by Charles K. Armstrong
(PNS) -- If the United States and South Korea are increasingly drifting apart, it's mainly because America doesn't want to admit that the Cold War is finally, though belatedly, ending in the Korean Peninsula.
Sixty years ago on Sept. 8, U.S. soldiers in Korea accepted the surrender of Japanese forces, ending World War II and signaling the birth of a special relationship between South Korea and the United States. The alliance would be forged by the founding of a U.S.-backed Republic of Korea, the Korean war of 1950-53 and the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1954. Memories of shared sacrifice and the stationing of tens of thousands of American troops cemented this partnership.
Among South Koreans, however, new critical attitudes toward the U.S. have risen, mainly because of its longstanding military presence and hardline stance toward the North. This sea change is often simplistically portrayed in the Western media as "anti-Americanism." But there's more to it than that.
The loosening of Cold War alignments and the Soviet collapse did not fundamentally alter the mindset that the U.S.-South Korea alliance was part of the defense of "free world" against Communism from the North backed by China and the Soviet Union. Subsequent events have.
In 1998 South Korea floundered in the midst of the Asian financial crisis, dubbed "Korea's worst moment since the Korean War." But the sacrifices demanded by the controversial IMF bailout called into question not only Korea's "miracle economy," but also the benevolence of the United States in assisting its ally.
Shortly before the 50th anniversary of the Korean War, the North's Kim Jong Il and the South's President Kim Dae Jung held an unprecedented summit meeting in Pyongyang. For the first time South Korea's celebrations were marked not by pageantry, but by a subdued recognition of the costs of the war and hopeful messages about ending the division that led to it.
The Kim-Kim summit was hailed as "first steps toward unification." The United States was cool toward Seoul's overtures to Pyongyang. The administration of George W. Bush strongly criticized Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of engagement with the North.
The nadir of the U.S.-ROK relationship came in the winter of 2002-03, when tens of thousands of Koreans joined candlelight vigils calling for U.S. accountability in the deaths of two schoolgirls accidentally killed by American military vehicles.
Bush's belligerence toward North Korea, and the war in Iraq worsened South Koreans' ambivalence toward the United States. Many saw Iraq as a chilling precedent for an attack on North Korea, which President Bush tagged with Iraq and Iran as part of an "axis of evil."
South Korea was overwhelmingly pro-American a generation earlier, but statistics now reflect a sharp change of attitude. A December 2002 poll by the Joongang Ilbo newspaper showed that 36 percent of South Koreans viewed the United States unfavorably, only 13 percent favorably and 50 percent were neutral. There were striking differences according to age: only in the over-50 age group did the majority express a favorable opinion; 62 percent of South Koreans in their 20s, and 72 percent in their 30s, wanted to restructure the U.S.-ROK alliance to make it more equal.
Sixty years after liberation from Japanese colonialism, the "386" generation (Koreans in their 30s, university-educated in the 1980s and born in the 1960s) had risen. It came of age in the era of democratic protest, when criticism of the authoritarian ROK regimes and of the Americans who had backed them went hand-in-hand.
With the rise of this younger generation came the decline in influence of the conservative and reflexively pro-U.S. political establishment that had dominated South Korean politics since the defeat of Japan. While conservative influence is by no means insignificant, it seems unlikely that a simplistic "pro-Americanism" will ever return to dominance in South Korea.
The growth of a vocal and critical civil society also has upset ruling political ideas. Investigation commissions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have initiated re-examinations of historical events, such as various aspects of the Japanese colonial period, as well as events where the United States directly or indirectly played a role -- the Kwangju Massacre of 1980; the bloody suppression of the Cheju Island uprising in April 1948; missing persons from the period of military rule, and so on.
Significantly, investigators are probing not only the role of the United States, but also of the former ROK government and citizens. Citizens' activism and participatory democracy have become part of the political landscape and everyday vocabulary of today's South Korea. The explosive growth of NGOs, many critical of the United States, been greatly facilitated by the Internet and what Koreans call "netizens." South Korea ranks among the highest in the world in Internet usage.
As South Koreans' sense of affinity with the United States declines, a strong turn toward Asia -- especially China but also, in complex ways, Japan -- is emerging. China has replaced the United States as South Korea's largest trading partner. More Korean students now study in China than in America. South Korean popular culture has become all the rage in Japan, China and Southeast Asia, while Japanese culture -- long banned by the South Korean government -- has taken off in Korea.
Today, there are many differences within the South on how to deal with the North. But there's a growing consensus that North-South cooperation is beneficial to both sides, that gradual reunification is preferable to the sudden collapse and absorption of North Korea by the ROK and that it's better to change the North's undesirable behavior by persuasion than by coercion.
Such views are broadly shared across the political spectrum in South Korea, including the conservative Grand National Party. The Bush administration's approach to the North creates great unease in the South. When one hears that Korea is the last outpost of the Cold War, it may be true only for Americans. For a growing number of South Koreans, their Cold War is already over.
November 19, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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