JPRI Occasional Paper No. 31 (May 2003)
Some Thoughts on the Korean-American Relationship 
by Bruce Cumings

 
“Why do they hate us?” many Americans wondered plaintively after the terrorist assaults of 9/11. In the case of Korea, I often begin by exploring the structure of the relationship. But what is a “structure,” students then ask. It might be the division of the country, which has established for nearly six decades a black-and-white logic directing all attention to one side, and little if any to the other. Or it might be the archipelago of foreign bases in South Korea, beginning with the massive Yongsan facility in the middle of Seoul. It might be the peculiar form of international relations, in which a foreign commander retains operational control over another country’s military forces. It might be a raft of unexamined assumptions that floats on the surface of the relationship, masquerading as a series of truths—received wisdom—but ultimately designed to warn inquiring people away from probing more deeply. It might be a submerged history: fleeting, disappearing, and then lost moments, which retain unanswerable force and truth the minute they are recalled, or uttered. It might be the imperceptible way in which racism still tinges white American attitudes toward non-whites, in spite of decades in which “racist” is the worst epithet you can call someone. I use “structure” in all those meanings.
 
It might also be useful to make some distinctions regarding the South Korean phenomenon that the media are calling “anti-Americanism.” The first would be, does South Korea differ from any other country in the year 2003? A recent New York Times article reported that relations between the U.S. and “two of its most crucial allies—Germany and France—are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.” Other observers would say, the lowest point since World War II, because Europeans have a widespread sense that the U.S. is at odds with its traditional allies not just over Iraq, but over the usefulness of the world system that Americans did so much to build since 1945. Whether the emergent strains over American policy are healed or not, a senior European diplomat said, “will be the defining moment on whether the United States decides to stay within the international system.”1
 
Another distinction would address the term itself: “anti-American” assumes a uniform opposition to Americans as such, instead of a distaste for American policies. It also assumes a uniform America, as if all citizens should equally and patriotically feel abused by foreign criticism. Still a third distinction would ask whether Koreans today are any more critical of Americans than they were in the 1980s, or are they simply more free to express their views in the raucous, bumptious atmosphere of a democracy that also subjects its own leaders to withering criticism? (Kim Dae Jung always seemed to be honored more outside his own country than within it; not long after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, his popularity ratings were at the lowest of his five-year term.) Until the decades of military dictatorship ended, a South Korean could go straight to jail for publicly advocating the withdrawal of U.S. troops; but now all kinds of chickens are coming home to roost from an unfortunate and repressed past. So it may be that, as Americans, we are merely experiencing what Korean presidents, chaebol leaders, university administrators, and the dictatorial generals themselves have experienced in the past decade.
 
One thing is clear, though: South Koreans do not call for the U.S. to return to an international system of its own making, as do Europeans. In Europe that system was always multilateral, beginning with the 4-power allied occupation of Germany at the end of the war. In East Asia, however, ever since Douglas MacArthur’s arrival in Tokyo in September 1945, unilateralism has been the name of the game. MacArthur paid no attention to allied opinion in running the occupations of Japan and (at a distance) South Korea. Many Koreans now believe that Japan—the just-defeated enemy—bulked much larger in American policy than did any concern for Korea’s division, or for the authoritarianism of the successive governments that the U.S. supported in South Korea.
 
Postwar Attitudes
 
Before the Kwangju Rebellion against Chun Doo Hwan (whom the American military supported) and the turmoil of the 1980s, South Korean feelings toward Americans were mixed. Supporters of the alliance gave voice to their pro-American attitudes, and detractors found that their views could hardly be expressed publicly. All the same, any American who spent time on the streets of Seoul quickly learned that plenty of Koreans disliked them. In the late 1960s, when I lived in a Korean home, little kids in the neighborhood would tag along behind me sing-songing “mmmooooonkeeeee” (monkey) and shouting out various Korean epithets that took me a while to learn. One day I was strolling in a back street with a Korean friend and a man heaved out of a bar, spied me, and spit full in my face—to the overwhelming mortification of my friend, who later patiently explained to me that not all Koreans liked Americans.
 
James Wade, an American expatriate who lived in South Korea for decades, wrote a book in the 1960s called One Man’s Korea (Seoul, 1967) that perfectly captures the atmosphere of Korean-American relations in the period 1945-1980. He has every vignette right—every encounter in the streets, every visit to the U.S. military bases, to the Embassy, to the Seoul Civilian Club, or the many other places where Koreans and Americans came into contact. Wade renders these with accuracy and empathy. The period during and after the Korean War was the worst, of course, because that was when the American Century was at its height and Korea at a depth it had never plumbed before. Wade records American soldiers complaining in the mid-1950s about “sensitivity” manuals that said Koreans were “proud and dignified.” “All the people we’ve seen so far have been filthy beggars, or farmers living in huts worse than animals. They're not even civilized, let alone dignified or proud.” Wade describes a scene at a railway stop in the 1950s, as an American troop train came to a rest and urchins crowded forward looking for candy bars. A girl of twelve or thirteen, with sores on her face, a torn dress, and hair shaved on one side of her head from a wound, walked up to the train.
 
“Say,” one the soldiers called out, “here’s one of those Gook women . . . Ain’t she a sexy sight, though?”
 
Amid catcalling and obscene gestures from the troops, the girl began dancing in circles, waving her arms, and howling. As the catcalls increased, she “pranced still higher, protruding her bloated belly suggestively.” Suddenly an old Korean farmer ran up to the girl and slapped her in the face; she fell back against a pile of rice bags. He screeched at the other children, shooing them away. Soon the troop train lurched forward, leaving the girl on the platform—“weeping quietly beside the pile of straw sacks” (pp. 105-7).          
 
Wade captures the argot of an American captain in 1966, hulking over Koreans as if they were all his coolies: one of them had run an American flag up a pole, improperly: “God damn it!” he bellowed. “Look at that mucking flag. They’ve got it all bass-ackwards.” Glaring wildly about, he continued shouting: “Hey! Where’s Skoshi? Where’s Boy-san? Somebody get over here on the double, hubba-hubba” (ibid.). 
 
I had many similar experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1960s, when I would sneak into the Embassy mess or a snack bar on the Yongsan base or the Civilian Club in search of a good cheeseburger. Koreans did all the hard labor in the Embassy and military compounds. A diminutive Korean would be scurrying around while a soldier waited: “Bolly-bolly, Mr. Park, time’s a-wasting” (i.e., ppalli-ppalli, or “hurry up!”). That was in 1968. Recently an American reporter noted that often “the first thing passengers may see” as they disembark in the “dazzling new” Inchon airport, is “American sergeants in combat fatigues barking orders to arriving American service members.”2
 
I have never quite gotten over my first encounters with the American official presence in Seoul. These Americans ranged from gruff military officers to nervous Embassy officials to members of the AID mission, and from hard-nosed anti-communists always warning of a North Korean attack, to civilian liberals who deplored the authoritarianism of the Park regime. But all of them lived in compounds in Yongsan or nearby Itaewon, and they all—including the liberals—expressed attitudes toward Koreans that ranged from querulous condescension to crude racism to outright shock that people like me lived with Koreans and ate their food. Hardly any of them believed that Koreans could do anything right (except under American tutelage), and hardly any of them ventured out into “the economy”—and when they did they took an official car, or a “kimchi cab” (Korean taxicab), the driver of which would have to show identification at the gate before being allowed in to pick them up.
 
Americans who lived in Korea in the 1960s were convinced that all Koreans were thieves. Bob Hope would get huge belly-laughs from American GIs by telling them that he was late for his tour of military bases “because slicky boys stole my landing gear.” But such attitudes were hardly limited to the American official presence. Nelson Algren, Chicago’s favorite native-son writer, took a walk on the wild side of Pusan in the 1960s. In his Notes from a Sea Diary (Putnam, 1965), he has fifteen pages on his experience:
 
Four thousand years look down, from that ancestral mountain, upon a race of hardluck aristocrats toting buckets of slopwater . . . She lived in a little kimchi house with an earthen floor, where kimchi mice ran in and out in the light of a kimchi moon. Incense cut the odor of kimchi while she undressed in the dark . . . (Cited in Wade, p. 227).
 
In Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, written in the same period, a bull-necked Korean character named Oddjob makes an appearance, famous for his ability to fling his steel-rimmed hat at someone’s neck and take his head off. Koreans have “no regard for human life,” Fleming wrote, and that’s why the Japanese employed them: they were the “cruelest, most ruthless people in the world.” In 1965, as South Korea entered its export-led take-off, C.D.B. Bryan wrote that “this is the foulest, goddamndest country I’ve ever seen!” The only thing that made Korea bearable, he thought, was “the availability of women” (Cited in Wade, p. 231). 
 
Among many problems with such literary racism, one is that Koreans are very much drawn to literature and read these books. I often found Koreans who had learned English to be better read in Western literature than the average American. One day a young man stopped me on the streets of Seoul to ask me the meaning and symbolism of a particular scene in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
 
The most worldly and enlightened Americans that I met when I first lived in Korea were a couple whom my parents once new, the husband working for AID and both of them having lived around the world for decades. They were warm and generous to me on several occasions, welcoming me to their 1950s-style split-level home in the Itaewon compound. They, too, would ask me odd questions about the natives: Isn’t the food desperately hot? Is it true that they ferment kimch’i in urine? Why do they squat when they go to the toilet? (One American housewife made much of finding her maid’s footprints on the toilet seat.) One day they asked me to accompany them to a genuine Korean restaurant. We went to the Uraeok (Woo Lae Oak, said to be the best in Seoul at the time, and now an international chain) in downtown Seoul, sat on the floor, and were served a full repast. In less than half an hour the wife stood up and said she had to go home. She gave no reason, so I asked her if she was sick. I got no answer, but we all had to leave in a hurry with the food half-eaten, and the restaurant staff mortified.
 
There were many individual exceptions to these rules, of course, like the late Philip Habib, who loved to frequent out-of-the-way haunts in Seoul’s back alleys, both before and after he became the U.S. Ambassador. But the lasting impression then, and ever since, is how little genuine interaction there is between Koreans and Americans, and how few Americans ever come to appreciate, in any depth, this civilization that has persevered when it hasn’t flourished on this same peninsula since before the time of Christ. Many Americans experienced in Korean affairs will say it was one of the few countries that never said “Yankee go home,” but it is also difficult to find among the millions of Yankees who have served or worked in Korea since 1945, many who took the time to learn about Korea’s long history and deep culture, or to acquire the language.
 
A remarkable Maryknoll priest who labored for decades among the poor in Pusan, Aloysius Schwartz, noted in his 1966 book The Starved and the Silent that most Americans lived behind compound walls, with swimming pools and large numbers of servants—as did many American missionaries, with Western-style homes in Seoul, beach houses on the coast, and speedboats for summer recreation. And how could any eye miss the “Yankee princesses” (yang kongju), who numbered in the tens of thousands? One priest said  more than 6,000 prostitutes lived in his parish alone (Schwartz, pp. 63-64, 75).
 
When I returned from Seoul to graduate school at Columbia, one of my first encounters with a professor was with Michel Oksenberg, who later became one of my advisors. “What’s it like in Seoul?” he asked me. “Well, to tell the truth,” I said,  “it’s like an occupied city or a garrisoned country. American military bases are all over the place, surrounded by a nauseating scene of prostitution and poverty.” Mike’s eyes grew cold, and he changed the subject. A few years ago, shortly before his untimely and tragic death from cancer, he told me that his son, now a military officer, had been based in Seoul and Mike had visited him. “That city’s like an armed camp!” Mike exclaimed. “It’s really still got an American occupation going on.” He then related that his son had been one of the officers in charge of a weeks-long orientation for new U.S. troops and had been appalled that only 24 hours of the instruction time was devoted to Korean history, culture, and language. He recommended that it be doubled to 48 hours. He was turned down.
 
In 1894 the Japanese Army established its main base at Yongsan on the outskirts of old Seoul; it is now a gigantic complex covering 630 acres in the middle of an enormous, sprawling, bustling city. Whenever trouble develops, American commanders retreat to an old, fortified underground bunker—just as Japanese commanders did. I can’t think of another capital city quite like Seoul, where you turn a corner and suddenly see a mammoth swatch of land given over to a foreign army. U.S. troops first occupied it in 1945, and the commander of the U.S. occupation established his residence in the executive mansion of the former Japanese Governor-General, later known as the “Blue House.” The U.S. military government operated out of the old Government-General headquarters (sotokofu), built in 1915 by the Japanese in a Beaux Arts style, but shaped so that from the air it would look like the first character of Nippon, and placed so as to disrupt the geomancy (p’ungsu) of the old royal palaces. Other American high officers billeted at the Bando (Peninsula) Hotel, long the main lodging point for Japanese officials and wealthy prewar tourists visiting Seoul. In the 1960s the Bando sat across the street from the U.S. Embassy, but later it was destroyed and the new embassy was moved to a spot catty-corner from the old sotofuku. In the 1990s, President Kim Young Sam finally tore down both the old Blue House and the Government-General building, but Koreans still remember these things, whereas Americans are usually blithely unaware of the historical physiognomy and symbolism of their presence in this venerable city, the Korean capital since 1392.
 
American Responses to the Recent Protests
 
The recent tensions between the U.S. and South Korea have occasioned a surprising petulance from Americans who have long experience in Korea and who presumably possess eyes to see the same problems James Wade and many others discerned long ago. Richard Allen, who was often registered with the U.S. Justice Department as a lobbyist for the South Korean government, recently wrote that Roh Moo Hyun’s election made for “a troubling shift” in U.S. relations with South Korea. Lest we forget, this was the first democratic election involving two major candidates in which the winner got a near majority since 1971, when Park Chung Hee barely eked out a victory over Kim Dae Jung’s 46 percent of the vote. For Mr. Allen, however, Korean leaders now seem to have “stepped into the neutral zone,” having even gone so far as to suggest, in the current nuclear standoff, that Washington and Pyongyang should both make concessions. According to Allen, “the cynicism of this act constitutes a serious breach of faith,” and perhaps in retaliation American troops should be withdrawn “now that the harm can come from two directions—North Korea and violent South Korean protesters” (Op-ed page, New York Times, January 16, 2003).
 
In Allen’s opinion, the U.S. “is responsible for much of Seoul’s present security and prosperity,” the implication being that South Koreans are biting the hand that feeds them. Other Americans wonder how South Koreans can criticize the U.S., when “North Korea is rattling a nuclear sword.” A Pentagon official argues that “it’s like teaching a child to ride a bike. We’ve been running alongside South Korea, holding on to its handlebars for 50 years. At some point you have to let go” (James Dao, “Why Keep U.S. Troops?” New York Times, January 5, 2003). Meanwhile American business interests were quoted as believing that troop withdrawals would cause investors to “seriously reconsider […] their plans here” (Tami Overby, an employee of the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul, New York Times, January 8, 2003).  This remarkable combination of petulant irritability and grating condescension somehow seems unremarkable both to the people who say such things, and sometimes to the reporters who quote them.
 
U.S. troops have now been based in South Korea for nearly six decades. Is it unreasonable—or “anti-American”—for some Koreans to ask whether they ever plan to go home? How would Americans feel if the situation were reversed, and foreign troops had been resident on our soil for more than half a century? More than a decade ago President Roh Moo Hyun called for the withdrawal of American troops from Korea. During his presidential campaign, attacks by his opponents led him to say that he had long ago repudiated that position. Meanwhile successive administrations in Washington have treated such demands as heresy, and up until recently said they plan to keep American troops on the peninsula . . . perhaps forever. The 1995 “Nye Report” projected that despite the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union American troops and bases in South Korea would remain for at least another fifteen years. Three years later, Secretary of Defense William Cohen stated publicly that the U.S. would keep its troops in Korea “even after unification.” A blueprint for the Bush administration’s policy toward East Asia, done under the leadership of Richard Armitage (now Colin Powell’s deputy in the State Department), also called for an indefinite retention of American troops in Korea and Japan.
 
Yet troop withdrawal has been a subject of internal and external debate in Washington going all the way back to the Kennedy Administration, when Averell Harriman, Under-Secretary for East Asia, first began planning for such a withdrawal. However, Richard Nixon was the only president successfully to do so, taking out the Seventh Infantry Division, or about 20,000 troops. Amid a Beltway debate in the mid-1970s that ranged from outright calls for full withdrawal on the left and the (libertarian) right, to maintaining or reinforcing the status quo, Jimmy Carter campaigned on a platform to get the troops out. When he became president, however, he found that the forces of inertia in the government organs responsible for national security were unmovable on this issue; bureaucrats presented him with evidence of a big expansion of the North Korean Army, and soon the withdrawal was dead. Subsequently Carter wrote that “I have always suspected that the facts were doctored by DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] and others, but it was beyond the capability even of a president to prove this.”3
 
Were Harriman, Nixon, and Carter unwitting dupes of the North Koreans? All sorts of studies in the 1970s showed that U.S. troops were not necessary to defend South Korea, and that they were either hostages to a new Korean war, no matter how it might start, or else a “tripwire” guaranteeing U.S. involvement—despite Congress’s constitutional responsibility to declare war.4 Often missing from these debates, however, is an awareness of a structural condition growing out of the Korean civil war: the troops were there to block a North Korean invasion, but also to restrain the South. In the early 1950s, because of the revolutionary challenge presented by the new North Korean government, and the volatility of the Syngman Rhee government with its frequent threats to march north, Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles fashioned a civil war deterrent: we would contain the North and constrain the South. The U.S. has not departed from that formula to this day, and it remains a key reason for the continuing presence of our troops in South Korea. I suspect that even if American planners are now keen to move these troops out of Seoul and away from the DMZ, perhaps because they are contemplating a preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities, they are even more loath to leave the two Koreas to their own devices, especially since Roh Moo Hyun has been elected.
 
Continuing Racism in Korean-American Relations
 
Many Koreans believe that racism continues to pervade American attitudes toward, and coverage of, Korea and Koreans. South Koreans (and Korean-Americans) have vigorously protested the latest James Bond film, Die Another Day, in which Bond desecrates a Buddhist temple with his amorous adventures while caricaturing the North as a hell-hole. A  Newsweek cover story characterized the 1992 Los Angeles disturbances as a “blacks-versus-Koreans” conflict, and American coverage of the 1988 Olympics ranged from the blatant racism of P. J. O’Rourke in Rolling Stone to the more subtle aversions and aspersions of Ian Buruma in The New York Review of Books.5 Consider also the ease with which Americans blamed Koreans for the Koreagate scandals during the mid-1970s, instead of the Congressmen happy to pocket the Korean Ambassador’s wads of cash.
 
We have been talking about South Korea. Prominent Americans lose any sense of embarrassment or self-consciousness about the intricate and knotty problems of racial difference and otherness when it comes to North Korea and its leaders. On January 15, 2003, Greta van Sustern introduced a Fox News segment on Kim Jong Il as follows: “Is he insane or simply diabolical?” This characterization no doubt derives from the Beltway discourse of the 1990s, when Kim came to power and was widely said to be nuts, combined with Bush’s inclusion of him in the “axis of evil.” Newsweek followed the administration’s line with a January 2003 cover story on “Dr. Evil,” just as it covered Kim Il Sung’s death in July 1994 with a racist cover story entitled “The Headless Beast.” During the 1993 crisis over the Yongbyon nuclear facility, ABC Nightline correspondent Chris Bury described Kim Jong Il as “a 51-year-old son about whom little is known other than his fondness for fast cars and state terrorism.”
 
Presumed East Asian experts reinforced this imagery. On the same Nightline segment (November 16, 1993, transcript #3257), Richard Solomon, once a scholar of China and later a Nixon/Bush National Security Council official, said of the North Korean crisis, “Not a bad way to look at it is to think of the Waco, Texas crisis, where you have a small ideological, highly armed and isolated community . . .” North Korea has been demonized by U.S. leaders and the media and ends up thrice-cursed, a Rorschach inkblot absorbing anti-communist, Orientalist, and diabolical rogue-state images. But that was its original image, both in American strategy (Truman called his 1950 intervention a “police action” to catch North Korean criminals), and in Hollywood films like The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Perhaps the real mark of our time has been the deafening absence of any contrary argument in the mainstream American media; everyone wishes Kim Jong Il would just go away, the sooner the better. Unfortunately, he is not acting according to our script.
 
Despite the demonization, we know as much or more about the origins of the North Korean government as any communist state, because of two captured archives: the one MacArthur got in Japan, and the one he got in North Korea (the good general did not come back empty handed from his march to the Yalu). Decades ago scholars like Dae-sook Suh and Chong-sik Lee utilized original Japanese police and military records to trace the rise of Korean communism from 1918 onward, Kim Il Sung’s guerrilla background in the 1930s, and the origins and nature of the guerrillas who formed the core of the regime for the next fifty years.
 
More recently excellent scholarship has come from those who can read the North Korean materials. Haruki Wada of Tokyo University has produced an excellent book (available only in Japanese and Korean) arguing that North Korea emerged as a “guerrilla state,” anti-colonial (and thus anti-Japanese) to its core. Its thoroughgoing recalcitrant posture toward foreigners also reproduced some of the ancien regime’s “hermit kingdom” tendencies, thus successfully keeping both the USSR and China at arm’s length. Charles K. Armstrong of Columbia University has just published an important book using the same archives, The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950. It is not knowledge that is lacking but good will and good policies toward both Koreas to change the old stereotypes.  
 
NOTES
 
1. David Sanger, “To Some in Europe, The Major Problem is Bush the Cowboy,” New York Times, January 24, 2003.
2. Howard W. French, with Don Kirk, “American Policies and Presence are Under Fire in South Korea, Straining an Alliance,” New York Times, December 8, 2002.
3. See Don Oberdorfer’s full discussion in The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1997), pp. 84-108.
4. The Center for Defense Information put out several papers arguing this point of view in the 1970s. One of the best sources is Doug Bandow, Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (Washington: The Cato Institute, 1996). For an insider’s account of the fate of the Carter troop-withdrawal program, see Robert G. Rich, “U.S. Ground Force Withdrawal from Korea: A Case Study in National Security Decision Making,” Executive Seminar in National and International Affairs, 24th Session (1981-82), Foreign Service Institute, Department of State.
5. O’Rourke did a sort of racist potpourri/travelogue in Rolling Stone (October 1988) dwelling among other things on Korean facial features that he found outlandish. Buruma compared the 1988 games to those of Hitler sponsored in 1936; after visiting Korea’s Independence Hall he wondered whether his “revulsion” against Korean nationalism was “a sign of decadence” (presumably on his part) or was there something “to the idea of the rise and fall of nationalism, even racial vigor?” See Ian Buruma, “Jingo Olympics,” New York Review of Books (November 10, 1988).
 
 
BRUCE CUMINGS is a Professor of History at the University of Chicago and author of the classic two-volume work The Origins of the Korean War (1981, 1990). His latest book is Korea’s Place in the Sun (1997). A different version of this paper was presented at a Conference on Korean Attitudes Toward the United States held at Georgetown University, January 30-31, 2003.

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