The Consequences of Language
The moments that clarify this connection are always tragic. The students — all members of the Korean Progressive University Student Union — that broke into the American Ambassador’s residence in Seoul this week, are not the problem.
Once inside they were peaceful enough, but their protest — against Washington’s insistence that Korea pay a larger percentage of the costs for stationing American troops on the peninsula — did speak to something larger than themselves, something less visible and more troubling.
Think about how strange this is for a moment. A peaceful, open and welcoming country is now watching the spectacle of its closest ally battening down its embassy, increasing security measures, and fearful of the ordinarily friendly crowds outside their walls… all due to a fairly parochial economic dispute. Not the kind of thing that ordinarily gets the blood of students hot!
The problem here is language, and its stain across recent memory.
Anti-Americanism, if it is searched for hard enough, runs deep in Korean history. Despite all that American troops fought and sacrificed for in the Korean War, it is still common to hear angry tones on street corners today directed at former-U.S President Harry Truman. His crime? Negotiating a ceasefire and ending the war. In the minds of many Koreans, he betrayed their nation by not pushing on endlessly for an outright victory, and with it reunification.
This could be missed as the grumblings of a now indulgent republic — people who haven’t experienced the horrors of war, complaining about the ‘limited’ sacrifices of those who have; but the grumblings themselves matter.
The anger and betrayal felt by average Koreans towards American tacit support for the authoritarian leaders of their past, and for watershed moments such as the suppression of the Gwangju Uprising, are understandable still today. But if this were all there was, then the Korean Presidential merry-go-round wouldn’t always sound so familiar.
Every country has its rites of political passage, the formalities and hat tipping that is first required before anyone can be plausibly considered for office; even if the expression of this is manufactured and dishonest. Elsewhere often this takes the form of religiosity — in South Korea it is a promise to reclaim operational control over joint military forces, and then to remove American troops altogether from the peninsula.
From the Korean War, through constant low-scale attacks, endless provocations, the Blue House raid, the Rangoon Bombing, the bombing of Korean Airlines Flight 858, the torpedoing of the SS Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, countless missile launches, and a string of nuclear tests, South Korea has always been an insecure state. And that insecurity has always come from across their northern border.
The only cure for this that has ever been found, is an unhappy one for any sovereign people. That is, the placement of foreign troops inside their country.
And yet the sight of these bases, these troops, and the echoes of related political debates and news stories, does something both understandable, and strange, to the Korean mind. Feelings of protection and security run thick with those of infantilism, emasculation and animosity. It is never nice to be reminded that you can’t look after yourself.
Inside the walls of politics this national schizophrenia appears almost comical, with President-after-President coming to power on platforms of reclaiming their lost independence, only to — once elected — delay and obfuscate until their five year term is up; with the cycle then repeating itself over again. On the streets things are a little less innocuous with constant spikes and falls, moments of unexpected and uncontrollable anger, followed immediately by a baseline of friendship, warmth and gratitude.
In 2002, two South Korean school girls were struck and killed by an American armoured vehicle on training manoeuvres. An unhappy accident that involved limited night-time visibility, a blind corner in the road, and the girls listening to music through headphones, that made both drivers and victims unaware of each other until the last possible moment.
The American soldiers were quickly found not guilty and South Korea exploded into a top-heavy rage, with mass protests, boycotts, celebrity bandwagons, and even the firebombing of the Yongsan Garrison in Seoul.
If this could be dismissed as having some justification, then the 2008 protests against American beef were pure conspiracy theory. Street demonstrations started when then-President Lee Myung-bak removed the ban on such imports, but the sentiment had nothing to do with economic protectionism. The million-plus people marching with banners were accusing America — without any basis — of trying to poison them with contaminated meat.
More recently — and mirroring, in some ways, the current moment — was the 2015 knife attack on then-American Ambassador Mark Lippert. His assailant was opposed to the staging of joint American-South Korean military exercises.
And returning to the Yongsan Garrison, after decades of protest against the concentration of foreign troops in, and the presence of a foreign base on, prime real-estate in Seoul, the American military abandoned its home of 73 years and began a staggered relocation to Pyeongtaek in 2018. The crowds in local haunts like Itaewon, now look a lot more Korean, but the once vibrant district is in freefall with the Korea Appraisal Board announcing a surge in commercial vacancies from 3.6 percent to 24.3 percent (This is what the sudden disappearance of 100,000 soldiers, personnel, employees, and their families, will do).
This speaks to something deep in the psyche of the average Korean. They need America, and specifically American troops, to ward off the threat from North Korea, and yet this is so unpalatable to them that certain rituals of atonement are needed. Meaning best friends are hugged close, and denounced as the worst of enemies, at the same time.
But language has reach, it has meaning, it matters; occasionally double-speak just confuses people and careful, delicate, comforting fantasies, are mistaken for reality. If only one person believes the rhetoric an Ambassador is stabbed, a handful and an embassy is stormed, a few thousand and the streets are alive.
The problem is, that on the whole, South Koreans have become accustomed to the idea that Americans understand their charade just as well as they do, and are happy to play along, offer the occasional apology, move the occasional base, and then continue on as if nothing happened; confident in the knowledge that South Korea’s actual record of standing up to America is shockingly poor.
But if this is capable of breaking down from one side — with protest and violence — then it’s capable of breaking down from the other. And this is where the real risks are to be found. We know what happens when Koreans forget — or are taken in by — their own language games here, but not what will happen when an American administration is also; or at the very least tires of being led to symbolic sacrifice.
Before the outbreak of the Korean War, America were all but withdrawn from the peninsula with only 500 advisors left at their posts. A few years later, Richard Nixon pushed for a recalibration of the same variety; two Presidencies later Jimmy Carter tried harder and got closer. Sooner or later it will happen again — and the appearance of real, and sustained, local hostility is only going to make the decision to withdraw that much easier.
At which point there will be overwhelming feelings of relief in Washington, fear in Seoul, and excitement in Pyongyang.