JPRI Working Paper No. 93, July 2003
South Korean Anti-Americanism
by Meredith Woo-Cumings
 
In a December 2002 survey of national attitudes, conducted in forty-two countries by the Pew Research Center, a stunning 44 percent of South Koreans were found to hold unfavorable views of the United States. This level of disaffection topped France’s 34 percent, Germany’s 35 percent, and in fact, any country in Europe or East Asia. In the non-Muslim world, only Argentina, whose economy was in ruins for two years (arguably done in by the neoliberal nostrums pushed by Washington) was shown to harbor more unhappy sentiments vis-à-vis the United States. A Korean Gallup Poll, conducted around the same time as the Pew Research Center survey, confirmed as much and more, reporting that some 53.7 percent of South Koreans held “unfavorable” and “somewhat unfavorable” view of the United States. Most of these malcontents happened to be young, and included upwards of 80 percent of the college students polled.  
 
In the United States, the reaction to the alleged South Korean “anti-Americanism” was one of shock, and petulance—above all, because more than 53,000 Americans lost their lives during the Korean War. Soon, American reporters were sending dispatches back from Seoul, dismayed that South Korean students did not seem to know much about their own history, including the fact that it was actually North Korea that invaded the South in 1950, and that the United States was the deus ex machina that saved South Korea from communist invaders. Instead the students seemed resentfully focused on the fact that it was the United States that divided Korea in half, in the first place, before the Korean War. If South Koreans couldn’t figure out who their friends and enemies were, some Americans argued, it was about time that the U.S. and South Korea called it quits. “South Korea has tired of the Americans,” columnist Robert Novak wrote on January 6, 2003, “and the Americans have grown impatient with South Korea.” Perhaps the U.S. should pull the plug on South Korea, bring home its 37,000 troops home, and make ungrateful Korea “responsible for itself, at long last.”
 
What is this “anti-Americanism,” a sentiment that is purportedly held by South Koreans, and that so provokes the ire of many Americans who feel that the Koreans have just bitten off the American hands that have so long fed them? I believe we need to go beyond the opinion polls, and examine the unraveling of the Cold War alliance between the United States and South Korea. This Cold War alliance was based on three pillars of patronage: politically, Washington supported political stability in Korea, even if that meant supporting military dictatorships; economically, the United States sponsored Korean development by providing aid, tutelage of open economy and export-led growth, and opening its vast and lucrative market to Korean exports; and militarily, the United States guaranteed the security of Korea, the best example of this commitment being the presence of 37,000 American servicemen, to assure instant American involvement in the event of a conflict on the Korean peninsula.
 
Over the last twenty years, this structure of patronage came almost completely unstuck. U.S. support for the political stability in South Korea became a non-issue after that country went though democratic transitions and consolidation. U.S. sponsorship of Korea’s economic development came to an end a bit earlier than that, but the most dramatic example of the changed relationship did not come until the Korean financial crisis of 1997-1998. Finally, the U.S .guarantee of South Korean security seems to have been replaced, within the first year of the Bush administration, with policies that were fraught with tension and increased insecurity. It is in the context of this evaporating U.S. patronage, that we have to understand South Korean fears for their security, which in turn feed their discontent with the U.S. policy of unilateralism.
 
Political Change
 
The manner of U.S. support for political stability in South Korea created in the minds of the ordinary South Korean citizens a permanent linkage between the U.S. military and authoritarianism in South Korea. The 1948 National Security Law linked the U.S. military with the Korean military dictators, as if they were two peas in the pod, and under Article Seven of the 1980 National Security Law, anyone who had written or disseminated materials criticizing the South Korean government or the presence of U.S. armed forces in South Korea was punishable through imprisonment. Amnesty International noted that many people were held political prisoner under those pretexts.
 
The 1980 Kwangju incident, in which Chun Doo Hwan’s troops fired on and killed hundreds of anti-government student demonstrators was a reminder of the moral failure of the United States. The U.S. was complicit in the massacre, not so much on technical grounds—whether or not the Combined Forces Command (CFC) had  operational control over the South Korean combat troops in any meaningful way—but on grounds that the U.S. failed precisely at the moment when the South Korean citizens needed them most. This failure by the Americans to use their influence for democratic and moral ends cut deep into the Korean psyche. American representatives in Korea also came across as either callous or indifferent, and most comfortable in the company of authoritarian rulers who ran interference for them, cordoning them off in the comfort of diplomatic compounds, away from the madding South Korean crowd.
 
This leads us to the inescapable conclusion that Washington seems to have had a far cozier relationship with the dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan, than with the democratic administration of either President Kim Dae Jung or President Roh Muhyun. With the passing of military dictatorships in South Korea, the era of American support for such dictatorships has also come to a close, but the consolidation of democracy and democratic norms in South Korea seem to provide little comfort to Washington. The Bush administration has been in profound disagreement with Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine” policy toward North Korea, which it sees as little more than appeasement. In the period running up to the December 2002 Korean election, Washington also expressed deep misgivings about Roh Muhyun, who comes from the ranks of human rights activists. And it thinks of South Korean civil society as raucous, rambunctious, irresponsible, and afflicted with a terminal case of democratic distemper.
 
The End of the Bilateral Economic Relationship
 
After the Korean War, the United States sponsored the economic growth of South Korea, but this relationship is thought by many to have come to an end around the mid-1980s, when South Korea began to record trade surpluses vis-à-vis the United States and trade conflict between the two countries became more frequent. In reality, however, this relationship of patronage continued up until the financial crisis of 1997, when the economic relationship that had prevailed in the days of the Cold War was completely turned on its head. In the moment of Korea’s direst financial needs—caused, some would argue, by the very reckless policy of capital account liberalization spearheaded by the United States —the U.S. Treasury Department chose to turn its back on Korea and instead used the occasion of the crisis to settle the old, nettlesome trade accounts. This is a long and involved story, but the main point is that by the late 1990s Korea was of interest to American economic policy makers only to the extent that it provided markets for U.S. exports, which had become important as an engine of growth. The fact that Korea was an important strategic ally played very little role in the IMF decision to “bail-out” Korea. Quite the contrary, the desire of some American policy makers to use IMF conditionality to crack open the Korean financial and commodities market ended up in a huge mishandling of the initial “bail-out.”
 
Similar to Japan’s, the Korean system of industrial financing was largely based on the banking sector, which doled out loans to a hugely leveraged corporate sector. As a consequence the banks were saddled with loan portfolios that contained massive amounts of non-performing loans. So long as the economy was growing and corporations were able to service their debts, the perennial problem of non-performing loans could be papered over. In a global downturn, however, an economy as exposed as South Korea’s was likely to have trouble with the huge fixed costs of interest payments, and predictably, South Korea would slip periodically into severe financial crisis.
 
The saving grace was that South Korea was blessed with an economic guarantor of last resort, the United States, with which it had a special relationship based on military security. One of the great cushions of the Korean economy was the Cold War, since any serious economic crisis would also raise security concerns, or even transform economic crises into crises of security. The United States always stood ready to help out in the event of trouble, even as it slapped the Korean wrist now and then for maintaining market barriers and not liberalizing enough. So, at any time before 1989, Seoul could expect Washington and Tokyo to step in and help it out bilaterally, with the best example being the crisis of 1979-1980, which was probably the worst financial crisis in recent South Korean history.
 
During the economic debacle of 1979-1980, the United States acted swiftly to stabilize Korea, sending signals to the international financial community that—notwithstanding the assassination of Park Chung Hee and the Kwangju rebellion—Korea was a sound investment for more loans. The United States also exerted pressure on Japan to “share burdens” in bailing out Korea, and the ensuing Reagan-Suzuki agreement stipulated in effect that the maintenance of peace on the Korean peninsula was important for the security of Japan, which meant that Japan would have to ante up. After much negotiating over the final bill, Japan extended to South Korea about $4 billion in government and EXIM bank loans, amounting to nearly 13 percent of Korea’s net external debt, more than five percent of its GNP, and almost a fifth of 1983’s total investments. (A comparable figure today—i.e., five percent of GNP—would be approximately $25 billion.)
 
By contrast, in November of 1997, when the South Korean Minister of Finance asked Washington for bilateral help, the refusal was swift and decisive. The Korean political economy had become a kind of leftover Cold War artifact, good for an era of security threats and close bilateral relations with Washington, but of questionable use in the global “world without borders” of the 1990s, and Washington’s refusal to help out South Korea on grounds of international security finally laid to rest the long economic relationship between the two countries.
 
To be sure, there was a big debate within the U.S. administration over what to do about the impending default of South Korea. National security and foreign policy heavyweights pleaded with the Treasury Department that South Korea needed to be bailed out, using bilateral means, and that the United States could not simply walk away from Seoul at such an hour of need. Paul Blustein, whose The Chastening: Inside the Crisis that Rocked the Global Financial System and Humbled the IMF (New York: Public Affairs, 2001) is a fine account of the Asian crisis, writes that James Steinberg, the deputy national security advisor, argued that “By failing to show strong support for Korea, the United States risked stirring an anti-American backlash in Seoul that could lead to pressure for the removal of U.S. troops.” Sandy Berger, the National Security Advisor, wondered if North Korea might cause mischief if the South Korean economy collapsed, and Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, was most emphatic in favor of bailout, even in the face of derision by Treasury officials who thought she knew little about economics (Blustein, pp. 137-38). In the end, the members of the foreign policy and national security establishment lost the argument.
 
There were a number of reasons why the tried-and-true national security argument did not gain traction in Washington. One was intellectual: the argument that South Korea was too important to be allowed to default was one that Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin hated because, as the Assistant Secretary Tim Geithner explained to Blustein, “you can’t let some perceived imperative of action dictate your choices, and you may not have alternatives that are a plausible response to the problem.” There were other, deeper reasons. Rubin, Lawrence Summers and their lieutenants saw the crisis as the perfect opportunity to break up Korea Inc. once and for all, and to do this, they wanted the International Monetary Fund to impose conditions on South Korea that went far beyond the Fund’s traditional boundaries. Thus the U.S. Treasury kept steadypressure on Fund officials to extract more and more concessions from South Korea, including instant resolution of all trade related issues in favor of the United States. The exasperated Koreans were soon accusing the IMF of always raising new issues at the behest of the United States—something that the Fund officials readily acknowledged.
 
Foremost in the minds of Treasury officials was also the interest of Wall Street, especially American financial services firms. Joseph Stiglitz has argued that the origins of the Korean financial crisis rested, in the first place, with the excessively rapid financial and capital market liberalization that the U.S. Treasury had pushed on Korea, on behalf of Wall Street, and over the protests of the Council of Economic Advisors, of which he was the chairman. “At the Council of Economic Advisors we weren’t convinced that South Korean liberalization was a matter of U.S. national interest, though obviously it would help the special interests of Wall Street” (Globalization and Its Discontents, New York: W. W. Norton, 2002, p. 102, italics in the original).
 
The IMF conditions served the brokerage firms on Wall Street far better than the needs of South Korea. Americans demanded, and got, the right to establish bank subsidiaries and brokerage houses in the Korean market by mid-1998; the ceiling on foreign ownership of publicly traded companies was raised to 50 percent from 26 percent; and the ceiling on individual foreign ownership went up from 7 percent to 50 percent. From that point on, accounting in Korean corporations would adhere strictly to international standards, with large financial institutions required to submit to audits by internationally recognized firms. In addition, there was large scale financial sector restructuring, including a revision of the Bank of Korea Act, to provide for central bank independence, “with price stability as its main mandate.” “Other Structural Measures,” contained in the December 3, 1997, Letter of Intent with the IMF covered trade liberalization, including old sore points like transparency of import certification procedures, complete capital account liberalization, corporate governance and corporate structure, and labor market reform. 
 
By signing the December 3 Letter of Intent, the South Koreans practically gave away the store. The trouble was that even the massive concessions did not save the day, and the South Korean economy slid deeper into trouble as the month wore on. Part of the problem was the American refusal to send a credible signal to the world that the U.S. was now firmly behind the deal that promised more than $55 billion to South Korea. The $55 billion package consisted of $35 billion to come from the IMF, World Bank, and  the Asian Development Bank, and another $20 billion—a so-called “second line of defense”—to come from wealthy nations.  But South Korea could avoid default only if it could obtain all the loans in the package, and the U.S. Treasury never intended to permit disbursal of the “second line of defense,” lest it catch flak from Congress. The market could see that South Korea was running out of reserves, and the financial analysts, peering through the $55 billion hype, realized that there was no there, there. The rush for the exits began, and by December 12 the IMF and U.S. Treasury were contemplating the unthinkable—allowing Seoul to default.
 
In the end, the method chosen to rescue the failed rescue attempt was a “bail-in.” Banks that had made big loans to South Korea were asked to reschedule these debts, or else allow South Korea to default on them Once this decision was made—and it took an inexcusably long time, with Rubin and Alan Greenspan holding out until the last minute—the bankers moved extraordinarily fast. South Korea was an ideal candidate for a bail-in. It had a sound economy, good macroeconomic fundamentals, a good payment record, and it owed almost all its money to banks, which are more easily organized in a collective action situation, and not to mutual funds holding bonds. Why, one might ask, as the bankers who rescheduled the Korean debts also did, had it taken Washington so long to accept the call for a bail-in? If Washington had asked American banks at the outset of the crisis to roll over Korean debts, the situation would never have gotten so out of control.
 
On the other hand, if the whole point of the exercise had been to teach South Korea a lesson, then the U.S. Treasury succeeded brilliantly. Koreans suffered through massive bankruptcies of big and small firms, and a recession that contracted national income by seven percent, bringing down wages for the average worker by ten percent and sending the jobless rate to nearly nine percent. But along the way, they also learned another kind of lesson. The Koreans learned in the hardest way possible that at the moment of their financial ruination, the United States had chosen to further its parochial self-interest, rather than helping an ally. The economic basis of the U.S.-South Korean alliance now stands on a very different footing than it did before.
 
Guarantees of Security Turn into Guarantees of Insecurity
 
The security calculus that under-girded the U.S.-Korean relationship was also dramatically altered during the past decade. The beginnings of this change may be dated to 1994, when the United States began bolstering its military presence in South Korea in preparation for a possible strike against the nuclear facilities in the North. The Clinton administration came within a hair’s-breadth of a war in Korea without so much as consulting with its South Korean ally on an action that would have had devastating consequences for the nearly seventy million people on both sides of the DMZ. War was averted by the signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework, through which North Korea agreed to mothball its nuclear facilities for producing and reprocessing plutonium, in return for alternate forms of nuclear energy production and eventually, diplomatic recognition. But the agreement was in trouble from the start. Two weeks after the agreement was signed, Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives and almost immediately began raising questions about whether it was proper for the U.S. to have sat down and negotiated with North Koreans in the first place. When the Bush administration was inaugurated in January, 2000, it took the position that all bets were off, and that it would not negotiate with any state that it deemed to be terrorist. The way things looked from Seoul, it appeared that the security of Korea, and the fate of seventy million people on the Korean peninsula, had become hostage to the vagaries of changes in U.S. administrations, and the whims of U.S. Congressional politics.
 
The basic difference in the way the U.S. approaches the North Korean issue, and the way that South Korea—or, for that matter, Japan and China—approach it, is that the East Asian countries want the problem to be managed and the only way to do that is through negotiations. Washington, on the other hand, wants moral clarity. As George Bush put it in his 2002 West Point commencement speech, “Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies . . . Because the war on terror will require resolve and patience, it will also require firm moral purpose . . . Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place.”  But obviously moral truth looks rather different when you are facing tens of thousands of artillery guns, and the South Koreans have tended to think that avoidance of war ought to take top priority, even if that meant purchasing peace outright with cash payments—as the Kim Dae Jung administration did by funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to North Korea. 
 
The bellicosity of the rhetoric of moral clarity in turn has given rise to the widespread perception in Korea that the United States may well become the party that provokes a war there. Perhaps this perception, in turn, has contributed to the renewed focus by South Korean activists on the U.S. military bases. The military bases in South Korea are in any case a profoundly troubled place, more so even than such bases in Okinawa or Germany.  South Korea  is a “non-command-sponsored tour,” meaning that the Department of Defense does not pay for the travel and living costs of family members.  In 1991, only 10 percent of the 40,000 troops in South Korea were accompanied by their family members. Korea is also a “hardship tour,” due to its status as a war zone and because of the living arrangements, language, and cultural differences; and it is a relatively “short tour,” usually about one-and-a-half years long. These characteristics combine to produce severe problems of drinking, prostitution, and an indifference to Korean sensitivities and customs. By contrast, Germany is a “plum post,” reserved mostly for married men with their families, where they can have their “European experience.”
 
It is well known that the U.S. commands the South Korean armed forces in times of external crisis, and has done so since 1950. Less noticed is the issue of extraterritoriality, which has allowed Americans, for the most part, to live outside the processes of Korean law ever since 1945, when the American Occupation began. Thus, for example, two American army sergeants who on June 13, 2002, drove a 60-ton tracked vehicle and crushed to death two young Korean girls, were tried before an American military tribunal that refused to consider a charge of manslaughter and even exonerated them of “criminal negligence.”
 
By the early 2000’s, then, the main political, economic, and military underpinnings for the Cold War alliance between the U.S. and South Korea had all been undermined. But the U.S. still maintains its military presence—and it is this military presence that serves as the lightening rod for anti-Americanism in Korea. It is a lightening rod because South Koreans imbue the U.S. presence with all kinds of highly charged and ambivalent emotions that reflect their own troubled feelings about national identity, sovereignty and history. They are conflicted about whether the U.S. troops are there as guarantors of security or as occupiers, whether they are facilitators of a reconciliation between the two Koreas or the main stumbling block to such efforts. Meanwhile, every fracas that involves American servicemen is a reminder that South Korea is not a wholly sovereign country, that the United States operates its military bases as a sovereign state-within-a-state, unbeholden to the laws of Korea.       
 
In June 2003, Under-Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz traveled to Korea to inform the Seoul government that the U.S. would soon begin moving its 15,000-odd troops currently stationed between Seoul and the DMZ to new locations south of the Han River. (The Han River offers a useful natural defense line, but the heart of modern Seoul lies north of it.) In some respects this move is a good idea. The American public has never liked the idea of a “tripwire deterrent” that would automatically involve Americans in any new war in Korea. As Selig Harrison has recently noted in his book Korean Endgame (Princeton University Press, 2002, p. 189), a majority of the American public has consistently expressed opposition to the use (let alone the automatic use) of U.S. forces even if North Korea attacks South Korea. U.S. public opinion has been remarkably stable on this score. According to the 1975 foreign policy survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, 65% of those polled said that they opposed the use of U.S. forces if North Korea attacked South Korea. In 1999, 66% said they opposed it. A redeployment of American forces will also finally get them out of the venerable Yongsan base, which was created by Japan in 1894 but is today located  smack in the middle of Seoul. But, of course, South Koreans worry that the U.S. actually wants this pull-back so that its own forces will be under less direct threat, should a conflict break out over the North’s nuclear program. Even worse, they worry that the U.S. is preparing to initiate such a conflict without any warning to or input from South Korea.
 
Latent anti-Americanism has long been an aspect of many cultures, particularly in Europe where it is almost de rigueur to disparage the United States as brash, uncultured, and money-grubbing. The Bush administration’s unilateralism, and its general unwillingness to accept binding restraints on its sovereignty, has merely brought this dislike to the fore again, and into the open; and the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq without the endorsement of the United Nations Security Council has caused it to spread and bloom. Predictable as it might be, the spread of anti-Americanism, particularly in Europe, has been so alarming to the foreign policy establishment that every issue of Foreign Affairs since the autumn of 2002 has carried an article or two dealing exclusively with the issue of anti-Americanism, in Europe and the Middle East.  But this concern with anti-Americanism must be seen in the broader context of the anxiety over the deteriorating relationship with old European allies within the Atlantic Alliance.
 
Koreans, however, have never shared the European biases about the inferiority-cum- barbarity of American civilization. Instead, contemporary Korean apprehensions about the United States are best analyzed in light of the fundamental shifts in the U.S.-Korean relationship over the past 25 years, illustrated by long-term support for dictatorship, the Kwangju Rebellion, the Korean financial crisis, and the changing perception of military (in)security provided by the U.S. since the crisis of 1993-94. In the final analysis, is it so surprising that a country colonized, divided, and then devastated by war—only to remain divided—over the past century should assert its cultural identity even if this takes the form of anti-Americanism? George Santayana once wrote that such rejection is also a form of self-assertion: “You have only to look back upon yourself as a person who hates this or that to discover what it is that you secretly love.”
 
MEREDITH WOO-CUMINGS is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan and a member of JPRI’s Board of Advisers. Her books include Race to the Swift: State and Finance in Korean Industrialization (Columbia University Press, 1991) and The Developmental State (Cornell University Press, 1999). A longer version of this paper will appear in a volume to be edited by David Steinberg of Georgetown University.

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