[VIEWPOINT]Two sides to 'Yankee, go home'A crisis is quietly brewing on the Korean Peninsula, and it is not about North Korea's clandestine uranium-enrichment program or about the presidential elections only eight days away. Instead the crisis revolves around the growing anti-Americanism in Korea that could lead to a severe rift in the U.S.-Korean alliance. The recent acquittal of two U.S. servicemen over the deaths of two Korean teenage girls has only exacerbated the depth and scope of the sentiment. Activist groups in Korea have been galvanized by what has unanimously been seen in Korea as the unjust outcome of the trial. Anti-Americanism now resonates with a broader audience, arguably more so than at any other time in postwar Korea.
Why is this a concern for the alliance? After all, the demonstrations at American installations in the past week pale in comparison to the violent acts committed by radical students in the 1980s. But that is exactly the point. If the symbol of anti-Americanism in the 1980s was a bandanna-wearing, molotov cocktail-toting radical student, today's symbol is a housewife or a bank employee -- which is potentially more threatening to the long-term future of the alliance. Today's anti-Americanism has become a widespread social movement, spearheaded by educated, internet-savvy nongovernmental organizations and civic action groups. Nowhere was this made more clear to me than at a recent seminar on the U.S.-ROK alliance in Seoul. I met several well-coiffed, suit-wearing individuals who introduced themselves as leaders of "anti-American" NGOs. Even more telling about this new brand of anti-Americanism was the venue -- the Bankers Club.
Katherine Moon of Wellesley College is studying this phenomenon. She has noted that this new form of anti-Americanism in Korea is unlike the radical strain evident in the 1980s, the ban-mi version, which was ideologically committed to the expulsion of the U.S. military from Korea. That strain still exists today but remains a fringe group. The predominant form of anti-Americanism we see today is a moderate form, bi-mi, that is critical of the United States but seeks compensation or adjustment of inequities rather than expulsion of the Americans.
What is worrying about this bi-mi form of anti-Americanism is not the criticism of the U.S. per se -- indeed, mutual criticism is healthy for any alliance. Instead, the concern is that a confluence of forces in both the United States and South Korea could cause this sentiment to metastasize into a more radical sentiment across the broad section of Korean society.
In Washington, there is increasing discord between those Pentagon lawyers dealing with the catalysts for anti-Americanism (the Status of Forces Agreement, for example), and those concerned with the long-term future of the alliance. For the lawyers, the primary task is avoiding any concessions on SOFA issues for fear of creating new legal precedents that could then complicate U.S. alliance management in other countries. Thinking about the longer-term implications of these decisions on alliance welfare is not within their purview of responsibility. At best, to the extent such thinking occurs, it is informed by an arrogance that minor flare-ups over the SOFA will not affect the Korean need for, and dependence on, the alliance.
Exacerbating this trend is the Korean media's one-dimensional negative portrayal of the U.S. Forces Korea. These images fuel the popular perception of the United States as an overbearing, self-interested, and arrogant ally. Such negative reporting, though clearly justified in some cases, is also clearly one-sided. For example, U.S. servicemen have certainly committed crimes, even grievous ones, in Korea, but the overall crime rate for the South Korean military (as a percentage of total servicemen) is far higher than that of USFK. In addition, though Korean victims of the USFK footprint receive wide media attention, virtually no coverage is given to unprovoked attacks against American servicemen by Koreans (as was the case in the summer of 2000 regarding the stabbing death of an American military physician in Itaewon).
Just as the Korean media must offer more balanced portrayals of USFK to their public, the U.S. treatment of SOFA-related cases needs to be informed by a sensitivity to the longer-term needs of the alliance. Otherwise, this confluence of trends could lead to a crisis of confidence in the alliance without anyone understanding how we got there or how to get out.
* The writer is a professor of government and D.S. Song-Korea Foundation chair at Georgetown University.
by Victor D. Cha