[Outlook]America’s new face in Seoul

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[Outlook]America’s new face in Seoul

Candlelight symbolizes anti-American sentiment. In 2002, candlelight burned with the heat of anti-American feelings when two Korean girls were killed by a U.S. Army vehicle. This year, candles were lit to protest U.S. beef imports in fear of mad cow disease and effectively tied anti-American sentiment to antagonism against President Lee Myung-bak.

Those who initiated the candlelight vigils showed their ability to stir up the public. They made the bogus threat of mad cow disease seem real. Now, fear over imported Chinese food contaminated with melamine is spreading.

However, the candlelight protesters are responding completely differently from the panic over imported beef. They are not crying out about food safety. They are less aggressive because melamine does not come from the United States. Behind the candlelight protests is an anti-American, pro-Pyongyang group.

Candlelight was meant to unnerve the Lee Myung-bak administration. It was also aimed to frustrate the U.S. ambassador to Korea. Alexander Vershbow was serving in that post during the beef scare. He recalled, “I was so frustrated when false information and rumors dominated the discussion.”

However, the one who was burned most painfully by candlelight was America’s former ambassador, Thomas Hubbard.

Ironically, Hubbard made one of the greatest contributions to Roh Moo-hyun’s election victory. In November 2002, a U.S. military court tried the American soldiers who were driving the vehicle that killed Hyo-sun and Mi-seon.

The soldiers were found not guilty of negligent homicide as the deaths occurred accidently during a training exercise. Candles were immediately lighted. Only a month was left until the presidential election, and conservative candidate Lee Hoi-chang found himself in a quagmire.

If the court martial had been pushed back until after the election, the situation might have been different. Anti-American issues wouldn’t have dominated the race. The acquittal was expected, as was escalation of anti-American sentiment.

However, Ambassador Hubbard was insensitive. Maybe he misjudged and thought the candlelight wouldn’t matter so much, or maybe he was just arrogant. The ambassador, the highest American official in Korea, did not order the commander of the U.S. Forces in Korea, the second highest ranking American, to postpone the trial. He failed to properly predict how Koreans would react to an acquittal. The streets were overwhelmed with storms of fury and protest.

During the 2007 presidential election, anti-American feelings did not come to the surface. The U.S. government postponed sensitive issues and halted discussions of defense cost sharing. The 2002 candlelight vigils are remembered as a painful nightmare for U.S. diplomacy.

In the 1970s, U.S. Ambassador Richard Sneider demanded that the Park Chung Hee administration give up nuclear development.

Ambassador William Gleysteen requested improvements in human rights conditions. Such pressures sometimes included a certain arrogance. The superpower’s expression of superiority is a bitter memory in Korea-U.S. relations.

Newly-appointed Ambassador Kathleen Stephens arrived in Seoul last week. She is the first woman to hold the post of U.S. ambassador to Korea. She has a Korean name, Shim Eun-kyung, and first came here as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1975 when she was 22. She taught English at Yesan Middle School and speaks Korean comfortably. Stephens’s arrival was also comfortable. The atmosphere was different from her predecessors, thanks to the Lee administration.

The anti-American faction that once prevailed in the Roh administration is now a minority. Their double standard has been revealed. Many of the anti-American leaders’ children study or live in the U.S. Some of them let their children obtain permanent residence status there. They covered up their family situation, but citizens saw through their hypocrisy and grew resentful.

Ambassador Stephens is familiar with Korea’s modern history. She was the internal political unit chief at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul from 1984 to 1987, just when the desire for democratization exploded in Korea.

Some people blamed the U.S. for the crisis in Gwangju, and democratization activists pointed to the United States as the military regime’s support. Her internal political unit worked hard to change these perceptions and misunderstandings. She was the interpreter when former Ambassador James Lilley met with opposition leaders Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung.

U.S. ambassadors around the world are messengers from Washington D.C. Their discretionary powers are limited. However, the head of the U.S. Embassy in Korea is different. The dynamics of Korea require a special talent and quickness.

Restoration and a leap for the Korea-U.S. alliance are Stephens’ goals. Another task is to put out anti-American candlelight. This is also homework for the Korean government. Having grown up in Arizona, she breathes the frontier spirit of the American West. Her predecessor, Alexander Vershbow, was from the East Coast. Ambassador Stephens has taken a unique and competitive career path. I wonder how well her diplomatic performance will be received.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Bo-gyoon
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