WHY all the anti-Americanism in South Korea? That question lingers after the Olympics. Everything from the rowdiness of American athletes in the opening ceremonies to NBC's features on sweatshops in Seoul seemed to tweak local sensitivities. The Olympics was a superbly staged event, a kind of massive coming out for a modern, economically powerful Korea, and the country's supposed best friend couldn't behave correctly. A one-time archenemy, by contrast, behaved impeccably, displaying disciplined ranks of athletes and contributing such show-stoppers as the Bolshoi Ballet and the Moscow Philharmonic to the Games' cultural bash.
It wasn't long before Korean spectators were cheering the URS (the Soviet Union) and jeering the USA.
But that was only the surface of things. Friction in the US-South Korean relationship goes deeper than misdeeds, on both sides, at the Olympics. Even as it revels in newfound economic might, South Korea has to live with the day-to-day reality of 43,000 US troops within its borders. The Americans are there, of course, to help protect their hosts - and relatively few Koreans would like to see a quick US withdrawal. But the American presence carries a big price tag, both financially - about $1 billion a year from the US Treasury - and politically.
An American general heads the Combined Forces Command over troops defending the South. Thus thousands of Korean soldiers are under a foreign commander. When a domestic incident involves South Korean troops - as did the Kwangju riots in 1980 - American commanders who release troops for riot control can be implicated.
Then there's the current trade relations between the US and South Korea. American politicians have criticized defense expenditures and trade breaks for a country that runs a $10 billion trade surplus. Korea argues that it still needs the favorable access to markets which is provided developing countries by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. And it has been reluctant to open its own market to American agricultural products. Complicating the picture is South Korea's $35 billion foreign debt.
Finally, there's reunification. Some Koreans suspect the continued partition of their peninsula serves superpower ends. They see the US using a dependent South Korea for its own strategic purposes, and suspect that other countries don't relish the idea of a reunited, even more economically mighty Korea.
Despite all this, Korean-American friendship has its own kind of sinew. The American defense umbrella has helped set the stage for South Korea's rapid economic development. Political development toward democracy and away from harsh military rule has begun. That should strengthen ties to the US, not strain them - even if it means a louder venting of anti-American sentiments.
The big-brother, little-brother relationship of the US toward Korea has to end at some point. A new, stronger relationship should take its place.