In a new book, David Straub explains why massive anti-American protests erupted across South Korea in 2002 and considers whether it could happen again.
South Korea is often seen as a pro-American ally, a model country that went from a poor, postwar nation into a maturing democracy in just four short decades.
But despite a historic alliance between South Korea and the United States, anti-Americanism flared throughout the Asian nation between 1999-2002 when a series of events and longstanding tensions aligned, according to Stanford researcher David Straub.
“It was a sort of venting of steam,” said Straub, an associate director at Stanford’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
“Many Koreans at the time were grossly overinterpreting issues and incidents involving the United States. And this was because they were viewing the U.S.-Korea relationship through a lens of historic victimization by other nations, including the United States,” he added.
Straub, who held a thirty-year diplomatic career in the State Department, headed the political section of the American embassy in Seoul during those years and was deeply involved in managing problems in the bilateral relationship.
Since the end of the Korean War, the United States Forces Korea (USFK) has been stationed in Seoul – now about 28,500 uniformed personnel.
In June 2002, a USFK vehicle struck two Korean students in a tragic accident. In December of that same year, after a U.S. court martial found the drivers of the vehicle not guilty of wrongdoing, hundreds of thousands of people protested in Seoul and other major Korean cities. Not only did activists partake but ordinary citizens too, he said.
Straub said the South Korean public had been “unintentionally primed” for such a reaction to the USFK traffic accident; it was the “spark that lit the firestorm” after years of escalation. A series of events led-up to the mass protests, they included:
EXPLORE a timeline of those events in the carousel below.
Asymmetry of attention
Straub said the shaping of Koreans’ views of Americans and fanning of tensions could be attributed in part to an “asymmetry of attention” on the part of the Korean and American publics to the U.S.-Korean relationship.
While the Korean public put tremendous focus on U.S.-Korean relations and the presence of U.S. military personnel in Korea, the American public was unaware of Korean attitudes and feelings, he said.
Similarly during the 1999-2002 period, Korean media reported hypercritical views of the United States and USFK, while the American media paid far less attention.
In negotiating with U.S. officials, South Korean officials would often allude to strong Korean public opinion and demand U.S. concessions. With no American public opinion on Korea issues to point to, U.S. officials were at a major disadvantage, Straub said.
U.S. officials would sometimes note opinions shared by members of Congress, he said, “however, for Korean officials, those claims weren’t as powerful as having a social movement literally on the front doorstep.”
In plain terms, the United States is much larger than South Korea. This very imbalance – which translates to military and economic power – added to Koreans’ assumption that they were “getting the worse end of the bargain,” he added.
“Most Koreans saw Korea as a victim of great powers,” Straub said. “It’s not just the media. It’s more than that, it was – and still is – a shared national narrative.”
Koreans’ sense of national vulnerability is magnified by their historic victimization to neighbors. South Koreans do not want to become a de facto tributary state of China or a colony of Japan again, he said.
Will anti-Americanism return?
USFK incidents were a main focus of Korean attention during the 1999-2002 period, and while there is always a possibility of problems arising, the intensity is gone now, Straub said.
“Some steam is under the lid again,” Straub said. “But I don’t think it’s nearly at the level like it was back then. I’m doubtful that we’d see an exact repeat.”
The media landscape in South Korea has improved and shifted away from its earlier position of “criticize the United States first and ask questions later,” Straub said.
Today, South Korea and the United States are in good standing at the government-level and among the people. President Obama and Korean President Park Geun-hye have an established rapport.
What troubles Koreans now is North Korea, a Japan focused on collective defense, and the strategic rivalry between the United States and China and its possible implications for Korea, he said.
“South Korea being sandwiched between the United States and China – based on a perception that China is going to be the world’s dominant power – is a real worry for many Koreans,” Straub said, and a large number of Koreans – albeit still a minority – feel that their country must find a more equidistant ground between the two.
Most Koreans, however, still believe in the need for the continued presence of USFK personnel, at least for the time being, said Straub, and must be reassured of their strategic alliance with the United States.
Obama and Park are expected to meet in Washington in mid-October, and Straub said it will be used as an opportunity for both sides to reinforce the importance they attach to the alliance and to pressing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs.
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