Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Katherine Moon, Jane Bishop Associate Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College, discussed the history of the United States-South Korea military alliance and outlined reasons for the recent rise in anti-American sentiment among South Koreans. She credits the concentrated juice mix known as Tang with the creation of the old awe of America amongst Koreans and blames a misuse of history, recent political changes, and transnational activism for its end.
Moon opened with a pair of stories that illustrated the changes. She talked of her father, upon coming to America, naming himself after Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the man who led U.s. forces in the Korean War and became a hero to South Koreans for helping them avoid Communist takeover. Fast forward about 40 years to just recently, when a cousin of Moon’s wanted to name her child Joe, giving him the full name of “Joe Li”. But this was shot down by other family members who said that “Joe Li” sounded like “Sholi”. After several confused phone calls, Moon finally determined that “Sholi” was a Korean interpretation of “Shorty”, the name that American GI’s stationed in Korea would use to describe the locals. In just a few years, the Americans had gone from heroes to namecallers and worse.
She then described some of the history of the US’s involvement in South Korea since the Korean War. Despite the “savior” nature of the Americans in the beginning, the war left personal scars that have never really went away. Families were divided by the establishment of the 28th parallel and even intact families came to resent the American involvement on some level. Lately, as the Americans have proven to be somewhat less than heroic, more problems have ensued. There have been issues with soldiers using local women as prostitutes, and there was a huge uproar after America showed no remorse after two young Korean girls were run over by an American tank. The tank incident caused several large demonstrations, and some have seen the recent removal of 15,000 American troops from the country as punishment. Donald Rumsfeld, for his part, says that the troop removal is merely part of a reevaluation of the U.S.’s role in the world.
Moon noted that a lack of understanding of Korean history has made the anti-American sympathies seem more sudden than they really are. Even when things were going well, she said, there was some dislike of America lying under the surface. This dislike has been brought out by the second important cause of the sentiments: democratization and decentralization in South Korea. As citizens have become more empowered, they have become more willing to express displeasure with the existing (American) power structure. Lastly, the worldwide movement towards anti-Americanism has brought out such feelings in South Korea. Koreans have learned, said Moon, from anti-Americans in Japan, the Phillipines, Australia, and even Puerto Rico.
In conclusion, Moon stated that the U.S. and South Korea have been out of sync for many years and it the problems inherent to such a situation are only now beginning to show themselves. To recreate a productive relationship, the U.S. needs to leave the past behind and realize that the dynamic of its relation with South Korea and the Korean nation as a whole has changed forever. We talk a lot about the need for democracy to spread; now, we need to show that we mean what we say.