Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Why do Koreans Complain about U.S. Military in Korea?

Dear Korean,

Why do Koreans complain about the U.S. military force in Korea?

GI Korea

Dear GI Korea,

Allow the Korean first to express his admiration for your blog, ROK Drop. The Korean has been looking forward to this cross-posting for some time.

No matter what the detractors of U.S. military in Korea may say, when push comes to shove, one fact is clear: the presence of American military, overall, is undoubtedly beneficial for Korea.

There is some debate as to whether South Korean military can defeat North Korean military on its own. North Korean military leads in traditional measures of military strength (e.g. number of infantry, etc.) but South Korean military is clearly superior in the technology of their weapons. However, that assumes a war actually occurring, inevitably costing thousands or millions of lives. On the other hand, there is no debate that the presence of American forces serves as a strong deterrent, preventing a war from actually occurring. While peaceful unification would be the most ideal option – please, do not pick fights with the Korean on this topic, since he will address this question some other day – the next best thing would be to avoid a war, and U.S. military is certainly serving that purpose.

This is on top of the fact that if American military did not intervene in 1950, the entire Korean peninsula, rather than the northern half, would be experiencing sustained destitution, famine, and totalitarian dictatorship that daily displays its failure.

The economic miracle that catapulted South Korea into relevance in world economics and politics can be credited to the talent and hard work of South Koreans themselves, which fortuitously converged with favorable international circumstances. However, the credit of enabling South Korea to build a strong economy within half a century must go entirely to the United States. Detractors are free to argue that U.S. acted entirely out of self-interest in helping South Korea, but the Korean does not think the motivation matters. American military freed South Korea from communist dictatorship, and for that South Koreans must be grateful.

Nonetheless, there is no question that many Koreans bitterly complain about the presence of U.S. military presence in Korea. These are some of the areas in which Koreans tend to complain:

The perceived inequality in Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)
: SOFA is the treaty that defines the status of the American military within Korea, and many Koreans believe that it is an unfair treaty in various respects. Complaint against SOFA is the umbrella complaint for all complaints.

Land use of American forces: The real estate market in Seoul is absolutely nuts; in choice neighborhoods, prices can easily surpass Manhattan real estate. Therefore, the fact that U.S. military takes up a large piece of prime real estate in the middle of Seoul (Yongsan) without paying any rent does not sit well with many Koreans.

Pollution Issue: Also, when the U.S. military is done with the use of Korean land as a base, there are serious cases of pollution at times. The Korean discussed this issue previously.

Crime by GIs: American military personnel are often implicated in crimes in Korea. Some of the crimes are quite horrific. The most often cited example is a murder of Yoon Geum-Yi by Pvt. Kenneth Lee Markle in 1992. Yoon was a hostess at a club who had known Markle previously. Markle found out Yoon was with another man the night before, and the argument escalated into murder. Yoon was discovered naked with her head bashed in with beer bottles. She had been sodomized with a coke bottle and an umbrella, which were discovered still stuck in her body. While it is incorrect to say crimes by American soldiers are rampant, such crimes, when they do happen, tend to grab Korean people’s attention, much like the way crimes by illegal immigrants (i.e. the perceived “other”) grab the attention of Americans.

Also, while GI criminals would either face court-marshal by the U.S. forces or civilian trial in Korean courts depending on the circumstances in which they committed the crime, the general impression of Koreans is that GI criminals are court-marshaled and receive a slap in the wrist for the crimes. This sentiment was particularly in display in 2002, when two Korean middle school girls were run over by a U.S. armored vehicle, and the soldiers who were operating the vehicle were acquitted in the American military court.

So the question is: why do Koreans complain about American forces in Korea this way, although American military is the one that enabled Koreans to live the current prosperous life?

The Korean can go on and explain why Korean people are justified to think this way on each individual issue, as a parallel to what GI Korea has done at his blog, explaining why these complaints by Koreans are myths. But the Korean thinks there is a more fundamental cause that ties all the issues above; unless that cause is addressed, it is pointless to address each individual manifestation of the cause.

What, then, is the fundamental cause? It is the changing nature of Korean nationalism.

The Korean already explained Korea’s nationalism here. This part is worth rehashing:

“It is crucial to understand that in the worldview of a nationalist, each and every person in the world operates as a member of a team called "United States of America", "Brazil", "Thailand", "South Africa", "France", etc. And each team are striving to outdo one another in a giant world race for power, be it economic, political, social, cultural or any other type one can think of.”

This mentality applies to both older and younger Koreans, but America’s position within this Korean mentality depends heavily on the versions of history to which a Korean may subscribe. For older Koreans, America is a friend and an ally in the great race of nations. The good graces that U.S. military has earned during the Korean War still hold value among older Koreans, who vividly remember the American forces saving the day. To this day, the easiest way for any homeless man in America to get $20 from the Korean Mother is to say “I fought in the Korean War.” Koreans of the Korean War-generation essentially elevated America to the pedestal of sainthood, a country that is purely motivated by altruistic concerns that can do no wrong.

However, the picture becomes drastically different with respect to younger Koreans, usually in their 20s~30s. Again, one must remember that younger Koreans grew up in a drastically different world from older Koreans. They had never seen the destruction of war. Their country was never desperately, starvingly poor. Instead, younger Koreans had seen their country rising to the forefront of world economy, exerting influence that it never before had.

With this new status of Korea, younger Koreans decidedly departed from their elders’ view of America. Unlike (or perhaps, because of) older Koreans’ unquestioned devotion toward the U.S., they viewed American foreign policy with critical eyes, pouncing on every instance in which U.S. displayed anything less than altruism. In fact, many young Koreans have swung to the completely opposite direction from their elders; they are convinced that America will only act out of self-interest, and it would stop at nothing to that end.

In other words, younger Koreans no longer believe that America is an ally in the race of nations. It is another competitor, just like the rest of the world. In fact, it is the most formidable competitor of all, with its vast resources, Herculean economy (even accounting for the recent mess), pervasive cultural power, and towering military strength. Because of America’s superior position in this world-race, younger Koreans observe the U.S. with deep suspicion.

Korean people’s complaint about U.S. military presence is but a symptom of a greater illness: America’s image as a competitor, not an ally. When there is a generalized image problem against America, the U.S. military presence provides the closest and easiest target for those Koreans who have a grudge against America. After all, U.S. military is a physical reminder that America exerts a huge influence over Korea. Nationalistic Koreans do not take kindly to that type of influence, and even the smallest offense by the U.S. military is enough to set them off.

To be sure, Koreans who subscribe to truly virulent anti-Americanism are few in number. Even the new generation of nationalist Koreans does not hate anything and everything about America. Indeed, the opposite is true: American products continue to sell briskly, tourism and study abroad in America are ever increasing, and latest Korean fashion is dictated by the trend shown in American television shows.

However, the new form of nationalism adds a vague fear in an average Korean person’s mind; the fear that, given the right chance, America will take advantage of Korea. Therefore, whenever there is any hint that American military has an unfair advantage in Korea, the most ardent anti-Americanists would use it as a fodder for the fear to flame up into a wide-scale display of anti-Americanism. They expertly distort the truth to sensationalize anything that can be used against the U.S., appealing to the general mass’ vague concern about American influence over Korea. Sometimes their efforts are successful. They succeeded in provoking the mass protests in response to the armored vehicle incident, and against U.S. beef imports to a lesser extent.

An addendum to this point: The Korean does not intend to validate those Koreans who subscribe to virulent anti-Americanism. However, the Korean has to note the appalling incompetence of the U.S. military and the Department of State with respect to handling this type of occurrences. The Korean would not comment on the War in Iraq, except only to say that it generally soured the world’s opinion on the U.S., including Korean people’s opinion. But even without going into America’s grand scheme of foreign relations, time and again the decision-makers of American foreign policy (including the State Department and the military) display a complete neglect towards effort to capture the hearts and minds of their actual and potential allies.

It frustrates the Korean to see so many Koreans believe in lies and distortions about America. But it frustrates the Korean more that many Americans, even the most intelligent and powerful among them, seem to be completely oblivious as to why these lies and distortions work. American foreign policy – military policy included – appears to march to its own drumbeat, regardless of how things may look. Instead of trying to understand the nationalistic fervor that grips most of the world, too many Americans simply fret when they encounter anti-Americanism fueled by lies and distortion, resorting to such idiotic statements like “they hate America because they hate freedom.”

In the meantime, gross falsehood about America gains increasing currency in the rest of the world. New York Times reported that in Egypt, the idea that American government is behind the attacks of 9/11 passes as a conventional wisdom. Why would they believe the crazy notion that American government would kill 3,000 of its own people? Because they hate freedom? Give the Korean a break.

As Americans, it is not enough for us to complain about what people of the world think of us; we should be asking ourselves why they think of America that way, and what we can do to change that perception. United States is the greatest exporter of culture in the world. No other country can hope to rival America with its ability to persuade people through mass media. American companies employ the most sophisticated methods to persuade people to buy all kinds of crap. Then why is it so hard for the State Department and the U.S. military stationed abroad to use the same methods? Why is it so hard to have offices that are dedicated to directly engaging the local media and people, and sell America? You are telling the Korean that America can sell Coca-Cola to Egypt, but not the silly idea that America would not kill 3,000 of its own people just to start a crusade against the Middle East?

Destroying the enemy is necessary, but never sufficient. Unless we also win the hearts of the people of the world, there will never be a complete victory in such a diffuse war as War on Terror. Americans must recognize that the battlefield is not only in the streets of Baghdad, the obstruction not only in the mountains of Afghanistan; there is another battlefield in the hearts and minds of every person in the world, and we must handle at the obstructions of lies and half-truths as much as we negotiate the treacherous mountains.

The Korean is aiming this toward the American policy in conducting the global War on Terror, but engaging the hearts and minds of the people has a universal application, which includes Korea. Korean nationalism is not going away soon, but Koreans deep down recognize the benefits of the protection afforded by the American military. If the U.S. forces in Korea can find a way to engage Korean people in a sophisticated manner – emphasis on “sophisticated”, not in the ham-handed way government people tend to act – complaints against American military presence would be minimal. (See, for example, an excellent analysis from ROK Drop about the lessons learned from the Armored Car Incident.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Ask away at askakorean@hotmail.com.


  1. Uh... If I'm not mistaken, the question is posed by GI "in" Korea,and not GI Korea of the ROK Drop fame.

  2. Who asked the question is nice to know but not that important. I think this is one of the most well articulated post I have read lately. Not just about Korea, but about US perception and perception of the USA and of Americans by the the rest of the world.

  3. peter, you are right. Corrections are made.

    alphast, thank you for the kind words.

  4. " American companies employ the most sophisticated methods to persuade people to buy all kinds of crap. Then why is it so hard for the State Department and the U.S. military stationed abroad to use the same methods? "

    When Coca-cola is advertising in Egypt, the ad is placed by an Egyptian distributor for Coke that stands to gain from Coke's success.

    If the U.S. Government were to do as you suggest and "use the same methods", that wouldn't be considered advertising, it would be rightly called "propaganda".

    I can't say what programs U.S. Embassies use for promoting the U.S. in foreign countries, but I know firsthand that the U.S. Military has many programs to interact with local communities around military bases. Here in Korea I've seen the military outreach to the Korean community by supporting Habitat for Humanity, Adopt-a-School programs, Korean-American friendship days, and so forth. But rarely do those efforts get a mention in the Korean press.

  5. les,

    You are absolutely correct -- USFK does all those wonderful things, and they deserve more press coverage. But reality is that they don't. We should be asking why that is not happening, and improve those programs from the PR perspective.

  6. I don't know about the case in Korea. But here in my country [Philippines], I perceive Americans as opportunistic people. They act themselves as people who are willing to help us in times of trouble, and yet, I believe that we, Filipinos, weren't able to know that they were controlling our country -- our economy, our government, and even our culture.

    There was even a case that an American raped a Filipina. And our government was so lenient that it let that American escape our law. Of course, "we" must be "grateful" that these Americans are helping us. I think Americans are more of a trouble than help. Oh~ destructive and violent wars are not anymore effective in conquering a country.

    If a powerful county would use violent means to conquer (or let's say, "control" a country), then that powerful country would meet many criticisms from all over the world. The new trend now to control countries is to silently influence their culture, their belief, their traditions. Powerful countries pretend that they are of big help to small nations. However, one cannot really erase the fact that there are some hidden interests behind this offered help.

    I totally love Korea and I hope this will not happen to your country.

  7. Bravo, The Korean! This is one of the most balanced and complete discussions of anti-Americanism in Korea that I have seen. You have the ability see from two angles at once. Great job.

  8. Why do koreans tend to own doughnut shops and Cleaners across the US?

  9. Very intresting article. I'm from Canada and my mother has visited Korea due to her political position. She said that the Korean politicians had spoke frequently about Canada's roll in the Korean war, they also took her to the Canadian Korean War Memorial Garden.


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