Policy Update 006

New President of Korea between Anti and Pro Americanism

Michael YOO
Research Associate, RIETI

The January 14th statement of former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, following a meeting with Korean president Kim Dae-jung, has become a focal issue within the Korean mass media. In particular, his comments regarding president-elect Roh Moo-Hyun have been vigorously discussed. The Hannara party, an opposition party in Korea, pointed out that Mr. Mori seemed concerned as to whether president-elect Roh deemed cooperation among South Korea, the US and Japan as being sufficiently important, and also the fact that Roh's supporters were mostly aligned with the anti-U.S. sentiment presently sweeping across South Korea. However, the ruling Democratic Party announced a different story two hours after the Mori comments. The Democratic Party clarified that the earlier comments made by the Hannara party were based on misinformation provided by the media prior to Mr. Mori's visit to South Korea. Likewise, Mr. Mori himself felt relieved following the admission that such a mistake had been caused by flawed information provided by the media immediately after his meeting with President Kim Dae-Jung.

In fact the Mori remarks incident can be considered a mere ripple in light of the emerging worldwide doubts regarding president-elect Roh Moo-Hyun. Regardless of the truth of Roh's attitude, it seems that the Japanese as well as the Western media treats Roh as being anti-American. The New York Times and Washington Post, two major news dailies in the United States, reported that the most important issue in last December's South Korean election was "anti-Americanism." Moreover, there is criticism that Roh was elected mainly by being able to take advantage of fashionable anti-U.S. sentiment among his supporters.

To be honest, Washington's suspicions regarding Roh's anti-U.S. sentiment are understandable, given Roh's activist past and his subsequent political path to the Korean presidency.

What's Wrong with Anti-Americanism?

In terms of Roh's anti-U.S. sentiments, hints of this can actually be traced back twenty years to 1982, when he was an active human rights lawyer. He was then an attorney defending students engaged in violent anti-U.S. protests and known as the Pusan American Cultural Center Arsenal incident. Even at that time Roh asserted that students came to have anti-US sentiments because the US was supporting the authoritarian regime of Chun Doo Hwan. He was also among the first to call for a withdrawal of U.S. troops in protest of the oppressive Korean government of the day - an issue rarely, if ever, mentioned previously during a period of political discontent in Korea. Since then Roh has been labeled as pro-democratic as well as anti-U.S., images that facilitated and advanced his political career.

As a point of fact, Roh's anti-U.S. sentiment was embodied in an anti-American speech at a college on September 11, 2002. In his speech, "A Review on the Anniversary of 9-11", he confronted critics regarding his anti-Americanism. He claimed that if one is called as anti-American just because of not having visited the U.S. before, he thought there was nothing wrong with being labeled anti-American. Besides the evidence of anti-Americanism in speeches, his refusal to pay a visit to the U.S. while campaigning for the Korean presidency, or visit the U.S. at all, as yet, is seen as further evidence of his contentious political disposition. Thus the "nothing wrong with being anti-American" sentiment has become a fixed image of Roh's aggressive political style.

Consequently, and in light of his anti-U.S. stance, Roh gained tremendous support from "Generation 2030" - people in their 20s and 30s. Generation 2030 was not only pivotal in Roh's successful election, but was also a driving force behind political reform after Roh took office. They include anti-American-ists who have suffered unemployment during the phase of restructuring which the IMF enforced in its effort to bail out the Korean economy during the Asian financial crisis. They also include nationalists who maintain that the U.S. intentionally colonized South Korea through the IMF, which they believe is an institution controlled by the U.S.

After a more popular version of anti-Americanism was initiated in the form of candlelight vigil demonstrations by "Generation 2030", Roh's anti-American image became subsequently more emphasized. The anti-American sentiment that was prevalent nationwide became further intensified during the course of memorializing the fate of two South Korean teenage girls fatally crushed by a U.S. Army vehicle during a training exercise. (Strangely, it may also provide a hint in understanding the uniqueness of Korean national character, as was evident from the impressive enthusiasm during the World Cup Football tournament last year. During the World Cup Games, crowds gathered in front of Seoul City Hall with overwhelming displays of the national flag as also impressive display of Korean nationalism.) That enthusiasm however has now been replaced by anti-Americanism among the youth and the burning of U.S. flags. Roh strategically encouraged these demonstrations in the course of his calling for equal status between the U.S. and South Korea. Consequently, it was this anti-American feeling that became the key force that propelled Roh to his election victory. And that's why another candidate, Lee Hoi Chang was pelted by eggs from protestors when he participated in a memorial service for the two Korean schoolgirls.

Roh's anti-American sentiment has been evident even following the election. A typical example is his comment on December 30, 2002, which caused discomfort within both Japan and the U.S. Following briefings from the chairmen of the three wings of the armed forces, Roh officially touched upon the issue of U.S. troop withdrawal from South Korea. Roh argued that the U.S. had once previously contemplated troop reductions. This issue had however ebbed and flowed depending on U.S. national security strategy. Recently the idea to reduce US troops in South Korea seems to have come back. Roh hence demanded that South Korea ought to plan long term measures with regard to the manner in which South Korean troops would replace the departing US forces. South Korea needed to prepare and respond to future changes by mapping out different 5, 10, and 20-year strategies.

Though the U.S. has never officially touched upon US troops withdrawal-related issues, Roh dared to address the issue, in turn sending a clear message to Washington DC that the new president-elect was looking at the Korea peninsula becoming at some point of time in the near future US troop-free.

Roh, Kim's Follower, Has Proactively Pulling Uncle Sam's Whiskers.

The response from Washington was immediate and appeared in a column entitled "Perhaps it's time South Korea Tried its Wings" in the Washington Post on January 6th. Robert Novak, a columnist and political debate program host on CNN, pointed out that although North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il intended to exchange a nuclear threat for economic aid from the West, nobody honestly believes that he would start a nuclear war. The real problem instead was Roh, who used anti-American sentiment as the basis for his election campaign. Roh, a former left-wing activist, has also offered to mediate between the North and the United States. The impulse in Washington then is to take Roh at his word and pull U.S. troops out of the Korean peninsula, letting the South and North deal with each other. Novak also condemned former President Kim Dae Jung, who was saved from execution at the hands of South Korea's military dictatorship in 1981 by Ronald Reagan, as the most anti-American president in South Korean history. Roh, Kim's follower, has proactively pulled Uncle Sam's whiskers. Two days after Novak's criticism, a long article within the Washington Post entitled, "Should we abandon Korea?" continued the discussion on anti-American sentiment in Korea.

The serious nature of Washington's reaction has drawn the attention of ordinary Korean nationals and has since triggered a turning point in relations. In light of growing anti-Americanism in South Korea, the U.S. House of Representatives is planning to schedule hearings regarding the possible withdrawal of troops from South Korea. Critics also discussed the possibility of destroying the nuclear facility in North Korea following the US troop pull-out from South Korea. Such feedback has concerned Roh and South Korean citizens who have subsequently pressured Roh to clarify his anti-American stance. Roh has since not only claimed to oppose anti-Americanism, but has also affirmed himself as being pro-American. Those close to him have claimed that Roh has been badly misunderstood. The president-elect is due to soon pay a visit to the U.S. and discuss these issues with President Bush, who at 56 happens to be the same age as Roh.

Roh's turnaround from an anti-American stance to a "pro-U.S." one came during a visit to South Korea by President Bush's envoy James Kelly, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. State Department. After meeting with Kelly on January 13, 2003, Roh not only avowed that he was not anti-American, but also emphasized that the U.S. is South Korea's most vital ally. The relationship between the U.S. and South Korea had been important in the past and would continue to remain so in a significant way in the future also. He announced that he would arrange a visit to the US in the near future, the U.S. being South Korea's best friend. He asserted that he had consistent faith in the necessity of stationing of U.S. troops in South Korea, not just for the present moment but also in the future.

Roh also visited the command office of the US troops in South Korea, as South Korea's top leader, for the first time, and only three days after he met with Assistant Deputy Secretary Kelly. Once again he stressed the importance of the US troop presence in South Korea. Upon his visit to the command office, Roh emphasized that memories of the more than 50,000 American soldiers who perished during the Korean War remain deep in the hearts of all South Koreans. The U.S. troops welcomed him with a 21 canon salute, and Roh signed "We are good friends" in the visitor's register book.

The Stationing of U.S. Troop Is Crucial and Remains Essential Even in the Future.

Despite Roh's pro-U.S. gesture, and in light of continuing anti-U.S. sentiments in South Korea, debate has been raging in Washington as to whether Roh is truly anti-American, or whether he is purely taking advantage of this sentiment for political gain. The official U.S. position is that U.S. troops are ready to be withdrawn under the auspices of public consensus in South Korea. Apparently, Washington's main focus still centers on the strong anti-American sentiment in South Korea and the withdrawal of U.S. troops, as is evident in discussions throughout the U.S. media and despite Roh's efforts to alter his anti-U.S. image.

In fact the pulling out of U.S. troops out from South Korea will not only impact the U.S. and South Korea, but is also an important issue for other countries in Northeast Asia. It is necessary to create a new military framework connecting Japan, China, and Russia so as to readjust the security architecture, should the U.S. withdraw its troops from South Korea. However, the urgent issue relates to the 37,000 U.S. troops - accounting for 40% of overseas U.S. troop deployments - and where they might be deployed after they are pulled out from South Korea.

2003 is a year to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Korean immigration to the U.S., as well as the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Korean alliance. How this relationship, built through 100 years of human interaction and the shedding of blood over a joint cause over the past half century will develop, remains unknown however. What does the possible change in the U.S.-South Korea relationship mean in terms of impact on Japan, China, and Russia? There is no doubt that Roh and Kim Jung-Il are the individuals who can help provide these answers. The world will be watching them.

>> Original text in Japanese

January 20, 2003

January 20, 2003

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