[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Roh must be nimble on U.S. issueMarch 1, the anniversary of nationwide demonstrations against Japanese colonial rule in 1919, has always brought its share of political demonstrations. This year, however, the demonstrations took an unusual turn as anti-American and pro-American gatherings took place within kilometers of each other in the center of Seoul. Together, the demonstrations show that views of the United States remain a potent force in political mobilization in Korea.
The anti-American demonstrations follow the success of the candlelight vigils at the end of 2002 and are rooted in the spread of anti-Americanism among the younger generation that began in the early 1980s. The groups that sponsor these actions will find a reason for them as long as the United States is an important nation. To do anything else would undermine the rationale for their existence.
The pro-American demonstrations, by contrast, are more interesting because they are hint at future trends. Veterans groups have long staged demonstrations against North Korea, and they have usually been small and predictable. The recent series of pro-American demonstrations includes veterans groups, but it also includes a significant new element: Christian organizations.
The involvement of Christian groups in demonstrations supporting the United States began in December 2002 as a response to the anti-Americanism that imbued the candlelight vigils. The scale of the candlelight vigils, the election of Roh Moo-hyun as president and increasing anti-Korean sentiment in the United States shocked the conservative establishment into realizing that the norm they had known no longer held. What motivated Christian groups to demonstrate, in particular, was the lack of moral outrage at North Korea among supporters of engagement and among people who condemned the United States in the candlelight vigils.
The pro-American activism of Christian groups is the latest event in a long history of political activism by Christian Koreans. Christian groups were among the most vociferous opponents of Japanese colonial rule. During the years of military dictatorship, Christian groups were active in the democracy movement. The anti-Japanese, pro-democracy streak in Christian leaders gave Christians a progressive image.
In the mid-1990s, the moral outrage at dictatorship faded as Korea became more democratic. As North Korea plunged into economic disaster in the mid-1990s, Christian groups began to turn their attention to North Korea. At first, their interest was in attracting converts to Christianity in preparation for reunification. As the gravity of the situation in the North became clear, Christian groups began helping people escape from the North, leading to the development of an underground network in North Korea and China that has produced an ever rising tide of refugees.
Through these activities, Christian activists came to see the side of North Korea that many on the left still believe is old-fashioned propaganda. With first-hand knowledge of the situation in the North, Christian activists became increasingly concerned as engagement continued without any linkage to national security or human rights.
The important question, of course, is what this means for the future. For all the descriptions of President Roh as being “left-wing,” he has stuck to the center by demanding that North Korea give up its nuclear ambitions while pressing the U.S. to negotiate with Pyeongyang.
As long as the president sticks to the center, he will find that most Koreans will support him regardless of the anti-American and pro-American demonstrations. If the president moves to the left, perhaps in an attempt to garner support for the National Assembly elections in 2004, he will enrage Christian activists. If the president moves to the right, he will lose support of the left to third parties, which will weaken his party’s chances in the vote-rich capital region.
In the end, however, President Roh does not want to be a “half-president,” so like other good politicians of the times, he will navigate between extremes to guarantee his effectiveness.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser