[Viewpoint] Do we really know America?

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[Viewpoint] Do we really know America?

Alistair Cooke is a legend of the BBC. The broadcaster-correspondent to the United States was heading the “Letter from America” for BBC radio for 58 years, a record for the longest running radio show.

At the age of 96, he left the show on March 2, 2004 and died on March 30 of the same year. One of his remarks stood out. He said for 60 years he tried to convince his people that there are more than just cowboys in the United States.

In other words, according to Cooke, British people thought only cowboys lived in the United States. At the time, Brits should have had a pretty good understanding of America. The United States was partially built by people from England. Cooke said he had “tried,” so he probably failed to persuade them despite 60 years of effort.

So British people might not understand America fully, but what about the Koreans? The problem is that many Koreans incorrectly think that they know America very well. Koreans’ views toward the country are increasingly polarizing. It is easy for people to be blinded by stereotypes and stubbornness.

The polarization of Koreans’ views toward the United States is latent behind the controversy over mad cow disease. And the controversy is fueling the polarization. It is a matter of politics and psychology and beyond the scope of the scientific findings of the disease.

It is not an exaggeration that trade officials led the resumption of import of U.S. beef. When George W. Bush was in the White House, he wanted to have proper free trade agreements based on the philosophy of neoliberalism. He was not satisfied with a few countries in Central and South America. Therefore he expanded the country’s focus to Korea and Japan.

Korean trade officials persuaded then-President Roh Moo-hyun of the inevitability of the FTA with the United States.

They told him it would be more advantageous for Korea to sign on before Japan did, if Korea was bound to eventually do it anyway. Roh made up his mind, and the United States presented the beef issue on a separate negotiation table.

Although Roh promised to reopen the beef market for the FTA, he was reluctant. Washington continued to pressure Seoul to keep its promise, and trade officials continued to ask for his final approval even on the eve of the end of his term.

Roh complained to them that they appeared to have “cold blood and no tears.” Roh’s party failed to win the presidential election and his supporters fiercely criticized him for the FTA with the United States. Roh countered by saying that the trade officials’ demands were too harsh.

Roh and the trade officials had completely different views toward the United States. Roh once rhetorically asked, “What’s wrong with having some anti-American sentiment?”

Although he admitted to the necessity of having an FTA with the United States, he made a decision to send back a massive shipment of beef when a small bone was found in the import, shocking Washington.

In contrast, trade officials have experienced the absolute influence of the United States throughout their careers. Based on their experiences, the power of the United States is hard to fight against, and it is also unthinkable based on the international norms that a president will break a promise.

With the beginning of the Lee Myung-bak administration, the country reopened its beef market without obstacles. Lee’s elder brother Representative Lee Sang-deuk once described the president as “pro-America down to the bone.” President Lee concluded the negotiation to reopen the beef market shortly after he took office, on the eve of his first summit with the American president.

And the aftermath was the candlelight protests. Of course, many unforeseen factors aggravated the situation, including MBC’s “PD Diary” reports on the mad cow disease, which eventually were ruled inaccurate.

But the Lee administration’s pro-American sentiment, different from the degree of the public sentiment, worked powerfully at the time. It was later confirmed, through Wikileaks and other means, that many senior officials disclosed Seoul’s negotiation strategies and diplomatic directions to Washington.

While the officials acted based on what were judged as patriotic deeds, the public saw them as practices that served the interest of Washington.

The mad cow disease controversy was recently reignited, and the situation saw no change. The agriculture minister argued that there was no problem based on the U.S. reports. His remark, however, sparked the public resistance just like the 2008 remarks made by the then-vice minister of agriculture, who said, “If we cannot trust the United States, we cannot do anything.”

This is because the United States they have experienced is so different from the United States that the public perceives. Not only the opposition, but also some conservative groups are demanding that the government suspend the inspection on American beef to stop its customs clearance.

But the government rejects the demand, while repeating that public safety is the priority. How can the public possibly understand the president?

Shortly before the launch of the Lee administration, then-U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow sent a telegram to the U.S. State Department that Korea has changed and Washington needs to adapt to the changes. He wrote that the Koreans are demanding a Korea-U.S. relationship that is on a more equal footing.

He also wrote that the conservatives in the Lee administration would try to reverse the trend, but won’t likely succeed.

The United States is viewing us with a more objective view. Now, we have to admit first that we do not know the United States.

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Byung-sang
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