Is America the 'good guy'? Many now say, 'No.'
In a small, plain office over a downtown Seoul grocery, eight young men hunch over a bank of computers. They aren't writing software or playing video games. This is a command center for protest against American soldiers in Korea. Everyone wears a black ribbon that reads "US troops withdraw."Skip to next paragraph
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The group one of dozens like it sprang up after a US armored vehicle accidentally killed two Korean girls walking along a country road in June. The incident continues to galvanize anti-American feeling across the country. Members canvas neighborhoods, run e-mail campaigns detailing American soldiers' alleged crimes, and help organize a permanent silent vigil outside the presidential palace.
"We are like a military operation" says their leader, known only as Mr. Kim. "US troops here are a mistake of history and we won't be one country until they leave; 9/11 is not our problem."
Most Americans believe they are making a sacrifice stationing 38,000 soldiers here to defend South Koreans against possible Communist attack. Most ordinary Koreans, however, believe the US troops are actually here to promote American interests, opinion polls show. And "since 9/11, a strange but virulent anti-Americanism has gripped South Korea," notes one expatriate American who works at a US company in Seoul.
"The underlying reason that Uncle Sam is about as popular as the plague," he adds, "is because of a paradigm shift in the minds of a new generation of South Koreans" who regard the US troops as a colonial presence.
Along with Japan, South Korea is one of America's chief strategic partners in the Pacific. But you wouldn't think so to watch a recent music video by popular all-girl Korean band S.E.S. It features cowboy-booted Americans being beaten up, fed to dogs, and tossed off buildings.
Nor are American diplomats reassured by recent polls showing that nearly half of Koreans approved the February trashing of the US Chamber of Commerce in Seoul and that 60 percent of Koreans "don't like" America.
But if the US doesn't wear a white hat here, where then?
South Korea today offers one of the sharpest, and most surprising, examples of anger at the US role in the world since Sept. 11. The current campaign grew out of the girls' deaths and a widespread sense that the US authorities handled the case clumsily. But there's more to it than that. It seems to feed on old grudges and a deep dismay at a newly unilateral America, touting a "with us or against us" approach.
A year ago, in the wake of Sept. 11, even some of Washington's fiercest critics proclaimed in sympathy, "We are all Americans." But those sentiments began to fade after the inadvertent US bombing of civilians in Afghanistan. Today, even some of the country's firmest friends are alarmed by America's apparent unwillingness to take into account the views of other nations on issues ranging from the environment to dealing with Iraq.
As the sole superpower for the past decade, America was already retooling its relationship with the rest of the planet before Sept. 11. It pulled out of the Kyoto treaty on climate change, a step that rankled many. But the attack on America accelerated the change. The United States feels threatened by Al Qaeda, and it's making its vast military and political superiority felt with unprecedented vigor sending soldiers into Central Asia, Georgia, and the Philippines.
That is having an effect. Scores of interviews with government officials, political analysts, and ordinary citizens from one side of the globe to the other suggest that the US is now widely perceived as arrogant and as war with Iraq looms potentially reckless.
You can hear the misgivings in the voices of Russian steel workers burned by Washington's decision this year to ignore free-trade principles and raise import tariffs. You can see them in a McDonald's franchise in Jakarta that works to hide its American connection.