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U.S. election captivates expatriates here, too

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Oct 28,2004
As Americans gear up for the presidential election on Tuesday after one of the most divisive and impassioned campaigns in memory, the race is also drawing an unusual amount of attention from U.S. expatriates here.
With most polls indicating an extremely close vote, Americans residing in Korea dot a political landscape nearly as polarized as that in the United States itself. A look at that landscape, largely charted by three political groups ― Republicans Abroad Korea (RAK), Democrats Abroad Korea (DAK) and Americans Overseas for Kerry/Edwards (AOK) ― offers kaleidoscopic views.
Through one lens, Korea can be seen as a microcosm of the scene back home, but another shows a distinct playing field.
Numerous polls show that non-military American expatriates worldwide tend to favor Democratic candidate John Kerry, while members of the military support President Bush. Korea, of course, has substantial numbers of both groups.
While the lines in Korea are bold, they are also blurred, said Andy Jackson, executive director of Republicans Abroad Korea. “There aren't many stereotypes that hold among expats here,” he said, citing himself, an English teacher, as evidence. “Americans are thrown together so that conventional divisions of red and blue geography can't take root. So the point is just to get as many Americans as possible to vote.”
“Vote!” has been the universal battle cry in Korea, an effect that has trickled over from the United States. Here, the campaign was kicked off this summer by Jonathan Hilts, president of Democrats Abroad Korea, who found that a lack of outreach by the U.S. embassy left expatriates without a voter-awareness initiative to offset that of the military.
“Americans abroad have felt keenly how this administration's policies have affected the world. We're trying to be here for them,” Mr. Hilts said with a wry smile, feigning passivity when the organization has been anything but passive.
From July to October, the group held weekly voter registration drives at various locations in Seoul before settling in at Schlotzky's in Itaewon as its unofficial home base. These drives ― with the slogan “ROK the Vote!” ― were non-partisan.
When a man from Texas scrawled “Republican” on his registration form at their table, Mr. Hilts and fellow volunteers were unfazed. “We've just been targeting the general public, and that's going to come out more favorably for us than for the Republicans,” he said, later adding that results from the drives have been “about 60 percent Democrat, 30 percent Independent, and 10 percent Republican.
“We haven't had to convince anybody,” Mr. Hilts said. “Bush was already doing that for us, so making sure people could vote was the most important thing we could do for this election.”
Recalling the drama of the 2000 election, “people have realized that their votes from abroad do matter,” he added.
“I've never seen people so energized,” said Daniel Pinkston, professor of international relations at Korea University.
As American expatriates around the globe ― historically a politically detached group ― have been flocking to register to vote in droves, John Kotch, chairman of Americans Overseas for Kerry/Edwards, notes this phenomenon in Korea. Until very recently, the political activity here was exclusively devoted to getting out the vote; unlike in Europe, there has been little activism, campaigning or fundraising, he said.
The Korea branch of Americans Overseas for Kerry/Edwards ― an organization headed by Senator Kerry's sister Diana ― had a difficult time getting off the ground despite Mr. Kotch's efforts, with fewer than 20 members and disappointing attendance at its summer events.
“You need people to donate time and money, and many expats in Korea are not in that position,” said Mr. Kotch, explaining that such jobs as teaching English are time-intensive as well as short-term, and expatriate lifestyles here tend to diverge from those in London or Paris. The conspicuous absence of Asia on Diana Kerry's itinerary did not help the organization either.
But it has recently jump-started an important vehicle in the political process that doesn't require material resources: discussion. A roundtable talk on Oct. 15 and “a raucous round of speechmaking” on Oct. 22, both held at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club, were attended by a different crowd than at DAK's Itaewon voter drives, consisting of older professionals and academics, as well as more long-term residents of Korea. The dialogue touched upon policy, ideology and numerous other issues.
The theme that emerged from the meetings was the difference between being anti-Bush and anti-American, with some expressing the view that anti-Americanism stemmed from an “arrogance” that was the product of the Bush legacy.
Mr. Hilts said, “It's Bush making these missteps. Ask Koreans who said ‘the axis of evil’ and they'll say ‘Bush,’ not ‘America.’ It was not this way even under Bush Sr.”
“He's certainly personalized the presidency,” added Mr. Kotch, who is a scholar in Korean studies at Cambridge University but returned to Korea to launch the branch of AOK here.
Still, many Democrats here are aware that they are voting as residents of Korea. Though subjects like tax cuts, the Iraq war and the candidates' performances in the recent debates arise periodically, most discussion has focused intently on the tangible effects of Mr. Bush's policies on the peninsula.
Irving Gussow, a lawyer and events coordinator for AOK, said voters here are heavily influenced by “the knowledge that Bush is not a lover of Korea.”
Republicans Abroad Korea, four years older than its Democratic counterpart, has set a different pace for this election season. Perhaps because it is backing the incumbent president, the group had not yet gathered significant momentum by mid-August, when the Democrats' drive was in full swing.
A planning meeting held in the law office of chairman John Lee drew a crowd somewhat consistent with popular stereotype of Republican demographics: mostly male, over 30 years old, and including several Southerners. But there also were lawyers, English teachers and airport officials, both Caucasian and Korean-American.
Whereas Democrats Abroad has reached out to the expatriate population at large, simply hoping for more hits than misses, Republicans Abroad has developed a more tailored agenda, targeting such areas as military bases and church groups. “What we need are concentrated communities of Americans,” Mr. Jackson said.
The Republican group’s non-partisan voter drives, at predominantly American churches such as the Seoul International Baptist Church, have drawn sizable crowds. More significantly, a Labor Day drive at the Yongsan Garrison registered over 70 voters, nearly all active-duty servicemen and their families. Though registrants were not asked to divulge their party choice, Mr. Jackson said that those who offered the information “broke out about 2 to 1 in favor of President Bush.”
As the focus turned to federal write-in ballots this month, RAK volunteers made their way back to the Yongsan base and the streets of Itaewon to galvanize voters.
While the Republican organization has used different approaches than the Democratic groups, it has backed up its activities with sentiments just as visceral as those of Democrats.
Bob Gilbert, an attorney and 20-year resident of Korea, said, “That Kerry is an elitist and an opportunist is not surprising, but what is surprising is that he's being taken so seriously by so many people ― and that's pretty sobering.”
One of the most noteworthy differences between the Democrats’ and Republicans’ discussion, however, is that the Democrats have drawn no distincton or line of causality between anti-Bush and anti-American sentiments in Korea.
Many RAK members instead cite widespread media bias for anti-Americanism, an observation party conceded by Mr. Hilts, who acknowledged that dependence on the media for information is directly proportional to the distance from home.
“The only news we can get from the U.S. is CNN, which is very anti-American,” said RAK member Virginia Roberts, “and no good news of the Bush administration reaches them.”
Ms. Roberts noted the absence of books by conservatives Anne Coulter and Sean Hannity in Korean bookstores compared to the enthusiastic promotion of former President Bill Clinton's autobiography and Michael Moore's film “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Other RAK members said, moreover, that Korean translations of English-language news are consistently slanted. “Available information should be balanced,” said RAK chairman Lee.
RAK member Manny Lee said that both Korean and expatriate attitudes on the peninsula are often tuned by “Americans who are very anti-American themselves.” Through letters to the editor and other prominent declarations, said Mr. Lee, they “publicly justify and fan anti-American sentiment in Korea.”
But John Lee expressed optimism about a shift in tone. “Korea is changing ... we're seeing Koreans not only beginning to return to conservatism but also returning to America,” he said.
Mr. Lee also found a promising congruity between Korean and Republican sensibilities. “The Republican principles of hard work, individual responsibility and respect are compatible on a basic level with the Oriental tradition,” he said.
The widespread view is that Republicans in Korea tend to identify more closely with their compatriots back home, whereas Democrats generally distinguish themselves as Americans abroad.
The views of RAK members on most issues are in tune with those of stateside Republicans. They say Mr. Bush has demonstrated honesty, consistency and character as president. Cultural conservatism also finds some expression among the group, as well as praise for Mr. Bush's leadership in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mr. Jackson’s opposition to Mr. Kerry, however, is notably tinged with the perspective of a resident of Korea. “Kerry continues to say that he will bring 'allies' on board in Iraq while his campaign insults the nations that are already working with us. It seems that the allies we have are not European enough for him,” he said.
Given the diversity of viewpoints among American expatriates here, their political activities have, perhaps inevitably, generated some friction, albeit minor.
Each faction even harbors its own mini-conspiracy theories: DAK has accused the Pentagon of blocking voter registration Web sites, while Republicans have complained of widespread absentee ballot voter fraud.
DAK's Rebekkah Caulfield, who led a registration drive at a popular bar in Busan following a special “ROK the Vote!” concert in mid-September, called the event “a smashing success,” marred only by an encounter with “a very drunk and very Republican American soldier who came up, ripped our signs off the table, and accused me of being an uneducated fascist.” But some in the Kerry camp, too, hold antagonistic sentiments; RAK's invitation to collaborate on bipartisan events met with considerable controversy within DAK. “Just give me a heads-up so I won't be there,” said one member.
But the proposal to join forces raises an important issue. In the crucible of the 2004 election, is there a place where voters can meet as Americans in Korea?
RAK's Mr. Jackson has been an avid proponent of bipartisan cooperation, saying, “I think there is a common ground.” DAK’s Mr. Hilts agreed, citing the proposed withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea as one potential bipartisan issue.
“America is getting so divided that it’s easy for both sides to demonize the other,” Mr. Hilts said. “It’d be good for the two sides to get together and say ‘Look, we agree that we both want what’s good for America.’ Ultimately, we have that same goal.”


by Kim Sun-jung


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