BY PAUL ECKERT
Leading voices in South Korea called Tuesday for a cooling of the anti-U.S. sentiment that has overshadowed this week's presidential election, warning of a backlash that could hurt Seoul's security and economy. Websites, the media and the street are rife with resentment at South Korea's security ally of 50 years and top trade partner, influencing candidates' stances in Thursday's poll -- a close race which may hinge on how the country's volatile youth vote.
What sparked the upsurge in anti-Americanism was the accidental deaths in June of two girls crushed by a U.S. Army vehicle on a road near the border with North Korea, and a U.S. court martial acquittal of two soldiers involved in the accident. But the anger -- vented in some 50 street rallies that recently have drawn thousands more people than the presidential candidates -- is deep and broad. A recent Pew poll showed South Koreans hold the strongest anti-American views in Asia. Some South Koreans say President Bush's pressure on North Korea over its nuclear arms schemes is more dangerous than the failing communist state itself.
Many resent the high-profile U.S. Army presence, symbolized by a huge base in the heart of Seoul which broadcasts U.S. television on local airwaves and have called for a withdrawal of U.S. troops.
A campaign that has featured flag-burning, profane anti-U.S. rock songs and a threatened boycott of the new James Bond film deemed insulting to Korea took an ugly turn last weekend when knife-wielding local men attacked a U.S. Army officer in Seoul. Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, jumped from behind by three men who had taunted him as he walked home from work, deflected the knife thrust away from his stomach and suffered only a slight cut and bruises. The army imposed a 9.00 p.m. to 5.00 am on troops after the attack.
Sunday's attack on the U.S. Army press officer showed that a "poisonous atmosphere has been spreading like a fad throughout the base of the country's society," South Korea's largest daily newspaper, the conservative Chosun Ilbo, said on Tuesday. The daily sounded a warning that unchecked anti-Americanism would cause the United States to rethink its military ties with South Korea and remove the 37,000 U.S. troops in the country -- a worry voiced by President Kim Dae-jung and business groups. "U.S. troops should continue to remain in Korea. Their necessity is being acutely felt by our armed forces," Kim told South Korean soldiers Monday. South Korea's armed forces number 690,000, the world's sixth largest standing army backed by the world's 12th largest economy.
In addition to intelligence and security provided by the U.S. forces, their removal would force South Korea to hike defense spending, Kim said, adding that: "If the U.S. troops left, foreign investments are feared to follow."
The Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Federation of Korean Industries and three other groups said the anti-U.S. campaign could prompt a boycott of Korean products and endanger the country's $8.9 billion trade surplus with the United States. "Moreover, the escalation of anti-American movements on Korean streets will scare away potential foreign investors from the United States and other Western countries," the lobby groups said in a statement.
Key media and web-based outlets back the anti-U.S campaign. Last week, 100 South Korean photojournalists downed their cameras in a sit-in near the U.S. embassy. A cartoon in the Hankyoreh daily likened the road accident that killed the two girls to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
With street protests swelling, presidential hopefuls have embraced one of the key demands of protests. They have urged revision of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to give South Korean courts more jurisdiction in cases involving U.S. troops. Conservative opposition candidate Lee Hoi-chang, vulnerable because of his long support of close U.S. ties and of Bush's hawkish stance on North Korea, joined one of the candlelit vigils for the girls and signed a petition for SOFA change.
Ruling party candidate Roh Moo-hyun, however, stayed away from the rallies -- reflecting a different perceived liability stemming from his 1980s association with anti-U.S. movements. Roh said his decision showed "prudence and balance." "People's rightful demands must be respected but a leader must control emotions, step back a little and find a realistic and rational way to make changes," Roh said in an interview published in the Korea Times Tuesday.
Kim Hyung-joon, a politics professor at Seoul's Kook-min University, said the biggest policy difference for Washington will be how the next president deals with North Korea. "If Lee gets elected, South Korea and the U.S. will go in the same direction on North Korea, which will make U.S-South Korea relations stronger," Kim said. "If Roh is elected, some officials are concerned that ties between South Korea and the U.S. will sour, reflecting different policies on North Korea."
(From Tue, Dec. 17, 2002)