Anti-Americanism is spreading in South Korea, and United States officials are worried about it. Last year, harsh rhetorical denunciations of the US became a standard feature in hundreds of student demonstrations -- a trend dramatized last May, when 73 students staged a peaceful, four-day sit-in at the US cultural center in downtown Seoul which attracted widespread attention in the international news media. Since then, attacks on US facilities have been smaller but more violent. Last August, students jumped the fence around the US Embassy in Seoul and burned a US flag before security guards caught them. In early December, other students carrying Molotov cocktails seized the US cultural center in the city of Kwangju and held it for nine hours before police moved in. The attacks have also hit US businessmen. Students occupied the American Chamber of Commerce offices in Seoul last November, spreading kerosene on the floor and threatening to light it. US banks have become targets of protests.
``You bet I'm worried!'' said one US official who asked not to be named.
Before 1980, anti-US sentiment in South Korea was almost unknown. South Koreans harbored a wellspring of gratitude toward the US because, as they see it, US intervention in the Korean war saved them from North Korean communism. The continued military threat from the North has kept that sentiment alive.
US action during 1979 and 1980, however, has prompted a change of heart among some. When Gen. Chun Doo Hwan seized control of the Army in a coup on Dec. 12, 1979, troops formally under the control of the UN Commander, a US general, were involved. Many Koreans concluded that if the US did not actually support the coup, it at least bore some responsibility.
The US moved quickly to recognize and give public support to General Chun when he became President in 1980. Ignoring advice from the US Embassy in Seoul, President Reagan invited Chun to be the first foreign head of state to visit Mr. Reagan after his election.
With a warm public embrace, Reagan effectively restored credibility to the US security commitment to South Korea, a commitment that had suffered badly under President Carter. But many Koreans saw it as an endorsement of the military coup.
The events prompted Korean intellectuals to reexamine their close ties with the US. ``Students and the general public are coming to understand that the US has made a series of mistakes in Korea,'' says Huh Kyung Koo, an opposition assemblyman, ``and those mistakes are continuing.''
Mr. Huh says the US must accept broad historic responsibility for Korea's political and security problems, which he traces to three decisions: the hasty one taken at the end of the World War II to divide the peninsula, with the Soviets occupying North Korea; the decision in the late 1940s to withdraw US troops from the South, which invited an attack from the North; and President Nixon's decision to reduce US troop strength in the Pacific, a move Huh says encouraged North Korea and the Soviet Union to build up their military strength and gave former President Park Chung Hee the excuse he needed to crack down on his domestic opponents.
The notion that the US supports ``dictatorship'' in Korea in order to protect commercial and security interests gained currency only among a radical fringe of students earlier in the decade.
But the atmosphere changed last year. The South Korean press painted wildly exaggerated accounts of rising trade protectionism in the US, as though protectionist bills under consideration in the US Congress had already been passed. US investigations into alleged unfair trade practices in South Korea brought howls of protest, as Koreans fought every US move to open Korea's domestic market to more US exports.
A US decision to slap a 65 percent antidumping duty on Korean photo albums raised the shrill tone of public debate to a new pitch.
Still, not everyone is worried.
``Do you think that people out there don't like us?'' asks a senior US military official. ``They love us!'' he says, recounting incidents of farmers bringing hot tea and snacks to US soldiers on maneuvers.
Radical students have notably omitted any demands that US troops leave Korea. Some observers say that friction is just evidence of growing Korean independence and self-confidence, and may even be a healthy sign.
``We can expect more frictions as Korea develops,'' the military official said. ``There will continue to be stresses that test our close friendship.''
Many Koreans love what they think the US is -- a big place with lots of freedom and opportunity. But an idealized image of the US has heightened the sense of disappointment over what is seen as US failure to bring democracy to Korea. Disappointment can run to disillusionment when a wealthy, powerful US is seen as having economic interests running counter to ``little'' Korea's. Diplomats worry that these feelings will spread if Koreans experience real economic or political frustration.
``Our children are going to jail because they protest against the Jenkins bill [a protectionist bill recently before Congress],'' said one woman whose daughter was recently sentenced to five years in prison for antigovernment activities. ``Why is America doing this? Why doesn't the US support democracy in Korea?''
``I love America so much,'' she says apologetically. ``But I hate America!''