Tuesday, May 17, 2005

South Koreans: Anti-Americanism Debate

The South Korean Embassy in Washington is stepping up efforts to correct what it determines to be misunderstanding in mainstream U.S. society about anti-Americanism among Koreans.
This move is known to have been spurred by a Seoul-datelined Washington Post story last week which indicated South Koreans regard the United States as "most threatening" to their country, based on the result of a public opinion survey. The Post quoted a survey report by Research & Research, a leading pollster here, which showed 39 percent of South Koreans picked the United States while 33 percent chose North Korea in answer to the question, "Which country is the most threatening to South Korea?" The newspaper said Washington's efforts to isolate North Korea over the nuclear standoff have failed as its business ties with China, Russia and South Korea have boomed in the past few years - particularly in South Korea, where public sentiment seems to be tilting toward its northern neighbor away from the ally which has protected it for half a century with the stationing on Korean soil of a sizeable military force. Anti-Americanism, or the American perception of anti-Americanism, seems to be a worthy subject for the staff of the Korean Embassy to take up at this time when the durability of the alliance between Seoul and Washington is being intensely reviewed by political and academic circles in both countries. The embassy began by questioning the adequacy of the survey result which it claimed was outdated. The embassy pointed out that the survey quoted by the Washington Post was in fact conducted in January 2004. When the research institute asked the same question of the Korean public in January this year, it had different answers: Japan was top with 37.1 percent, followed by North Korea with 28.6 percent, the United States with 18.5 percent and China with 11.9 percent. R&R's more recent poll, taken in April, found 62.2 percent of South Koreans picked the United States as the "primary country for security cooperation."
New Ambassador to Washington Hong Suk-hyun notes anti-Americanism is evident among South Korea's so-called "386 generation," the main actors in the current political scenes, but he finds the origin of the trend in the U.S. government's neglect on the democratization process in this country in the 1980s. The former newspaper publisher told an American audience last week that Washington's "acquiescence" to the bloody military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Gwangju City in May 1980 turned politically conscious young Koreans against the United States. And, their burgeoning anti-American sentiment was hardened when Chun Doo-hwan became the first foreign guest invited to the White House after the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, Hong recalled.
It is reassuring that our diplomats in Washington are positively tackling the problem of anti-Americanism - gauging its depth and examining its root cause - to help the U.S. public better understand the true nature of the public antipathy here toward our long-standing ally. The usual explanation citing "rising national pride" and "absence of appreciation for protection since the war" is being replaced by appeal for the sharing of responsibility for any obstacles to the alliance. Approaching the halfway point in its tenure, the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun needs to know that the best way to correct any misconception among Americans is to clarify its own attitude toward the United States. Many suspect that top administration leaders have rather maintained an ambiguity on this question perhaps in consideration of the changing sentiment in the electorate. Instead of complaining that anti-Americanism here is exaggerated and that isolated incidents are magnified by the media, they should check out the backlog of what they have said and how they have acted these years.