U.S.-South Korea Spat Isn't a Split

Michael Breen has worked in South Korea for 20 years as a journalist and a consultant. He is the author of "The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies" (1999, St. Martin's Press).

Early last year, an Australian judge at the Winter Olympics disqualified a South Korean for blocking another skater in a gold medal race. When the gold went to the second skater, an American, the normally pro-American South Koreans boycotted McDonald's and other flagship U.S. brands. Commentators foamed that the entire Olympics were being rigged in favor of the U.S. to soothe the wounds of Sept. 11.

Later in the year, South Koreans went ballistic after a U.S. military court acquitted two American soldiers of negligent homicide in an accident in which their vehicle crushed two girls on a highway. Many, fed by Internet disinformation, thought the deaths were deliberate, and even those who knew they weren't thought the men should be sacrificed to assuage public anger.

The latest James Bond movie is raising temperatures. The fact that the baddie is a Korean, albeit from the communist North, is seen as further proof of U.S. contempt for the peninsula. What to make of all this?

It's obvious that when people get this worked up, there's a bigger underlying issue. There is. The U.S. and South Korea are in a relationship crisis -- with the Koreans saying things they don't mean and the Americans taking them literally. Frankly, they need therapists, not policy wonks, to work through it.

Any therapy should start by recognizing that the U.S. has many wives. South Korea is fed up with being treated like the youngest one in the harem. Europe gets treated special because she's the first wife, Russia because she was hard to woo, China because she's a big woman, Japan because she flutters her eyelids. But South Korea just gets ordered around.

Nowhere is this more manifest than in the military relationship. The main U.S. military base is on a huge piece of real estate in the center of Seoul. Imagine the Mall in Washington as a foreign base. U.S. soldiers face North Korea on the front line in the crucial invasion corridor north of Seoul. In the event of war, the South Korean military would fall under American command.

We might ask, what other major industrial power relies to this extent on foreign power for its defense? But this is not a question you hear from South Koreans. Their gripe lies elsewhere.

Up until the 1980s, when the authoritarian leadership relied on U.S. backing, South Koreans believed in an altruistic U.S. dedicated to South Korean national interest. The fact that in the '70s it was illegal in South Korea to criticize U.S. policy helped sustain this perception.

In the '80s, this view turned on its head when Washington rushed too quickly to accept a new military dictator, and since then it has been widely accepted that the U.S. is in South Korea for U.S. national interests and against South Korean interests. In addition to this misperception, there is the failure to understand that U.S. troops are in South Korea because it is in the shared interest of both nations. The last time the U.S. withdrew, the communist North invaded, sparking a war that left millions dead. U.S. troops have been stationed in the South ever since to deter a second Korean War. South Korea has flourished economically under this protective shield. U.S. presence also helps maintain regional stability.

Both the misperception and the failure are sustained by intellectual cowardice on the part of opinion leaders and politicians who are reluctant to articulate the positive aspects of the alliance and who will not condemn acts of anti-Americanism out of fear of being branded traitors.

They justify this cowardice because they recognize anti-Americanism for what it is: passing emotion. To take it literally is a mistake. Indeed, calls in the U.S. to remove the troops from South Korea because of anti-Americanism have been criticized by activist groups here as a "failure to understand" South Korean sentiment.

Maybe so, but what South Koreans fail to see is that complaining and screaming with impunity at your allies, while being unfailingly polite to foes you are trying to win over, like North Korea, is dishonest and immature. If the U.S. is to treat South Korea as an adult -- and it should -- then South Korea has to grow up and recognize that words and actions have consequences.

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