A lasting net legacy – South Korean anti-Americanism

SEOUL - As the administration of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun winds down and assumes its "lame duck" status, the question of its historical legacy is coming to the fore. Of all the issues that Roh has faced as president, two themes have dominated from the very beginning - the Internet and anti-Americanism.

Blogs and Internet chat rooms were the genesis of Roh's campaign. They brought a virtually unknown candidate to the presidency. With little background in national politics, without an prestigious education and from a less than privileged background, Roh could not have been elected without an overwhelming youth vote and its Internet coordination.

Today, Roh-Sa-Mo (the Korean-language abbreviation for the Roh Lover's Society) has become an Internet legend. On polling day, bulletin boards, chat rooms and cell-phone text messages urged eligible voters to vote for Roh, boosting the usually complacent youth vote. Perhaps for the first time in the Internet age, a dedicated band of "netizens" had influenced an election result. But four years on, with the US-South Korea relations under constant pressure, blogs and Internet chat rooms may leave Korea's first "Internet president" with a less favorable legacy.

Parallel to Roh's Internet-based victory was the growth of a more sinister form of Internet-based political consciousness - anti-Americanism. After a June 2002 accident involving a US military vehicle, which resulted in the deaths of two South Korean middle-school students, Korean-language anti-American websites, chat rooms and blogs flooded the 'Net.

Despite apologies ranging from those involved in the accident all the way up the chain of command to US President George W Bush, anti-Americanism continued to spread rapidly. With South Koreans spending an average of more than 47 hours online per month, according to Internet monitor ComScore, making the leap from the Web to everyday life was only a matter of time.

Jerry Anders, a New Zealander residing in South Korea, remembers 2003 as the first time it actually paid to be non-American: "After years of being refused teaching jobs because I didn't have an American accent, suddenly job offers were pouring in because I didn't have one!"

Anti-Americanism during the period had a darker side as well. Residents recollect shopkeepers refusing to serve them, harassment on subways and even physical abuse. In one widely reported and particularly disturbing event, two American servicemen were abducted from a Seoul subway station by a throng of university students, removed to a university campus and forced to admit to "crimes" against Korea. Anti-Americanism particularly affected those there to defend South Korea, the United States Forces in Korea (USFK) and their dependants.

Since that time American expatriate residents have lived with anti-Americanism popping its ugly head up in every issue under the Roh administration, ranging from the esthetic value of a statue of General Douglas MacArthur in a rather remote park to the relocation of US military headquarters away from Yongsan, in downtown Seoul.

Unfortunately for Roh, the Internet continues to promote anti-Americanism as his most enduring legacy. Translated and interpreted, the Korean-language anti-American websites, blogs and chat rooms that were once at the core of his support base are beginning to filter through to the United States. More and more Americans are catching up with the situation in South Korea. In a country that remains far behind South Korea in Internet connectivity, few care about an Internet-based election victory, but many care about anti-Americanism.

Isaac Roberts (not his real name) manages the website USinKorea.org, a site dedicated to exposing what he views as the hypocrisy of South Korean anti-Americanism. The website is replete with images of anti-American demonstrations, translations of anti-American pop songs, and extracts from the South Korean media.

It receives a steady stream of interest from users in both South Korea and the United States. While Internet statistics show that Roberts' site is not overly popular, with an average of 2,400 views per day, they also show that users look through a considerable amount of the content.

What started out as a personal project to inform Americans unfamiliar with Korea as to how "the commitment they offer to Korea each year is received in that society" is making the jump from the Internet to politics. Sites such as USinKorea.org have become a source of on-the-ground information for campaigners on the other side of the Pacific.

Roberts' site provides human-rights campaigners and other lobby groups in Washington with an informed on-the-ground source. Targeted mail by these lobby groups give the website even further reach, until ultimately one 15-minute view by a political adviser sets the political dominoes in action. In reference to images on USinKorea.org, an e-mail from a Capitol Hill staffer posted on one of the now many blogs covering events in South Korea noted, "These continuing developments in South Korea worry people in Washington."

While not in the majority, there are influential thinkers in the United States who have long advocated the removal of US forces from South Korea. US isolationism may be forgotten across the globe amid today's "global war on terror", and particularly in South Korea, but its rich intellectual and highly influential history cannot be underestimated.

The Cato Institute, a highly influential think-tank, has long published papers, such as those by Ted Galen Carpenter and Doug Bandow, that call for the removal of USFK and the renegotiation of the alliance commitment. Leaving South Korea to defend itself is justifiable, argues Cato, because of the substantially decreased threat from North Korea, the relative superiority of South Korean forces, and the growing irritant that the maintenance of USFK presents to the US-South Korea relationship.

English-language websites that highlight the level of anti-Americanism that exists in South Korea to a US audience give credibility to its argument. In fact, Roberts maintains that this is one of the major complaints that he receives regarding his website. "About one in 10 letters [is] from expats [including some GIs] complaining that I might make others anti-Korean by focusing on only one aspect of the society."

But the aim of Roberts, in his own words, is simply "to give Americans [voters] enough information to make an informed decision about whether our huge commitment to Korea is worth it or not".

The Internet, which contributed so much to the initial success of the Roh administration, may be contributing to a less than enviable legacy. Ultimately, Roh may be remembered not as the South Korean president who was elected through the Internet, but as the South Korean president who was present at the beginning of the end for United States Forces in South Korea.

CC photo by Joop

"A lasting net legacy – South Korean anti-Americanism", Asia Times, 1 June 2006