to contemporary Chinese dynasties. An academic spat over a state that had fallen in the 7th century baffled many foreigners, but Koreans took it seriously, with one group of protestors laying siege to the Chinese embassy while attired as Goguryeo warriors. A vitriolic war between young Chinese and Koreans spread across the Internet.
Some observers criticized Korea’s educators for teaching history less as factual record and more as inculcator of nationalistic belief: Earlier this year, an essay competition run by an English language newspaper and judged by a prominent historical association chose, as its winning essay, a piece of work riddled with factual errors. And the apparent refusal of many Koreans to recognize that other nations hold different views about geography or history demonstrates a certain dogmatism.
Moreover, some critics have expressed exasperation that anger against a nation which is deliberately killing South Koreans ― i.e. North Korea ― has not been expressed in mass street protests. Yet this situation is reminiscent of the European Cold War, during which street demonstrations were dominated liberals by and leftists; few conservatives protested against the USSR.
The End of Nationalistic Protest?
There have been no significant demonstrations against either Japan or the U.S. ― anti-U.S. beef protests in the early months of the Lee Myung-bak administration, soon transmogrified into per se anti-government demonstrations ― since the current government took power in 2008. Why not?
It could be put down to Lee’s pragmatic diplomacy, but Korea’s chattering classes, infatuated with the relatively new idea of “Brand Korea,” could be reluctance to indulge in protest against important trade partners and allies ― or, indeed, in any hysterical actions that besmirch the national image.
Moreover, the nation’s ever-increasing economic prosperity is wearing away at the “victim syndrome,” especially among 20-something South Koreans who have never experienced either hardship or victimization; while whales still surround the peninsula, the erstwhile shrimp has morphed into a dolphin.
Finally, the ever increasing liberalization of Korea society, in which diversity, tolerance and respect for multiculturalism, is on the increase, may be blunting the prickles.
Political risk analysts warn that Korea remains unusually nationalistic. And with Koreans being not just group oriented and socially conditioned to give vent to their emotions, but being heirs to a strong heritage of street demonstration, it is perfectly possible that ― given a similar set of circumstances to 2002 or 2005 ― the nationalistic furies could be unleashed once more.
Andrew Salmon is the author of “To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951” and the upcoming “Year of the Tiger: The Commonwealth versus Communism, Korea, 1950.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.