Defusing Anti-American Rhetoric in South Korea

Report Asia

Defusing Anti-American Rhetoric in South Korea

January 23, 2003 14 min read
Balbina Hwang
Balbina Hwang
Former Senior Policy Analyst
Balbina is a former Senior Policy Analyst

After a contentious campaign that seemed to focus more on nationalist sentiments than on pressing domestic and security issues, South Koreans elected a new president, Roh Moo Hyun, on December 19. Since then, North Korea has garnered the spotlight with the resumption of its nuclear weapons programs. As the United States addresses these developments, it must recognize that the anti-American sentiment in the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the provocative actions of North Korea are related. The solution to both these problems lies in a strong, proactive leadership on both sides of the Pacific.

On the U.S. side, the Bush Administration should assure South Koreans that America fully shares their security interests and sincerely desires reconciliation on the Korean peninsula. It must also work to educate Koreans and the world community that North Korea, and not the United States, is responsible for North Korean threats and dangerous actions. Washington should continue to work with Seoul to formulate realistic policies that address South Korean concerns over the U.S. military presence without compromising its operational interests. And the Administration should ensure that its officials here and abroad appropriately address Korean concerns and sensitivities.

On the South Korean side, Seoul should better articulate the seriousness of the North Korean threat to its people. To strengthen the sense of partnership in the U.S.-ROK alliance, Seoul should also publicize the enduring importance of the alliance to both countries if peaceful reconciliation on the Korean peninsula is to be achieved.

Much of the current ire against the United States concerns an accident last June, when a U.S. armored vehicle participating in military exercises struck two 14-year-old Korean girls as they walked along a narrow village road. A U.S. military court ruled that the deaths were accidental and acquitted the two U.S. servicemen driving the vehicle of homicide charges. This ruling prompted an eruption of demonstrations in South Korea and a protest vigil outside the White House in Washington. The protests have now expanded to include calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea altogether.

The media in Korea and the United States regularly offer vivid images of protestors and anti-American slogans, but it would be wrong to conclude from these images that the U.S.-ROK alliance is in danger. While the current protests are a signal that there are differences of opinion in some sectors of South Korean society regarding the U.S. troop presence and Washington's polices toward North Korea, neither Washington nor Seoul should overreact in ways that would damage the long-standing U.S.-ROK alliance.

Although there have been increasing incidents of violence against Americans, few South Koreans--even those participating in demonstrations at the U.S. Embassy compound in Seoul--support movements that advocate harm to the United States or its citizens. Rather, the major source of anti-American sentiment is the growing chasm between U.S. and South Korean perceptions of the threat posed by North Korea. While Americans' concern over the dangers presented by the North Korean regime have been heightened recently by Pyongyang's dangerous game of nuclear brinkmanship, South Koreans seem to fear that U.S. firmness in response to North Korea's policies increases the possibility of war on the peninsula.

The differing threat perceptions between South Koreans and Americans paradoxically serve to further North Korean interests. If not quickly addressed by leaders in Seoul and Washington, the situation could jeopardize South Korea's security and America's interests in promoting peace and stability in Northeast Asia.


Recent headlines both in South Korea and in the United States portray a rising tide of anti-Americanism that has raised concerns in Seoul and Washington, but anti-American protests in South Korea are not new. Indeed, during the half-century of the formal relationship between the United States and the ROK, anti-American sentiments have flared up often.1

Today, the increase in criticism of, and dissatisfaction with, U.S. policies is rooted in the growing differences between Americans and South Koreans over their perceptions of North Korea. South Koreans view the threat from North Korea as immediate and local. The United States sees North Korea as a regional and global threat that requires a concerted effort to end the North's production and proliferation of ballistic missiles and terminate its nuclear weapons program.

From the U.S. perspective, the North Korean threat is based on (1) Pyongyang's insistence on a "military first" policy, despite mass starvation of its people; (2) its illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons, including its flagrant violation of four international and bilateral agreements; (3) its proliferation of arms and missiles; (4) its record of state-sponsored terrorism, including the kidnapping of Japanese and other foreign citizens; (5) its continued hostile military stance toward the South; (6) its continued brutality toward its own people through widespread violation of human rights; (7) its involvement in the international drug trade and counterfeiting; and (8) its provocation of South Korea and Japan by spy boats and intelligence agents.

South Koreans today view North Korea differently. Despite the North's clinging to communist tenets, most South Koreans think the Cold War is over. No longer are South Koreans faced with the invincible Kim Il Sung of the past, whose threatening actions and rhetoric often resoundingly justified South Korea's security-first mentality. South Koreans today see in Kim Jong Il a leader who smiles, makes agreements and promises, and seems to be pursuing reforms in North Korea.

Moreover, South Korean citizens seem to be satisfied with Kim Jong Il's promises, even though he has consistently either broken them or failed to fulfill them. South Koreans now feel a connection to what they see as poor, starving, and weak brethren in North Korea. They are eager to grasp this as the new reality on the peninsula--an unforeseen legacy of the June 2000 summit in Pyongyang that was part of President Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine Policy effort. But North Korea remains a local and immediate threat to South Korea.

Some South Koreans view the United States as an obstacle to reconciliation and reunification. They blame President George W. Bush's principled stance against the North for slow progress in inter-Korean rapprochement and the break in dialogue with Pyongyang. This perception was exacerbated when President Bush named North Korea as part of "the axis of evil" in his State of the Union address in January 2002.

It is clear from North Korean actions since late 2000 that Pyongyang, not Washington, is responsible for the break in dialogue with the South. Nevertheless, some South Koreans and the international media overlook such realities and instead blame Washington for the breakdown in talks, which contributes to anti-American sentiments.

Negative South Korean views of U.S. policies were further strengthened by the U.S. response to the North's disclosure of an illicit nuclear program. South Koreans regard the decision by the Korean Energy Development Organization (KEDO) to suspend fuel aid to the North in order to pressure it to end its nuclear programs as part of an American scheme to keep the peninsula tense and divided.

This is an incorrect assessment of America's intentions and actions. Since the recent tensions caused by the nuclear program, President Bush has made clear that Washington wants to find a peaceful, diplomatic, nonmilitary resolution. The United States is rightly standing firm in its refusal to enter into negotiations with North Korea until Pyongyang ceases its nuclear programs.

It is more accurate to characterize the Administration's stance prior to the North's nuclear revelation as cautious and skeptical but open to engagement. The Administration's skepticism about South Korea's Sunshine Policy is, in the end, not very different from the South Korean public's own discontent over the shortcomings of this policy.


Changes in South Korean perceptions of the North Korean threat are due in part to the desire to reap a "peace dividend" from the end of the Cold War. South Koreans also are psychologically tired of considering their brethren an enemy, even though North Korea maintains military forces along the border with the South. It is even more problematic for South Koreans to accept that a regime so desperate that it allowed millions of its own citizens to starve to death is a meaningful and menacing threat to a country that is at least 50 times stronger economically.

Over the past two decades, South Korea has undergone profound political, economic, and social transformation. Politically, it is now one of the most vibrant and thriving democracies in East Asia. Economically, it has become a regional if not global powerhouse. Socially, it has embraced globalization, perhaps more thoroughly than any other Asian society. Thus, South Korea is adjusting to the immense challenges that accompany such changes, including how to reconcile national pride and achievements with lingering feelings of inadequacy and dependency stemming from a long and bitter Japanese colonial legacy.

The newfound freedom of South Koreans to express their opinions and their ability to pursue activities beyond mere economic survival also help to explain the recent growth of anti-American sentiments. Even those who have weak political motivation can now participate in the political process, particularly due to the wide availability and popularity of the Internet. The ability of people to express their opposition to U.S. policies widely and graphically over the Internet has contributed to the perceived rise in anti-American sentiment.

Other observers attribute the increase in resentment against the U.S. military presence to the fading of Korean War memories, given that over 60 percent of the Korean population was born after the war. Yet this argument carries less weight when one considers that it is this younger generation, born in the post-war period, who also exhibit stronger anti-Japanese sentiment than their elders even though they are even farther removed from the Japanese colonial period.

Therefore, it is likely that the increase in resentment toward the United States has more to do with the South's greatly diminished perception of the threat emanating from the North, increased national pride, and the end of the Cold War. Whereas the older generations tend to view the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) as a necessary part of the national security landscape, surveys show that these tendencies tend to subside among those aged 40 years and younger, as well as among intellectuals.2

The implications for U.S. policy are significant. If the United States perceives that South Korea is increasingly anti-American and no longer welcomes the U.S. military presence, then it may reconsider its forward troop presence and perhaps even reassess the entire alliance. This is even more likely if the American people and Congress, who may fail to appreciate the nuances of South Korean domestic politics, begin to share that perception.


Considering North Korean actions and South Korean sentiments, the Bush Administration must take immediate and direct action to shore up the crucial U.S.-ROK alliance. This means making efforts to convey a sense of commitment and priority with respect to issues of concern to the South Korean people.

Specifically, the Administration should take immediate steps to:

1) Ensure that South Koreans understand the security interests shared by Seoul and Washington, particularly the nuclear threat posed by North Korea

While the Administration should not interfere in the South's domestic political process, it should work to build support across the political spectrum for continuing the U.S. military presence in South Korea.

The Administration, the U.S. Ambassador to Seoul, and key leaders of the U.S. military forces in the South must take measured and coordinated steps to continually market the rationale behind the U.S. presence. They should endeavor to do this alongside their South Korean partners. Successful U.S. policies require the endorsement of the majority of South Koreans as well as of the government. Leaders of the country's major political parties should be encouraged to refrain from making the U.S.-ROK alliance a political issue.

2) Continue to work with Seoul to formulate realistic and prudent policies that address Korean concerns regarding the U.S. military presence

In the long term, for example, the Administration should continue to reduce the American footprint on the peninsula while improving military training opportunities and combat power. These can be modeled after the highly successful Land-Partnership Program achieved in 2002.

In the short term, the Pentagon should consider the implementation of policies that would immediately reduce the chances of future training accidents. The U.S. armed forces, for example, should refrain wherever possible from conducting exercises in training areas that are located within populated civilian areas. When military personnel must be mobilized and moved through these areas, this should be done under escort, perhaps by South Korean police, in a non-tactical manner or by administrative convoys. The U.S. military should provide and ensure escorts for the convoys and ensure that South Korean and U.S. military police monitor all roads and other travel routes to protect the civilian population.

3) Launch an aggressive media and public relations campaign to educate both South Koreans and Americans on the facts of the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and other specific aspects of the U.S.-ROK bilateral treaty

Both South Koreans and Americans suffer from a lack of knowledge about the contributions by both sides to the alliance and the U.S. force presence. Incorrect or false information contributes to the negative emotions on both sides and feeds a mutual sense of lack of appreciation.

For example, many Americans assume that the United States government pays for the full cost of stationing and maintaining 37,000 U.S. troops in Korea. In reality, the ROK government contributes almost 50 percent of non-personnel stationing costs for U.S. forces in South Korea.

On the South Korean side, the military accident in June precipitated calls for a revision of the SOFA. These calls are grounded in a mistaken belief that the agreement's allegedly unfair terms allowed the U.S. military to avert all responsibility. In reality, the terms of the bilaterally negotiated SOFA benefit both sides by respecting the legal systems of both countries.

For example, most South Koreans believe that the U.S. Forces Korea has jurisdiction over every SOFA-status person who commits a crime in South Korea. This is untrue. In 2001, 82 percent of all crimes committed by USFK personnel in South Korea were subject to South Korean jurisdiction. This high percentage confirms U.S. respect for South Korean sovereignty and judicial processes.3

Many South Koreans also believe that the supposedly unfair terms of the SOFA arrangement allowed the USFK exclusive jurisdiction over the investigation and trial of U.S. military personnel involved in the accident in June. In reality, however, even South Korean soldiers are never tried by civilian courts. Thus, for example, if the driver or track commander of the June incident had been a South Korean soldier, he would have been tried by the Korean military court-martial, not the civilian criminal courts. The fact is that in ROK government agreements with other countries where a South Korean military force may be present, the ROK military maintains exclusive jurisdiction over its personnel. This is an advantage that the U.S. does not even enjoy in its SOFA with South Korea.

4) Encourage U.S. officials be more sensitive to the emotionalism and volatility of public sentiments in Korea

The United States should avoid making seemingly minor but in reality costly errors, such as delaying its sincere and public expression of regret over tragedies like the schoolgirl deaths in June.


The politicization of anti-American sentiments in South Korea has caused undue distraction from the close cooperation and coordination that is required to address the North Korean threat. Neither the United States nor South Korea should overreact to the emotionalism that is overshadowing other pressing non-security issues, including the downturn in the global economy and a possible consumer credit bubble in South Korea's economy.

Although the intensity of the anti-American protests may be disconcerting, they should not be seen as a signal that the alliance should be terminated. South Koreans are expressing their frustration over specific events and what they perceive to be divergent U.S. and South Korean national interests.

Conflicts will inevitably arise as the U.S.-ROK relationship adjusts to the domestic and international political realities in the post-September 11 security environment. If the mutually beneficial alliance relationship is to be sustained, both sides must improve their understanding of the security threats and the origins of anti-American sentiments in South Korea. And they must take steps to address those sentiments in the near term in order to ensure the future vitality of the alliance.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Mutual Security Treaty. Both countries should use this important milestone both to honor their relationship as one of the most successful bilateral alliances in their respective histories and to ensure that their citizens understand its importance and the need for it to continue.

Balbina Y. Hwang is Policy Analyst for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

1. Anti-Americanism is not a new phenomenon in the formal 50-year history of U.S.-ROK relations. For example, shortly after arriving in Seoul in 1945 to take charge of the southern half of the Korean peninsula, General John Hodge, commander of the U.S. military occupation in Korea, sent a cable to his superiors in Washington that noted: "The United States is being blamed for the partition of Korea, and there is a growing resentment against all Americans.... [T]he label `pro-American' is quickly becoming an epithet...." In 1987, the U.S. ambassador to the ROK, Richard L. Walker, penned an urgent 10-page memorandum to his successor, Ambassador James Lilley, to warn him of a dangerous rise in anti-American sentiment.

2. Seo Soo-Min, "Activists Intensify SOFA Revision Efforts," The Korea Times, August 6, 2002.

3. The South Korean judicial system has the right to exercise its jurisdiction in all but two narrow types of offenses perpetrated by SOFA personnel: (1) offenses against the property or security of the United States or against another SOFA-status victim and (2) offenses committed by SOFA-status personnel during the performance of official duty. It is clear that the accident involving the U.S. military armored vehicle in June clearly falls under the jurisdiction of this second qualification. T. D. Flack, "South Korean Leader Orders His Cabinet to `Improve' SOFA Agreement," Stars and Stripes, December 5, 2002.


Balbina Hwang
Balbina Hwang

Former Senior Policy Analyst