An uncomfortable alliance
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
“Strangely, radical anti-American slogans have disappeared in Korean society,” an international politics scholar said. It is worth noting that anti-U.S. protests have noticeably decreased in the Gwanghwamun area, although they have long been a part of our daily lives.
It is actually odd the anti-U.S. groups — including the Juche ideology followers — are not holding protests in this dynamic period leading up to the season of demonstrations. Have anti-U.S. slogans really disappeared? Where are the anti-U.S. groups and what are they thinking?
I have done some fact-checking. According to the law governing assemblies and demonstrations, protests are allowed in areas within 100 meters (328 feet) of diplomatic missions including embassies. Yet we have hardly seen any remarkable anti-U.S. protests near the U.S. Embassy, central Seoul, recently. Since U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Jan. 2 that Washington was talking to Pyongyang to decide a second summit venue, large-scale anti-U.S. protests have disappeared.
The recent silence of anti-U.S. groups is very different from the mood during the early days of the Moon Jae-in administration. After President Moon — a political partner and former chief of staff to the late President Roh Moo-hyun, who was open to anti-U.S. sentiment — took office in May 2017, Korea’s anti-U.S. groups behaved as if they were fish in clean waters.
After the U.S. Forces in South Korea (USFK) installed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system in Seongju, North Gyeongsang, on April 26, 2017, 3,000 protesters surrounded the U.S. Embassy compound. Shocked by the unprecedented action, the U.S. Embassy later lodged a complaint with the Korean government that it was a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which stipulates that a host country is responsible for the protection of a foreign diplomatic mission.
After Trump made his “fire and fury” remarks in August 2017, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3 and fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in Nov. 29 of that year, putting the Korean Peninsula on the brink of war. Leftist protesters, encouraged by the Moon administration, called Trump a “dotard” and demanded the withdrawal of the USFK and a declaration to end the Korean War (1950-53), as well as a peace treaty.
In November 2017, Trump visited South Korea. The first state visit by a U.S. president in 25 years was clouded by radical anti-U.S. protests. An anti-Trump group even held a protest in front of the National Assembly, in which they burned leaflets containing photos of Trump in which he was portrayed as Adolf Hitler. Anti-U.S. protests became increasingly extreme.
Yet anti-U.S. protests quickly disappeared after the inter-Korean summit and the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore last year.
Even after the Trump administration made an unreasonable demand for a sudden increase in Seoul’s defense cost-sharing for the USFK’s stationing and hurt Korea’s dignity, the anti-U.S. protesters reacted lukewarmly.
How can we explain this sudden change of attitude? A former senior diplomat who served as an ambassador to a major country said the anti-U.S. groups made a strategic calculation before the second North-U.S. summit.
The leftists had a meticulous calculation that they had no reason to provoke Trump, since they have high expectations for him to make the bold move of accepting the North’s longtime wish for the end of the war, the former diplomat explained.
In June last year, Trump praised North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a young, capable leader and reduced and delayed the Korea-U.S. joint military drills, currying favor with the anti-U.S. protesters. Although they each have different goals, it was a strategic alliance.
Some analyzed that the anti-U.S. groups are aligning their moves with Pyongyang’s strategy. In April last year at the Central Committee meeting, the North Korean Workers’ Party declared that the country would stop nuclear tests. It then said it is the strategic line of the party to concentrate all powers to build a socialist economy.
The experts said it was a public message from Pyongyang to the South Korean anti-U.S. groups that it needs Washington to declare the end of the war, sign a peace treaty and establish a diplomatic relationship to improve its economy.
It remains to be seen whether the anti-U.S. forces in South Korea will maintain their low profile.
The answer lies in whether there will be dramatic progress during today’s summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. If an end-of-war declaration is made after the Hanoi summit, the anti-U.S. groups will surely demand that Seoul scrap the National Security Law and that Washington pull out the USFK. If the summit ends with no progress, they will blame Trump and resume their protests.
The anti-U.S groups in Korea have not disappeared. They are simply in temporary self-exile. We should watch closely to see how they will change their attitude following the summit.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 25, Page 28