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Koreans on US: Can´t live with ´em, or without ´em
By David Isenberg

WASHINGTON - Americans: can´t live with them, can´t live without them. Crudely stated, but not by much. That is the conclusion of many South Koreans and foreign analysts, and this anti-US sentiment - with major implications for US security policy - goes beyond the actions of the administration of President George W Bush.

"Many South Koreans appear to share the generalized belief that their nation is not treated with respect by the US, substantial minorities have expressed the view that US-South Korean differences are attributable to differences in values (which typically cannot be negotiated), and large majorities indicated that their unfavorable attitudes are not specific to the current [US] administration," said a recent study by the RAND Corp, a federally funded US contractor.

That the United States is no longer welcomed with open arms by its South Korean ally has major implications for US strategic and military policy in North Asia. Impeached President Roh Moo-hyun has been emphasizing the importance of South Korea developing an independent foreign policy and not taking instructions from Washington. For some time, the US has been committed to moving its troops out of Seoul, the South Korean capital, because of popular resentment, and transferring them elsewhere in Korea. Some of the 37,000 military personnel - and their 37,000 dependents, contractors and others - may leave the peninsula entirely.

The RAND study released last month, Ambivalent Allies: A Study of South Korean Attitudes Toward the US, found strong evidence of a recent downturn in favorable attitudes toward the US among South Koreans - but also evidence of a more recent recovery. Attitudes in general, however, are hardly enthusiastically pro-American, and some are hostile.

In the past couple of years Korean attitudes toward the US have dipped and risen like a yo-yo. Sentiment plummeted in February 2002 after a South Korean speed skater lost the Olympic gold medal to an American. It rose that summer but plunged again in December 2002, after the acquittal of two US soldiers whose armored vehicle accidentally killed two South Korean schoolgirls.

´A certain amount of disquiet in DC´
Some experts agree. "There is a certain amount of disquiet in DC over the situation in Korea. I perceive a greater hostility toward the US," said Doug Bandow, who was a special adviser to former US president Ronald Reagan and is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian Washington, DC, think-tank.

But to attribute changing unfavorable South Korean views to such incidents as the death of the schoolgirls would be to underestimate the causes, according to the RAND report. It found multiple factors just for the past decade alone: "Historical residue, US and Republic of Korea leadership, actions taken and not taken, the ROK´s security and economic situation, the state of North-South relations, social and generational change, and the media".

The demographics of the Korean population is particularly important, according to Bandow. "The problem for the US is that the attitudes of South Koreans will change due to generational attitudes. The younger generation will not have the fond memories of the United States that the older people do. They will look more positively towards North Korea. Their attitudes will generally worsen unless there is a crisis with North Korea."

The RAND report said this is no time for complacency about the US-South Korean relationship. Despite efforts in both countries to put bilateral relations back on track, there has been only a partial recovery in favorable sentiment toward the US.

The report found that anti-Americanism in South Korea is complex, comprising several different strains. One is panmijuui, a deeply rooted conviction held primarily by radical student organizations and leftist scholars and journalists, which actively excludes and aggressively opposes the US and its policies.

Another is panmijongso, a passive, more generally held view that results in dissatisfaction about, or criticism of, some aspects of the US or its policies.

Moderates reject US policies, not US per se
In the middle is a pragmatic anti-Americanism, represented by moderate non-governmental organizations that do not reject the US per se, but instead focus on specific issues, such as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), concerning the presence of US troops, or wartime operational control of South Korean forces.

The historical basis for South Korean ambivalence toward the US is not recognized in the US, given most Americans´ general ignorance of and obliviousness toward the rest of the world - but it is well remembered by Koreans.

First was president Theodore Roosevelt´s rejection of Korea´s request to help protect its independence, as Japan extended its control in Korea after its victory in the Russo-Japanese war, 1904-05. Roosevelt even authorized his secretary of state to sign a secret agreement with Tokyo in July 1905 (the Taft-Katsura Agreement) that recognized Japan´s prerogatives in Korea in exchange for unfettered US freedom of action in the Philippines. The US also sponsored the Treaty of Portsmouth that acknowledged Japan as the dominant power in Korea.

Second was the Cairo Conference of 1943 when the United States publicly pledged that "in due course Korea shall become free and independent", While many South Koreans took that to mean soon, no US or other leader had any idea how Korean self-rule could be accomplished. Thus, for the remainder of World War II, the US leadership neglected any detailed planning for Korea´s postwar future, assuming Korea would be placed under some form of international trusteeship. When the Yalta Conference (in February 1945 involving the US, the United Kingdom and Soviet Union) did not even mention Korea, many Korean leaders suspected that Korea had been sacrificed in order to secure Soviet involvement in the war against Japan.

Third was the subsequent post-World War II decision to divide the peninsula along the 38th Parallel, to govern the southern part of the country through direct military rule, to terminate the occupation because of other needs elsewhere, and to create the South Korean state - all highly controversial moves.

Fourth was the perceived US support for subsequent decades of authoritarian rule by South Korean governments. US actions during the Kwangju crackdown in May 1980, when popular unrest after the assassination of president Park Chung-hee led to a brutal military crackdown, infuriated South Koreans on both the left and right; the former because they thought the US supported the crackdown and the latter because they thought the US was insensitive to the realities of Korea´s situation.

Unease over tough US stand on North Korea
All of this, plus periodic unease over US policy toward North Korea, especially concerning its nuclear-weapons program, have left many Koreans with an unfavorable view of the United States.

RAND found the results of its polling somewhat worrisome. Its report made the following recommendations to US policymakers:
Explore opportunities for more robust intelligence sharing.
Do more to persuade South Koreans that their interests in the region go well beyond the North Korean threat and that they have a long-term interest in a peaceful, stable, and economically vital Northeast Asia.
Develop a public diplomacy strategy for South Korea that focuses on the legitimate grievances of those who criticize the United States - and does not attempt to change the views of those whose anti-Americanism is ideological and more deeply rooted.
Better understand the extent to which, if at all, South Korea´s educational system constitutes a structural source of anti-American sentiment.
Improve US understanding of the role of the South Korean media in shaping attitudes toward the US.

David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms control and national-security issues. The views expressed are his own.

(Asia Times Online) 4/6/2004