Stanford researcher analyzes anti-Americanism in South Korea

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A South Korean protestor holds an American flag on which protesters left their footprints at a Seoul rally in June 2003.
Photo credit: 
Reuters/Lee Jae-Won

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.

Boiling point

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:

  • A few months before the USFK traffic accident, a Korean athlete was disqualified at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City during a speed skating competition. American athlete Apolo Anton Ohno instead won gold after a disputed call.
  • A non-governmental organization in May 2000 revealed that USFK personnel dumped formaldehyde into a drain that ran into the Han River in Seoul.
  • In Sept. 1999, the Associated Press published its first investigative story examining the Nogun-ri incident of 1950, when hundreds of Korean refugees were killed in an alleged massacre by U.S. service members.

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.

Links to related articles

NK News: South Korean anti-Americanism dwindles, but roots remain: diplomat

NK News: South Korean anti-Americanism: a thing of the past?

Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea, July 2015

Asia Times: American faces Seoul court over infamous unsolved murder

The Christian Science Monitor: South Korea: 20 years later, Californian son faces trial for Seoul murder

JoongAng Ilbo: Is anti-Americanism dead?

JoongAng Ilbo (Korean): 한미동맹은 빈틈없이 튼실한가 전 미국 국무부 한국과장의 진단