Everything counts in small amounts

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

One Woman's Deep Ambivalence

The cross-section of newspaper coverage outlined in “A Survey of Korean Sentiment” seems pretty representative of general Korean attitudes. Naturally the public holds a diverse range of opinions regarding the issue. But what is more interesting to me is that the same person often expresses these contradictory, apparently mutually exclusive views. For me this gets at what is at once fascinating and intensely frustrating about South Korean attitudes toward the United States. They are extremely ambivalent. A story to illustrate my point:

The other day my Media and International Relations class took a school-sponsored trip to talk to U.S. Ambassador to Korea, Thomas Hubbard. It was a complete waste of time. The guy’s diplomatic concerns had him so tied in knots it distorted everything he said. I asked him at one point if the story in that morning’s JoongAng Daily that the United States requested the South Korean government keep the U.S. troop movement secret was true. And, if it was, why did the American Government make the request? He simply said it was not true and explained that there were mitigating circumstances that he did not want to go into. He offered no explanation why the Chosun Ilbo, the JoongAng Daily, and an unnamed source in the Roh administration were claiming otherwise.

At another point, he was asked if the U.S. decision to re-deploy troops from South Korea to Iraq was a tacit acknowledgement that the war in Iraq was going badly. He totally dodged the question and went into a longwinded talk about how the United States had consulted with South Korea before the move.

Later, another student asked what the U.S. Government was doing to address the rising anti-American sentiment in among South Koreas. Hubbard quipped, “This is it,” indicating the talk we were attending with Korean and foreign students from Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies. This got me thinking. The talk was a perfect example of why anti-American sentiment is so strong in South Korea. Most of the Americans Koreans see are bureaucrats like Hubbard or drunk GIs. This talk was an grand misdirection of time and resources. Hubbard is a top-ranking diplomat. He couldn’t really have a serious conversation with the Korean students in attendance. He is bound to contradict official U.S. policy lines in doing so. The Korean students knew that and basically stopped listening. But, more importantly it once again reinforced their stereotypical notions of American arrogance, uncaring, and cluelessness. The Korean students in the audience knew they were not going to get any honest answers. We were all just going through the motions: tossing Hubbard softballs and him lamely hitting them back to us.

If the U.S. Government really wanted to deal with anti-American sentiment in Korea, the best way to do it would be to find some halfway-intelligent GIs and train them to talk to South Koreas. Because of their position, they could talk to the public more openly. But, most importantly they would pose real, human faces against some of the ridiculous stereotypes floating around about Americans in general and enlisted specifically. Sending the U.S. Ambassador out to do this kind of work is a lost cause and a huge waste of resources.

My thoughts were partially confirmed when I got back on the bus to return to school. I overheard the Korean student in the seat across from me espousing a vague conspiracy theory regarding the U.S. troop redeployment to Iraq. It went something like this: “I’m sure the U.S. is just doing it to pressure Korea into dispatching the troops to Iraq quicker. I mean there are plenty of other places they could have found 3,000 soldiers. How come they didn’t take any troops from Japan? Why are they just taking them from Korea?”

When she fell silent, I asked her why she didn’t ask the Ambassador those questions. She said basically what I suspected: “You saw how he was answering the questions. He wouldn’t answer me.” I agreed. She asked me if I thought the troop redeployment was meant to pressure Korea into dispatching troops to Iraq quicker. I told her I didn’t know. But, I tended to doubt it. I had read the move was more likely the start of the U.S. Military’s global repositioning to effectively fight terrorism. I recounted a story to her about a Colonel that attended Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies last year. He was involved in the Status of Forces talks between South Korea and the United States and repeatedly claimed that the U.S. Military would flatly state it did not need to be in on the peninsula whenever it did not get what it wanted from the South Korean Government. Japan was the first priority; Korea was the second. I never knew how much of this was a negotiating ploy, but I thought there was some truth to the statement.

The women’s reaction was really interesting. She immediately became contemplative. First, she asked me if I thought the U.S. Military hated Koreans. I told her I never got that sense from my Colonel friend or any other enlisted. Honestly, I did not think they gave average Koreans a lot of thought. The Colonel seemed more focused on the Korean Government than its people. Next, she told me that she thought younger Koreas were “brainwashed” into focusing on the U.S. Military’s atrocities. She mentioned campus exhibitions depicting gruesome crimes committed by GIs and stories of crimes her senior classmates told her. She claimed she liked Americans and had many American friends. Then in the next breath she said, “I do think the United States sends the worst soldiers to Korea — the most stupid and violent ones.” And, again she switched. “Do you think Korean people have a reason to be angry at the U.S. Military?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. “In some cases they have done very little or nothing to solders who have committed crimes against Koreans.” The bus stopped, our conversation ended, and we all got off.

So there it is in a nutshell. Conflict, ambivalence, hate, love all mixed into one. Personally, I think all the American troops should go to Japan and South Korea should defend itself. Korea has gotten a free ride for too long. It’s time the country took care of itself. Not having the U.S. to blame will force the society to look inward for a change and do some useful soul searching. I suspect that after 5 to 10 years, South Koreas will start to talk about the mythical “good old days” when the American troops were here — a time that never existed.


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