Frictions in the US-South Korea linkage

SOUTH Korean anti-Americanism is not new, but its latest version, exacerbated by US-Republic of Korea trade frictions, seems more serious. For most of the ROK's history South Koreans have chafed under varying degrees of US political advice. Among nationalistic political elites, such frustration often manifested itself as anti-American sentiment. This has been especially true of student activists and political dissidents. This was never very deep or pervasive, however.

Mounting trade frictions have caused a subtle yet significant transformation of South Korean anti-Americanism. South Korean business and government elites in recent years have bristled at the suggestion that the ROK was becoming a second Japan-like challenge to United States interests. Denials that South Korea is a ``new Japan'' can be accepted at face value, for the facts support the Korean argument.

But denials that South Korea hopes to become a ``new Japan'' are patently disingenuous. The parallels are too strong for Americans to swallow that line. Actually, selected American trade actions against any of Japan's Asian emulators are justifiable if aimed at preventing the emergence of another Japan. For the United States today it is axiomatic that one Japan is plenty.

Fair trade is becoming as much a byword of United States trade policy as free trade. One result of this legitimate American desire for fair trade, however, is a spurt of protectionist sentiment in the US, aimed in part at South Korea.

To date the US public does not seem very exercised by the still small threat posed by South Korea's competition, but US political and business elites are much more keenly aware of Korea's potentials. This is the reason South Korea gets lumped with Japan in a preemptive fashion. To South Koreans -- elites and masses -- this seems premature. Moreover, this growing US tendency strikes them as unworthy of a powerful ally-cum-Confucian elder brother. Human relationships are very important to the Korean psych e, whereas the American preoccupation with rationally calculating US national interests appears coldly aloof. Koreans readily introduce emotional factors into their international relations, while Americans pride themselves on being coolly objective. Such terms of reference in the trade arena accentuate to South Koreans what they most dislike about the ways Americans conduct business and politics. The result is a new sort of anti-Americanism in South Korea.

No longer is it only a handful of students, opposition politicians, or bureaucrats who vent their xenophobic rage at an entity -- the US -- which they consider to be the source of their troubles. Such diffuse anti-Americanism never threatened the basic US-ROK bonds. But a new layer of anti-American resentment is evident in South Korea, stemming from Korean resentment toward shifting US trade attitudes and policies. This represents a change in more than atmospherics. Beneath the surface of longstan ding US-ROK political tensions lay a set of differing assumptions about, for example, political pluralism and human rights. Those tensions were, and remain, the result of nationalistic Koreans reacting to the ideological expressions of US nationalism.

South Koreans seem ill prepared to cope with such clashes of nationalism. Instead of appraising the balance of national interests the way Americans do, the Koreans have reacted emotionally, thereby fueling the fires of anti-Americanism. Those fires are further stoked by the ease of criticizing mainly the US when the real target may also incorporate Japan and the Chun Doo Hwan government -- neither of which absorbs criticism as willingly as Americans. The cumulative effect is an increase in the sco pe and severity of anti-American sentiment in South Korea. No longer confined to an elite that saw its parochial political interests affected adversely by some US position, now virtually all South Koreans can visualize their livelihoods being adversely influenced by a country they had long viewed as a benevolent benefactor.

On balance, and as long as it does not get out of hand, this development is probably positive, because it signifies a desirable degree of maturity in US-ROK ties. The circumstances surrounding those ties are changing, and so should each one's perceptions of the other. In time this new strain of anti-Americanism will probably become as manipulable as its predecessors. Seoul cannot afford to allow it free rein.

Perhaps the most promising way of controlling it is for the US and the ROK to affirm their economic partnership in innovative ways. For example, Americans need to be less condescending toward South Koreans and respect their remarkable accomplishments. The ROK will likely remain a perennial junior partner in the region, but that does not mean South Koreans need be treated as second-class citizens of a US-led system. For their part, South Koreans could further secure their economic partnership with the Un ited States if they joined with Americans in a campaign to prevent the ROK from becoming a second Japan -- with all that country's attendant problems -- and cooperate with the US in an effort to ensure reciprocally free and fair trade. South Korea should, with American support, aspire to being fairer and qualitatively better than Japan. If Seoul does so, it could go far toward building a stronger economic bond between the United States and South Korea, cement its bilateral strategic ties, and -- by settin g a good example for US-Japan ties -- would help set the stage for improved US-Japan and ROK-Japan economic relations which would, of course, greatly benefit the entire region. At that point, contemporary South Korean anti-Americanism would be looked back upon as merely a passing phase. Making this difficult transition, however, will require much more effort and sensitivity than is now displayed in either Washington or Seoul.

Edward A. Olsen is associate professor of national-security affairs and coordinator of Asian Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif.

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