South Korea Flirts With Anti-Americanism

The culprit, the evidence established, was a malfunctioning radio. But that did not temper the anger many South Koreans felt this November when a court-martial acquitted two U.S. army sergeants of negligent homicide in the deaths of two young Korean girls.

On June 13, Shim Mi-sun and Shin Hyo-soon, both 14 years old headed out from their homes in a village north of Seoul to the birthday party of a friend. They never made it.

As they were walking down a narrow road, a 50-ton armored vehicle rumbled up behind them. It was driven by one U.S. Army sergeant and commanded by another. From his perch within the vehicle, the driver could not see objects or persons to his right. It fell to the commander, stationed above him, to warn the driver, by radio, of pedestrians approaching on that side.

But when the commander tried to warn the driver about the two girls, the radio didn’t work.

"The defense successfully showed that the communication equipment in the vehicle was malfunctioning and this contributed to [the commander’s] failure to warn the driver," Guy L Womack, the driver’s lawyer, told the Korea Herald.

Nonetheless, the tragic deaths and closely watched court-martial of the two U.S. sergeants helped stoke one of the most troublesome outbursts of anti-Americanism in South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Nor did it help that the incident came in the midst of a South Korean presidential election–which pitted a conservative pro-American candidate against a liberal candidate with a history of making anti-American statements, and in which the principal issues were the status of the 37,000 U.S. troops in the country and whether South Korea should support or resist President Bush’s policy of confronting North Korean efforts to produce nuclear weapons.

Roh Moo-hyun, the liberal, was the candidate of the Millenium Democratic Party, the party of outgoing South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who was limited by South Korea’s constitution to one five-year term. Kim was the architect of a so-called "sunshine policy" toward North Korea, an appeasing approach that funneled heavy doses of aid to North Korea in the unrealized, and perhaps absurd, hope that the North’s Communist regime would give up its quest to develop nuclear weapons and moderate its belligerent stance toward the South.

Roh not only promised to continue the sunshine policy, his election portended a definite tilt away from the United States. As a labor lawyer, Roh had once opposed the U.S. presence in Korea. "Roh," the Korea Herald reported, "once signed a petition calling for withdrawal of U.S. forces in the early 1990s."

By the time of his presidential campaign, however, Roh had moderated this position: "I believe U.S. forces should stay here even after the establishment of peace and unification on the peninsula so they can preserve the balance of power in Northeast Asia," he told the Herald. But that did not stop him from using anti-Americanism as campaign strategy. At one point, for example, according to the New York Times, he said he would "guarantee the security of North Korea" against the United States.

In September, the chairman of Roh’s own party called on him to quit making "anti-American comments." In December, President Kim felt compelled to say, "Constructive criticism of U.S. policies is permissible, but a tide of indiscriminate anti-American sentiment is of no benefit to the national interest."

Roh’s conservative opponent was Lee Hoi Chang, candidate of the Grand National Party, who had lost narrowly to Kim five year’s before. Lee’s approach to relations with the United States and North Korea were the polar opposite of Roh’s. "I have a very definite policy on North Korea," Lee said in a debate. "I will stop money support, because money can subsidize nuclear development." "We’ve had five years of the sunshine policy, but behind our backs, North Korea was working on nuclear weapons," Lee said.

The Herald editorialized that the election results would "provide a much better index of what South Koreans think of America then the biased and emotional media reports."

As anti-Americanism continued to course through the country in the months leading up to the election, this was certainly true.

Reacting to public outrage over the deaths of the two teenage girls, the South Korean government asked the United States to hand over the two sergeants for trial in Korean courts. Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that governs the operation of U.S. military forces in the country, the United States retains the right to try in U.S. military courts U.S. servicemen involved in accidents in South Korea. SOFA, however, also allows the United States to waive that right. In this case-quite understandably, considering that Korean courts do not recognize the same standards of due process as U.S. courts-the United States did not waive the right.

This further enraged some South Koreans, and gave radicals an opportunity to raise a ruckus.

In August, Buddhists held protest vigils in several cities to commemorate the teenagers’ deaths. "Students and activists calling for a revision to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and an eventual U.S. forces pull out from Korea," reported the Korea Times, "took the issues to nearby USFK [U.S. Forces Korea] bases including Uijonbu and Taegu."

In September, anti-American protests began to show an ugly side. "Several anti-U.S. activists hurled 12 Molotov cocktails at a U.S. military base north of Seoul," reported the Korea Herald.

When the court-martial acquitted the sergeants, 50 protestors cut a fence at a U.S. base in Seoul. Chaining themselves together they marched into the facility, chanting, "U.S. troops out of Korea." More firebombs were thrown at another U.S. base.

By December 14, with the revelation that North Korea was reactivating a nuclear reactor that can produce the plutonium for nuclear weapons, the perverse anti-Americanism was boiling over. On that day, more than 100,000 people around the country protested against the United States, many at Seoul City Hall.

Han Sang Ryul, a Presbyterian minister who helped organize the protests, told the Los Angeles Times, "It has been more than 50 years since the United States came here and it is time to reconsider their presence."

And though the bomb-throwers and demonstrators may have been a relative few compared to the overall population, a Korean Times poll of 1,000 South Koreans indicated 81.3% wanted the South Korean government to "strongly push for the revision of the Status of Forces Agreement."

Three days after the demonstration in Seoul, South Korea was to hold its election. The day before the balloting, Roh Moo-hyun made a last bid for anti-American votes.

At an election-eve rally, the Times of London reported, Roh said, "If we stop giving aid [to North Korea] then that means the end of negotiation. . . . If the conversation comes to an end, and North Korea and the U.S. go to war, it’ll risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of our people, not the Americans. We can’t just sit and watch this. We’ve got to persuade the Americans. We have to stop this war. But my opponent [Lee] is saying: ‘War is OK.’"

This was too much for Chung Mong-joon, a popular third-party candidate, who earlier had withdrawn from the race in support of Roh. He issued a statement renouncing his endorsement. "The United States is our ally and our view is that the U.S. has no reason to fight North Korea," said Chung.

But the next day, Roh beat Lee 48.8% to 46.6%.

How serious is the flirtation of Roh and his supporters with anti-Americanism? Only time will tell.

But it didn’t take Roh long after the election-as he faced the responsibilities of office and the reality of the North Korean threat-to begin cozying up to President Bush and the United States.

On December 30, he called on South Koreans to stop the ongoing anti-American public remembrances of the dead teenagers. "I earnestly appeal to you to exhibit self-restraint on the candlelight vigils," he said.

And what about renegotiating SOFA, the agreement governing U.S. forces in the country? That is no longer a priority. "I’ll deal with SOFA after first resolving the North’s nuclear issue," he said. "The nuclear issue is a matter of our people’s survival, while the SOFA dispute is an issue involving our national pride."