So it’s been a week since the US ambassador to Korea got attacked, and the consensus here is pretty much that he is a lonely nutball who drank too much Nork kool-aid. The South Korean police are investigating to see if he is connected to North Korea in any meaningful way. Apparently he went there a few times, but I find it highly unlikely that actually acted on orders or training he got in Pyongyang. The NK regime is not that suicidal, as an open attack on the US ambassador might well precipitate a US counter-strike.
I think it is pretty important to note that while lots of Koreans on the left are uncomfortable with the US presence and have even protested it (such as the candlelight vigils back in 2008), the mainstream Korean left does not call for anti-American violence or physical harm of Americans. The SK left may be too pro-Pyongyang – which is a big reason it keep losing elections; it really needs a Tony Blair/Bill Clinton-style centrist reformation – but its definitely not violent or revolutionary.
So forget about Kim – he’s likely more a loon than a revolutionary. Little will change.
The piece after the jump was originally written for the Lowy Interpreter here.
Around 7:40 am (KST), the US ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was attacked at a breakfast on Korean unification. His attacker, Kim Ki Jong, slashed Lippert’s face and wrist. Lippert was taken to a hospital for surgery. Kim is a member of two nationalist groups – one regarding national unification, the other concerning Dokdo. The attack, Kim said, was a protest against the current South Korean-US military exercise, Key Resolve. Not surprisingly, the attack has dominated the South Korea news all day. A few quick points are in order:
1. Kim does not represent anything like majority opinion in South Korea on the alliance with the United States.
Anti-Americanism in Korea is an issue, but not a large one. It tends to come in waves and is often the result of elite political manipulation. The largest recent outburst was in 2007-08 over US beef imports. A rumor spread in South Korea that US beef was contaminated by mad cow disease, and this catalyzed a groundswell of candlelight vigils in the streets against a US-Korean free-trade deal at the time. But it was also widely noted that Korean left-wing parties emphasized the American connection to help their political opposition to both a conservative president they dislike (Lee Myung-Bak) and trade deal their voters opposed. Similarly, when Roh Moo-Hyun ran for president (2002), he explicitly ran against the US, but that helped him get elected. He did actually not move to expel US Forces Korea. Since Roh, Korea has elected two pro-American conservatives in a row. In fact, part of Kim’s anger may be how unresponsive the Korean political system actually is to popular anti-Americanism.
2. South Korean left-wing parties do not endorse direct action against US personnel in the Korea.
Koreans of all parties are very nationalistic, but the South Korean right, which one would assume to be more so, is actually not. The South Korean right supports a tough line against the North and American tie, which means it is often labelled ‘internationalist.’ It is the left that is more traditionally nationalistic: sympathetic to unconditional unification and blaming the Americans (and Japanese) for national division. These topsy-turvy political categories generate a lot of political confusion, but it is important to note that Korea’s democratic left does not endorse violent action against the Americans. Recently, a radical, left-wing, pro-Northern party was broken up by the government in part over the issue of violence against the ‘occupation.’
3. North Korea almost certainly had nothing to do with it.
North Korea would be very foolish to attack such a high-profile American target. North Korea, for all its bellicose rhetoric, does not want war. They would lose. But more importantly for the Pyongyang gangster elite that runs the country, they would lose all their illicit privileges. Not only that, they would likely be hunted down by angry North Koreans, as happened to Gaddafi and Ceaușescu, or be pulled before post-unification courts. And South Korea has still has the death penalty, likely for this very contingency.
The South Korean-US alliance has whether ups-and-downs for decades. If Kim is the lone wolf he seems to be, the only real fall-out will likely be greater security on US officials in Korea. That will make it harder for regular South Koreans to meet them – and that is a shame.
I definitely agree with mr. Kelly. You are right in your analysis. Though I consider myself to be ‘lefty’, I’ve never have felt animosity towards USA or Americans in general. Instead, I believe that American democracy is still an inspiration for the “left” in Korea (really, many of us, supporters of the left, want a more liberal and democratic society for Korea following the creeds of the founding fathers)
But there is something which I would like to comment on Mr. Kelly’s views. “Popular Anti-Americanism” is virtually nonexistent in SK. During the 80’s maybe there was. But that was more the result of a failure from the part of the US to prevent the massacre which happened at Kwangju (of course, I know the US could not have possibly prevented that from happening since that would have been a violation of SK’s sovereignty. However, student activist who were inspired with ideals of democracy didn’t think that way and they came to perceive America as an accomplice of the homicides). Getting back to the issue of 2008 protests, which I myself was an active participant, it had very little to do with something inherently anti-american. In fact, the reason why so many people gathered to the streets was mainly because of Lee’s dictator-like behavior and his violent response to the protests (a degree of violence unseen since the democratization of SK in 1987).
In general, anti-Americanism is not and cannot be a political force of any significant degree. The absolute majority of South Koreans have favorable views toward the US and the Left (save for the few pro-pyongyang extremists) also acknowledge the importance and the indispensability of the KOR-US alliance. However, the conservatives in SK are eager to exploit the situation by unjustly accusing the left of being “anti-american” and “pro-pyongyang”, or even worse, of being “traitors.” This is some kind of “McCarthyism” to its extreme.
Indeed, there are some few who are really attracted to Pyongyang and crazy enough to believe everything NK says. But delusional people exist everywhere, including the most advanced western societies. They should be treated as such. They are not a political force worth of attention. Our legal authorities have sufficient power and resources to handle them. However, the same authorities should not be used against ordinary citizens who do have different views from the government. I think this is the greater issue here.
I’m unconvinced that anti-Americanism has played so small a role in Korean politics. I can recall the furious demonstrations against the US forces after their accidental killing of schoolchildren with a tank in 2002, and people here longer than me have told stories of foreigners assaulted on the street over this. Around the same time students were trying to pull down the statue of MacArthur in Incheon. Roh realized he could not antagonize the Americans too far after he was elected, but it did help him get into office.
Admittedly, these are sporadic outbursts of protest, and there’s been little of this since the beef scare of seven years ago. I could tell that the impact of the attack would be fairly minimal when it became clear that the main parties in the country were resorting to the usual sniping at each other– you’re apologizing too much / not enough to the Americans — and fairly forgetting about the event itself. It also seems to have blown over in the states, perhaps because fortunately the ambassador has healed quickly. It is the sort of nuisance and noise that the North regime will likely encourage again in future though, sadly, assuming they can find useful idiots to carry it out while denying involvement.
Frenzies of that sort can occur everywhere given the situation. Wrong incident at the wrong time with the wrong people. How would the Americans have react if they had a foreign troop presence on their soil and an armored vehicle ‘accidentally’ killed two young school girls? Rationality and calmness? I don’t think so. Ferguson is just an example of how things can go wrong and how mobs can go frenzy. So were the protests of 2002. But the difference here is that there was no blood-shedding violence as in Ferguson, despite all that fury. Therefore, anti-Americanism as a political ideology is irrelevant in the wider perspective.
What pains me to say is that South Korean politicians are using that word – ‘anti-Americanism’ – to defame their political opponents (and some Americans are following the chorus). Thus, alienating any Korean would-be-president or politician of higher office (of the opposing party) from the US counterparts. This is to portray ‘left’ politicians as being treacherous, unreliable partners in government. This happens because US posture toward a Korean politician is important in Korean domestic politics. If the US accepts persons A or B as being reliable, such a gesture would give some sort of good credentials to any Korean politician seeking higher office. This may seem weird for some Americans but that is how domestic politics is at play here in Korea. People look not deeds but ‘reputation.’ And being a friend (not lackey, if you were to be seen as a lackey that will blow your image. Well, but that is the same in every other country) of the US is important. The average voter wants somebody who won’t damage our current security environment.
Though I do acknowledge that former president Roh was not very amicable with his American counterparts, I don’t think he was inherently anti-American. He was just a ‘nationalist’ who prioritized ‘sovereignty’ over the ‘global war on terror.’ In the perspective of a realist foreign policy, such attitude may not have been good at all. However, it isn’t fair to call him ‘anti-american’ for just being a nationalist. He did want to preserve the Alliance, and he did sign the KOR-US Free Trade Agreement.
Americans shouldn’t be deceived by some politicians of our own who badly want their opponents to be seen as ‘enemies of America.’ They are doing what some extremists in the US are doing i.e. Obama is Muslim, Obama is homosexual, Obama is the anti-Christ, Obama is this and that and so on.