Bridging the Rift with South Korea

Anti-American feeling is at a record high and shows no signs of abating. What's needed is a calm attempt to work out some very real differences

By Mark L. Clifford

"Americans Not Welcome," read the sign in the window of a downtown Seoul shop during a series of anti-U.S. protests in the South Korean capital recently. It was truly a sign of changing times. Tens of thousands of Koreans turned out for the candlelight vigil in December protesting American military privileges on the peninsula. Some shredded the Stars and Stripes. Club owners have banned GIs as part of growing hostility toward the U.S. In return, some Washington politicians are talking about getting the 37,000 U.S. troops out of the South. Some Americans even want a boycott of South Korean goods.

Relations between Seoul and Washington have been frosty in the two years since President Bush took office. And they're not going to improve soon. Early on, Bush disavowed South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's policy of engagement with the North, making no secret of his visceral dislike of dictator Kim Jong Il.

North Korea was part of Bush's "axis of evil" in last year's State of the Union address. And he used the 2003 address to continue his attacks on North Korea's "Dear Leader." South Koreans, who think accommodation with the North is the only way forward, find Bush's approach abhorrent.


  The U.S.-South Korean alliance has a long history. But it's now in more serious trouble than it has ever been -- and a split may be inevitable. Before that happens, though, both sides need to step back, take some deep breaths, and figure out how to resolve their differences. It's time for some serious thinking -- and serious leadership.

The growing chasm can't be papered over any longer. A December poll of more than 38,000 people in 44 countries conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 44% of South Koreans view the U.S. unfavorably. Nearly three-quarters of Koreans don't believe that Bush's foreign policy considers others, and about the same percentage opposed the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

This was by far the most negative reaction of the 17 Asian and African counties where the question was asked. And it doesn't stop there. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of South Koreans think the spread of American ideas and customs is bad.


  Overall, the percentage of South Koreans holding a generally favorable view of the U.S. slipped to just 53% last year, vs. 58% two years earlier. By way of comparison, 61% of Russians polled view America favorably. This is a startling number for a country that the U.S. regards as a strategic stronghold in the Pacific.

So how to stop this downward spiral?

First, the two sides need to remember what they have in common. Most important, both are democracies. South Korea is a young democracy, but its radicals who were jailed a decade ago are now taking power, thanks to the sort of free and fair election process that the U.S. has long claimed to support. Indeed, in the Pew survey, 58% of those polled liked American ideas about democracy, while only 37% disliked them.

Both the U.S. and South Korea are integral parts of the global market economy. Both are big beneficiaries (albeit in very different ways) of globalization. The U.S. led the record International Monetary Fund bailout that earmarked $58 billion for the Korean economy at the end of 1997. Resented by Koreans at the time, that bailout and the reforms that followed have transformed their economy and made it far more competitive. By Mark L. Clifford


  Thanks in part to these reforms, Korean products from companies such as Samsung and Hyundai are an increasingly competitive threat to Japanese rivals. The Pew survey showed 59% of Koreans liked American ideas about business practices, while 32% opposed them. In line with this, President-Elect Roh Moo Hyun has pledged to step up the pace of economic reform.

Second, Korea's leadership needs to remind its people that their country wouldn't exist were it not for the U.S., which lost 33,000 soldiers in the Korean war. If not for the allied forces that fought the North Koreans and their communist Chinese allies to a standstill in the 1950s, the South would not be one of the industrial powerhouses of the world, a leader in world trade, and a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development.

American troops died fighting for a dirt-poor country that few of them liked and fewer understood. Yet the allied contribution to the war effort is scarcely mentioned in Korea. Tellingly, the war museum in downtown Seoul, a rifle shot from the sprawling U.S. base, makes hardly any mention of this sacrifice. Schools make even less.


  Third, both governments need to articulate why 37,000 U.S. troops are on South Korea soil, at tremendous material and psychic cost to both sides. What are the benefits to this presence? How can the relationship be adjusted to minimize friction?With Seoul just 30 miles from the North's million-man army and its formidable array of biological, chemical, and perhaps nuclear weapons, it's no surprise that the South wants to avoid war at almost any cost. Indeed, for this reason and to preserve stability on the Korean peninsula, South Korea and China are traveling down parallel roads in their approach to this crisis.

The South has plenty of legitimate grievances. U.S. troops occupy an area the size of Central Park in downtown Seoul -- and they are largely immune from South Korean laws. How would Americans like it if Japanese or German or Russian troops occupied Central Park as a garrison and were immune to local or federal prosecution?


  The issue of prosecution isn't just academic. The candlelight vigils I mentioned were protests against the acquittals of two U.S. servicemen who accidentally crushed a pair of South Korean schoolgirls to death while driving in a military vehicle. Under the Status of Forces Agreement, only U.S. authorities could deal with them.

Washington has promised for a decade to move out, but squabbling between it and Seoul has stymied the process. U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Thomas Hubbard says the two sides are going to make this issue a higher priority. They should.

Unfortunately, conflict looks likely to get worse before it gets better. Since September 11, the Bush Administration has embarked on an ambitious agenda of limiting the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons that frightens and angers even some of it allies. If the North is a threat in this regard, the fear in South Korea is that Washington will consider its own interests first.

Of course, Seoul wants to keep a hot war from breaking out, which would result in untold Korean casualties. But if U.S. troops are going to stay, it needs to be on the basis of a more clearlyarticulated policy on both sides -- and on a more equitable basis.

Clifford is Asia bureau manager for BusinessWeek and author of Troubled Tiger: Businessmen, Bureaucrats and Generals in South Korea

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht