By now the world is used to North Korea’s lunacy. We have heard enough of its pompous threats and bizarre ways to determine with great confidence that the North is an economic and psychological basket case. Its neighbor South Korea, on the other hand, has been as sensible as the North is senseless, embracing capitalism and democracy, technology and internationalism, all underwritten by a security guarantee courtesy of the United States. So it is easily the second most disturbing part of the current North Korea crisis, after the prospect of a growing nuclear arsenal in the hands of the world’s most mentally questionable rogue state, that a generation of South Koreans sees the United States as a greater threat than the North.
As Americans we are no longer surprised by gross ingratitude from countries our soldiers have died to defend. The past, after all, is the past. Still, South Korea’s brand of anti-Americanism is beyond the pale. In a Gallup poll taken in December, more South Koreans expressed a positive view of North Korea, a country that sends children to its version of a gulag, than of the United States. The reason is that young South Koreans overwhelmingly blame President Bush for North Korea’s belligerence. Against this nonsense, I should note that North Korea resumed its secret nuclear weapons program within months after concluding the 1994 Agreed Framework with the Clinton administration. For all five years that South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has pursued his “sunshine policy,” a strategy of engagement for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize, North Korean President Kim Jong Il has steadily worked to enrich enough uranium to add to his nuclear stockpile.
Many South Koreans, however, are less concerned with the North’s nukes than with the latest James Bond movie, which many South Koreans say misrepresents North Korea as overly hostile. But how else are we supposed to interpret threats to turn America into a “sea of fire?” My apologies if Americans don’t see the softer side of Stalinism.
In polls and interviews conducted by news agencies, young South Koreans repeat again and again that they are not so worried about a North Korean nuclear bomb, because they don’t think North Korea would ever kill other Koreans. Such an attitude reveals volumes about South Korea’s education system, which can’t seem to teach the lessons of the Korean War and its aftermath: millions of Koreans killed in combat, millions more dead in the North from unnecessary famine and inhuman conditions in concentration camps, not to mention the Cold War litany of bombings, assassinations, and infiltrations against South Korean targets. An attitude of solidarity with their fellow Koreans imprisoned in the North is understandable, even praiseworthy, but real sympathy should inspire an even deeper loathing of the government that is responsible for every additional second the peninsula and the Korean people remain divided.
The situation has deteriorated to the point that American soldiers stationed in South Korea are in more danger from South Korean hooligans than North Korean bullets. Soldiers are regularly cursed, spat on, discriminated against and assaulted for the privilege of leaving their homes and families to serve as sacrificial tripwire in the event of a war. Meanwhile, South Korea reaps billions of dollars in economic benefits from the U.S. military presence in addition to the foreign investment it attracts as a beneficiary of the U.S. security umbrella.
If this kind of attitude were confined to the streets, we could write it off as irritating but harmless rabble rousing. Unfortunately, President-elect Roh Moo-hyun owes his recent electoral victory to anti-American passions. Most infuriating was his offer to mediate between the United States and North Korea, as if the two sides were equally naughty schoolchildren and South Korea a neutral observer.
There is a growing inclination among certain members of Congress and conservative commentators to give the protesters what they want and begin a military withdrawal. South Korea is certainly rich enough to defend itself. But a withdrawal right now would send the wrong signal to North Korea at a particularly sensitive time.
I know of a better idea. American soldiers coming back from abusive tours of duty in South Korea have begun a campaign to boycott South Korean goods. Unlike North Korea, the South is vulnerable to economic pressure, since trade accounts for most of the national economy and the United States is its largest trading partner. A boycott of South Korean goods holds several advantages over troop withdrawals. It’s unofficial, it’s easily reversible and it makes a symbolic point without compromising real security.
Hopefully a boycott will serve as a reminder that nearly everything South Korea has accomplished since it began to claw its way out of some of the world’s worst poverty five decades ago—prosperity, democracy, membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, even a spunky World Cup soccer team—it owes in large part to the United States. Hopefully it will remind them that if they regret these developments, they need only look to their starving brethren in the North.
Ebon Y. Lee ’04 is a government concentrator in Lowell House.
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