An uneasy American in Seoul
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — A large sign in the cafe window says, "Americans not welcome here" in bold, defiant letters. My Korean language teacher agrees in principle, but tells me privately that only American soldiers should be discriminated against.
A sign in my office screams, "US troops OUT NOW!" with a large red exclamation point. My co-workers agree with the sign and support students who lob Molotov cocktails at the local US military base. On the street, a small child points a chubby index finger at me and screams, "American!" while his mother quickly ushers him past me.
This is all happening now in Seoul, South Korea - not a place we usually associate with anti-American sentiment.
For 50 years, the South Korean government has welcomed US troops to defend against its hated northern neighbor. Today, however, many South Koreans see US troops as yet another expression of American arrogance. In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center on the People and the Press, 73 percent of South Koreans said the US ignores the needs of Koreans in its foreign policy.
Not long ago, two US soldiers were found not guilty of negligence by a court-martial set up to investigate the accidental death of two 14-year-old Korean girls in a military training exercise. South Koreans responded with violent protests, displays of racism, and indignation.
In the past, the US State Department and the American press could dismiss such incidents as the work of "extremists" who had no sense of geopolitical reality.
This is no longer the case.
Once the exclusive province of terrorists and antiglobalization activists, anti-Americanism has become a widely expressed sentiment in many countries, including South Korea. Despite South Korea's longstanding political and military alliances with the US, even the candidates in tomorrow's presidential election here have bashed the "unequal" US-Korean relationship.
How did an entire generation turn against the US?
American government actions, large and small, have played a part. For one thing, American trade and immigration policies have caused political and social unrest. But American arrogance is also palpable on the streets. South Koreans tell me how their water is polluted by the local US military base, how American soldiers commit serious crimes that go unpunished, and how South Koreans are profiled as North Korean agents at US airports.
However, the current strain of anti-American sentiment here has moved beyond the realm of policy and is now an emotional phenomenon, a visceral reaction to the very idea of America.
The US has lost credibility in South Korea because it attacks its problems from the level of policy instead of emotion. American officials, from the ambassador to the president, apologized for the deaths of the two South Korean girls. Ordinary South Koreans are not interested in legalistic statements; they want the US to "feel their pain." This makes the situation all the more complicated, difficult, and perhaps impossible.
George W. Bush, as a presidential candidate, promised Americans and the world a "humble" foreign policy. This is what Koreans were looking for: a US president who would deal with other countries on a human level, not solely through the rigid smokescreen of policy. They've received the opposite - a US president who sees South Korea as a relatively unimportant pawn on a global chessboard.
As with many people around the world, South Koreans expect much of US power and influence. While their expectations may be too high and their facts about the US wildly skewed, they know one thing all too well: High-handed American actions are no longer just a policy issue, they are an issue of pride.
This is why we can expect to see more outbursts in Seoul. Until Washington addresses the emotional side of its policy decisions, South Koreans will continue to hold the sneaking suspicion that America does not understand or care about them - and they will be right.
• Ben Ball is a research fellow at People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a nonprofit organization that works for accountability in the South Korean government.