1980s 'Reds' evolving into a broader-based anti-U.S. pressure bloc
Reverend Mun Kyu-hyun, a Catholic priest and a leading anti-American activist in South Korea since the 1980s, has been on a hunger strike since Sunday a block away from the U.S. Embassy in downtown Seoul. Father Mun says the anti-American movement here has changed over the years. "It was really a minority movement twenty years ago," he said yesterday. "Now it has widespread public recognition. There is an angry wave sweeping the country today."
Pointing at a display of photographs of victims of accidents and crimes involving U.S. troops stationed here, Reverend Mun talked about South Korea's resentment of the U.S. military presence here. "The public does admit some necessity of the U.S. troops here, but it has begun to demand a fair alliance. Without fairness, the U.S. military can't be an ally -- it is an occupation force." He said that is why he and other Catholic priests began the hunger strike.
Anti-American sentiment in South Korea has been climbing this year. But until a few years ago, anti-American activists were commonly seen as radical leftists, or just "Reds." "In the 1980s, the small number of anti-American activists were mostly students who regarded anti-Americanism as the same as pro-communism," said Kim Dong-choon, a political science professor at SungKongHoe University. "The movement was a high risk mission."
The movement attracted little support in its early days; the country was politically conservative and the military regimes of the time suppressed free expression of such views. But today, the issue has become a national one, and is taken seriously by the government. President Kim Dae-jung felt it necessary to address the question in a cabinet meeting Tuesday.
Mr. Kim, the political scientist, said, "The public sees no risk of expressing anti-American emotions today because of the democratization of our society. They are free to express their feelings, including resentment. The unilateral diplomacy of the United States has increased public sympathy for anti-Americanism." Middle and high school students have also joined street rallies on winter days and nights, even though most have probably not thought the issues through. "It is a culture and fashion for them," Mr. Kim said. "They are sharing emotions."
As these spontaneous protests spring up, they are making visible changes in Korea's culture. A television anchorwoman resigned Saturday over a somewhat cryptic comment she made on the air. Hwang Jeong-min, an anchorwoman of a KBS TV news program, said she felt "ashamed" after reading a news story about South Korean activists who broke into a U.S. military base on Nov. 26. Although she said later that what she meant was "regretful," her comment was interpreted by many viewers as a slap at the protesters. The network accepted her resignation.
The anti-American sentiment in Korea today is also different from the organized civic movements that have long been around, most of them focusing on U.S. troops. The recent upsurge of sentiment against the United States is not a product of a single incident -- it is more of a chain reaction that began with a South Korean's gold medal "stolen" by an American. A Korean short-track skating hero, Kim Dong-sung, was disqualified at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics by an Australian judge, and an American rival, Anton Ohno, was awarded the gold. Koreans demanded the "stolen" gold medal back and boycotted American businesses here in protest. "Sales fell sharply shortly after that Ohno incident," a manager at an American franchise restaurant, T.G.I. Fridays, in Mok-dong growled earlier this year. Teenage activists cut back on their intake of hamburgers and Coca-Cola to express their anger instead of breaking into the American Cultural Center for a sit-in protest, as an earlier generation did in 1985.
The anger in February diminished slowly with time, but the June road accident in which two teenagers were killed by a U.S. military vehicle reignited it. The final straw to many Koreans was the "not guilty" verdicts handed down last month by a U.S. military court against the driver and vehicle commander, who had been charged with negligent homicide.
The anger spread fast. Demonstrators gathered outside U.S. military bases to scream anti-American slogans; some Molotov cocktails were thrown. Activists cut fences and broke into U.S. garrisons.
The sentiment seemed unsurprising to U.S. officials here. "We have come to understand that demonstrations are part of Korean history," Stephen Oertwig, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea, who has been here 13 years, sounded understanding of South Koreans' public anger. He told the Joong-Ang Daily on Wednesday, "Peaceful demonstrations are part of democracy. We've grown up with them and now Koreans are on the way to find their roots of democracy. Demonstrations happen, and we don't think much about it. If asked, 'Do we fear anti-Americanism?' I would say no. The majority of our people are here for short-term service. Korea is a home for only about one year for most of them, and they all enjoy it here."
Despite the optimism, there are signs of concern among U.S. military leaders. Although Mr. Oertwig said he could not comment on any changes in his office's publicity strategy, he noted that the U.S. Army recently held a "New Horizon Day" to educate troops about relationships with South Koreans. Frequent press releases around the time of the courts-martial, Mr. Oertwig said, were meant to "heighten South Koreans' understanding of the U.S. justice system and eliminate any possible misunderstanding from not explaining the matter properly." Apologies also flowed, but were uniformly rejected by activists.
Maureen Cormack, the U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, said yesterday the embassy is not ready to comment on the anti-American issue but that the ambassador plans to address it in the coming days.
The Internet has become a rallying point for protesters. On Saturday, at least 1,500 youngsters gathered in front of the Kyobo building, near the U.S. Embassy, in an event initiated by an Internet user. Pop stars also joined the movement.
"I am an ordinary father of two elementary school children," Shin Gwang-hyun posted on an Internet bulletin board after attending Saturday's candlelight memorial with his family. "When I was a university student, I never wanted to make my parents, who supported me by farming, worry about me," Mr. Shin said. "But after the June road deaths, new anguish was in my heart."
He continued, "When my child asked me 'Why is our country so weak?' something hit me. I have not paid attention to other people's lives, but I want my children to live in a strong country with a strong government."
Today's anti-American sentiment is not the serious, gloomy political fight of the 1980s, but neither is it shallow.
"Isn't voluntary participation all about democracy?" a journalist in his 30s asked. His generation participated in or at least witnessed the grim demonstrations of the 1980s. "I do not agree with playing down today's anti-American sentiment among youngsters who are not armed with ideology."
Mr. Kim of SungKongHoe University agreed. "The Cold War is over and the public is freely raising its voice. Teenagers may have joined the move based on simple thoughts, but it is a progress that we have to undergo to mature our society."