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The Rise of Anti-Americanism in South Korea
Professor Young Shik Lee

The Rise of Anti-Americanism in South Korea

Korean Fulbright scholar tells Honors Collegium when things went wrong in the postwar friendship between South Korea and the United States.

Leslie Evans Email LeslieEvans

It was in 1980, he said, when the troops of South Korea's new dictator, Lieutenant General Chun Doo Hwan, opened fire on student protestors in the city of Kwangju. Before then, "we were all told to look on America as a savior country for Korea." But the Korean troops in Kwangju in May 1980 were supposed to be under joint command of the American forces in South Korea. "People began to conclude that Korea was not only assisted but also maneuvered by the United States."

The speaker was Young Shik Lee, a professor of English Language Education at Hannam University, Taejon, South Korea. He is here in Los Angeles as a Fulbright scholar. His audience was a group of undergraduates taking a Fiat Lux Honors Collegium seminar. The course is titled "Perceptions of America from Abroad: Discussions with Visiting Fulbright Scholars," taught by Ann Zwicker Kerr, Fulbright Coordinator for Southern California, whose program is housed at the UCLA International Institute.

Lee spoke as an informed citizen, not as a political scientist. "But I can reflect my own experience and view of America."

If Americans often have trouble distinguishing Koreans from Chinese and Japanese, Koreans, he said, have the same problem in reverse. "Very often all westerners in Korea are viewed as Americans. British, Canadians, Australians; Korean children see most westerners in Korea as Americans."

A Reservoir of Good Will toward the United States

"After the Second World War, and especially after the Korean War," Lee said, "America was viewed as the savior country, that saved Korea. Korea was colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945. It became independent after the Second World War. Many people sacrificed their lives in the struggles against Japanese colonialism. Korea was very grateful, especially after the Korean War, in which North Korea, supported by the Russians, invaded South Korea, leading to a three year civil war, June 25, 1950, to July 1953. America sent troops and many Americans died in the war in the 1950s. They helped Korea a lot, and after the war provided a lot of economic aid to Korea."

In the 1960s, the Republic of Korea sent troops to fight on the American side in the Vietnam War. "It was generally thought that all things American were very good, American cars and other goods."

South Korea's first president after independence, Dr. Syngman Rhee, who held office from 1948 to 1960, was "selected by the Americans," Lee said. He was eventually driven out of office by student demonstrations, and succeeded by a weak government.

"The military was unhappy and organized a secret military coup d'etat led by young general Park Chung Hee. Because conditions were bad, people initially favored the military leadership. The coup was May 16, 1961. People called it a revolution but it was a coup d'etat."

In Young Shik Lee's view, the Park military government was fairly popular for many years, although his standing began to decline in the early 1970s. "Park Chung Hee had the key role in changing Koreans view of America." Park undertook aggressive economic reform in the 1960s. "Korea used to be even poorer than Burma and the Philippines. Under Park there was a great deal of construction."

According to the constitution, Park was to be limited to two four-year terms. In 1972 he succeeded in passing a national referendum amending the constitution to permit a third term. In that election he was opposed by a prominent opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung.

"Park won the election but his popularity was not so strong. One year later he made a constitution change that made him president for life, now through an indirect election in which the people did not have the right to vote. This caused a lot of opposition. Economic reform was still going on, so many people still supported Park." Park campaigned on the claim that economic reform had to be the primary concern.

During the 1970s "there were many cases of human rights violations, torture of people, many missing. Many of the elite chose to leave and come to the United States, fleeing the Park government. Before this Korean relations with the United States were romantic. The Korean people unilaterally loved America. During the 1970s the Korean political system was a dictatorship."

Under the Jimmy Carter administration Washington was more critical of dictatorial regimes, "so a breach appeared between the Korean and American governments. Many Korean people who were oppressed by the government of President Park Chung Hee yearned for America, so the population still were pro-American while the government was distanced."

Park Chung Hee was assassinated on October 29, 1979, by his protege, the head of the Korean security services. "This was followed by expectations of a revival of democracy. People like Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam became popular. There were mass demonstrations by students who wanted to have democracy. Then came a new military coup, December 12, 1979, the December 12 event." Power was seized by Chun Doo Hwan, a two-star general.

"At that time I was a soldier. I was worried that I would be ordered to kill my younger brothers, the students. This dictatorial government mobilized tanks and carried out a massacre of more than 2,000 people in Kwangju simply because they had peaceful demonstrations on the street against the dictatorship. This was the Kwangju massacre. Kim Dae Jung represented the southwest area, South Cholla province, where the city of Kwangju is located, the area that was being repressed. Kim was exiled to America." The new dictatorship lasted until 1988.

"Who was responsible for the massacre of the Kwangju people? Many people started to think about this. One young boy ran a campaign saying that America was responsible for the Kwangju massacre. He set the American cultural center in Pusan on fire. He was tried and said in his trial that he set the fire because America supported the dictatorial government and instigated the massacre of the Kwangju people. Koreans began to ask and think, did Americans really do this terrible thing to the Korean people? There was no freedom of speech at that time but these discussions took place. The fire in Pusan was in 1983. It was followed by growing demonstrations and resistance. One linguistics student was arrested and tortured to death."

Around 1987 opposition to the government peaked. "It grew into mass civil resistance, resulting in the revision of the constitution permitting the Korean people to elect their president again. The two opposition leaders became very prominent: Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, both of whom were later to become president."

Effect of the Soviet Collapse on the Korean Peninsula

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had an unexpected impact on South Korea. It significantly reduced fear of the North Korean communist state. "Russia could no longer control North Korea, which led to its being looked on differently than before by people in the South. People began to conclude that [South] Korea was not only assisted but also maneuvered by the United States. The U.S.-supported candidate was defeated. The United States had supported the dictatorship in Korea and helped them to oppress the Korean people."

A discussion began of who is responsible for the division on the Korean peninsula. "After World War II the country was divided in two. The two sides could not communicate at all. Only recently have people been able to send letters and be able to communicate. Who was really responsible for the division? Maybe Russia and the U.S. had a secret agreement to divide Korea. Also North Korea was the worst enemy of the South Koreans. This was taught for many years. I was taught this. But why do we have to hate the North Koreans? We are the same people with the same language. People began to change their views, change their minds. They became more critical of the Americans. After Park Chung Hee many lay people began to think differently about the Americans."

Professor Lee also pointed to misbehavior by American soldiers in Korea. "Last year an American tank driver killed two young girls from middle schools. The American authorities did not make proper apologies, but tried to treat it as just another traffic accident. This raised a lot of bad feeling among Korean young people. This helped Roh Moo Hyun  to win the recent election." The new critical attitude toward Washington was epitomized, Lee said, when a famous broadcast news announcer said on the air last October that it was a shame to see demonstrators outside an American air base. "She was then forced to resign."

Another issue is sovereignty. "To move Korean troops on the peninsula requires approval from the American command. The Americans have effective command over the Korean troops. This leads many young people to say that Korea is a colony of America. The Americans also do artillery target practice in Korean fields. People ask why they do this in Korea and not at home in America? Many older people still look on North Korea as an enemy. Many younger people have shifted to be friendly to the North and critical of the Americans."

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