Friday, February 06, 2004

Anti-American Sentiment

I kinda feel guilty of neglecting my poor blog page lately. I have no time to search sites and get information to discuss issues or keep up with Korean news. The irony of studying in the classroom so much that you have no time to keep up with what is actually happening.

My stop-gap answer for this dilemma is to post a piece I used for a class today. My task was to put forth the argument that anti-US sentiment in Korea is an eduring phonomenon and will lead to a weakening of the US-Korea alliance. I wrote it in the wee hours of dawn the day before it was due (as any student would) and tried to be a little controversial. There were two people debating each side so my part is just one half and presentations were followed by informal discussion. Also, before you read it, I would like to list the readings for the week from which I formulated my argument. Some of these can be found at Jstor

1. Shin, Gi-Wook, "South Korean Anti-Americanism: A Comparative Perspective", Asian Survey, Vol 36, No.8 (August 1996) pp.787-803
2. Cha, Victor, "Realism, Liberalism, and the Durability of the U.S. - South Korea Alliance", Asian Survey, Vol. 37, No.7 (July 1997) pp.609-622
3. Jang Jip Choi, "Reality and Image of the U.S. - Korea Relationship: for strengthening the partnership" paper presented at the fourteenth US-Korea Academic Symposium, Stanford University, October 22-24, 2003
4. Kim Seung Hwan, "Anti-Americanism in Korea," The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2002-03 pp.109-122

The rise of anti-American sentiment over the last few years has been manifested in numerous ways. As Shin notes, the overarching source of anti-American sentiment in Korea stems from resentment against political and economic domination.

There has been considerable anti-American sentiment against political domination with regards to the North Korea nuclear crisis. President Bush?s perceived mistreatment of President Kim during his visit to Washington, the inclusion of North Korea in the ?axis of evil? and instances of US failing to consult or adequately include South Korea in important developments regarding North Korea and US-North Korea relations has given rise to negative feelings against US. Especially feelings that South Korea?s voice over matters pertaining to the peninsula is irrelevant on matters where US has its own national interest to consider.

The death of the two schoolgirls in particular brought this issue of the SOFA to the fore. The untimely death of the schoolgirls, and the ensuing candlelight vigils actually brought out many issues, of which the SOFA is but one. However, the deaths and subsequent actions highlighted to Koreans the lack of equality in the existing SOFA agreement and led to calls for a revision. Furthermore, the acquittal of the two soldiers riled the Koreans, not only as they saw SOFA as unfair but because it denied them justice as they saw it should be carried out and emphasised that even on their own land, American?s will have their way. This particularly hurt after Korea was feeling flush with national pride from not only economic growth and prosperity but from the success of the World Cup.

The argument over economic domination surfaced with US calls for greater liberalisation and market opening in Korea. The resultant farmer?s protests, which included American flag burning, were something to behold. Friction over the US trade deficit and exchange rates are seen as impinging on Korea?s right to determine their own policies and to protect their own workers and economy.

Underlying Sentiment
What we can discern from these events are the underlying problems fuelling anti-American sentiment in Korea. Briefly, I list them as inequality, rise of nationalism, and divergent perceptions of security. Firstly, Koreans perceive with increasing angst the inequality of the current US-Korea relationship. Second is the rise of nationalism. Koreans are notably proud of their achievements and feel that they deserve greater recognition as a viable player on the world stage. Through this, they see the presence of US and its policy toward the peninsula as holding them back and even threatening to destroy what they have attained. And thirdly, as Victor Cha notes, is a divergence in the conception of security. America sees security through a global lens and the threat of WMD as paramount. South Korea has a more local perspective and sees the threat of conventional war as the greater danger.

Why are they not resolvable?
So why then are these issues going to have a long-term impact on the US-Korea relations? I argue that they reason anti-American sentiment won?t go away anytime soon, and may even increase over time is that both America and South Korea have divergent goals that cannot be reconciled ?the tendency is toward a zero-sum game.

The clearest example is the discord in the rationale of the alliance. As mentioned, America sees the threat from North Korea as the proliferation of WMD and potential to sell those weapons to terrorists who would strike the US. The policy to deal with this is to take a hardline to bring about the dissolution of their nuclear programs ? even if that means use of force. On the other hand, South Korea sees North Korea as a declining threat with a stagnant economy; and famine and shortage make them more a country that should be aided, not bombed. Moreover, antagonising the desperate state may bring about irrational action on the part of North Korea and make them strike the South. The policy to avoid this then is to engage North Korea through aid and exchanges. This will lead to a security dilemma: the more America pursues a hardline policy, the less safe South Korea feels; the more South Korea pursues its softer approach, the less safe America feels. The two parties cannot agree of ?what the situation is? how then can they establish a joint policy stance, on ?how to deal with that situation?.

SOFA and presence of US bases in Korea have long been a thorn in Korea?s side. Particularly, as Korea becomes a stronger and more prominent player on the global scene it becomes insulting to be subject to such an unequal arrangement as the SOFA. Recent revisions have occurred which may have appeased the Koreans but it?s important to note that revisions to SOFA have a limit. And this limit may not coincide with what Korea perceives as an equal arrangement. Furthermore, in the case of Korea, the difference in (justice) systems and values may make Americans more circumspect before signing over too much discretion concerning US military in Korea. Here?s a catch, (my opinion only) the more Korean?s scream about the inequality and protest vociferously and emotionally for justice, the less likely the Americans are to grant concessions to seemingly unreasonable and highly emotional country.

We need to ask, what possible arrangement would actually make Koreans perceive that the relationship is ?equal? as long as US military remains on their soil, and would that arrangement be acceptable to US military?

In the matter of economics, Koreans feel threatened by the omnipotent power of the US economy and its competitiveness, particularly in agriculture. But again, it?s a zero-sum game. The more closed the Korean market the less American?s benefit. The more open the Korean market the more they feel over-run and dominated by the US, thereby creating resentment which will linger, especially if unemployment or economic conditions worsen in Korea.

Anti-US sentiment has been burgeoning in Korea in the past decades and is not likely to disappear. The sources of the problem require compromise that neither party, in the long-run, would be willing to agree on. As Korea becomes more nationalistic and less tolerant of perceived US political and economic domination the more they will demand ?equality?. Meanwhile, the more America asserts itself on the global stage and focuses on the War on Terrorism the less willing it will be to make sacrifices for South Korea?s pride.

Currently reading:

"Hell" by Yasutaka Tsutsui