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Korean Attitudes toward the United States: Changing Dynamics, ed. by David I. Steinberg. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2005. xxxiv + 366 pages. ISBN 0-7656-1436-7 (paperback).

reviewed by Adam Cathcart
Hiram College

Koreans understand anti-Americanism especially well. For North Koreans, the savage pounding inflicted by American bombers in the early 1950s is readily recalled, and hostility toward the United States has subsequently underpinned state legitimacy in the DPRK. On the other hand, South Korea’s more intimate relationship with the United States provides more layered and complex examples of anti-Americanism. Ranging from historical gratitude to raging protest, South Korean attitudes toward the United States are especially worthy of examination in the waning years of the Bush administration.

Changing Dynamics represents an ambitious and valuable effort to examine South Korean attitudes toward the United States. The volume, the fruit of a 2003 conference at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, includes essays by many leading Koreanists (Bruce Cumings and Victor Cha among them) and valuable contributions from academics and journalists from the U.S. and South Korea. Reflecting the origins of its various authors, the volume is firmly grounded in South Korean-U.S. alliance politics.

After a brief preface and introduction, the volume begins in earnest with G. John Ikenberry’s essay on the growth of global resistance to the United States, situating Korean sentiments toward the U.S. within the broader (and perpetually expanding) literature on anti-Americanism. Ikenberry’s work is followed by two essays on anti-Americanism in Japan, erecting a comparative framework that expands to accommodate German anti-Americanism. These European and Japanese examples act both as preparation for, and a counterfoil to, Korea, adding global breadth for readers. Comparative essays, of interest to Koreanists, are also exceptionally useful for college professors seeking to stimulate student discussion. (The book’s pedagogical value was readily apparent to me in an undergraduate course I teach about global anti-Americanism with a focus on South Korea.)

With Bruce Cumings’ essay, the heart of the volume arrives; essays begin to coalesce around a coherent whole while maintaining the distinct voices that make reading this edited volume a pleasure. Cumings begins by slashing into “the structural basis” of South Korean attitudes toward the United States. Cumings, thankfully, tackles the term “anti-American,” criticizing the phrase for its implicit assumptions of “a uniform opposition to Americans… instead of distaste for American policies” (92). Though his laceration of Bush administration policy toward North Korea is not a surprise, Cumings leavens his arguments with anecdotes from the tear gas-wreathed metropolis of Seoul under Park Chung Hee.

Cumings’ discussion of the Park years is indicative of a further strength within the volume, that being the book’s analysis of the relatively neglected period of the 1960s and the Yushin era. Katharine H.S. Moon’s analysis of South Korean civil society in this period provides particularly rich insights into the present US-ROK relationship. Moon roots negative emotion toward the U.S. in the inequalities of day-to-day encounters between American soldiers and Korean civilians. Her empirical research describes the lives of women in the camps surrounding American military bases and their violent encounters with American troops. Moon notes that “the grievances, past and present, sound strikingly familiar: sexual crimes/abuse of women; negative impact of base decisions on local economies; lack of information exchange and consultation with local residents about U.S. military activities; [and] arrogance toward Koreans and ignorance of Korean customs and ways.” These inequalities, she writes, “become a source of collective han” (235). Moon argues that anti-Americanism, latent in Korean society through the 1960s and 1970s, burst forth along with the growth of civil society in the late 1980s. In this manner, democratization in South Korea has whip-lashed into protest against the U.S.

With the mysterious death of Park Chung Hee, the longed-for transition into democracy was wrenched back into military rule by Chun Doo Hwan, whose attempts to spin together his own cult of personality inspired little devotion. No volume on Korean attitudes toward the United States would be complete without examination of the great stain of Chun’s rule: the Kwangju massacre of 1980. William Drennan’s essay “The Tipping Point” delivers a stunning analysis of this critical event, drawing upon English-language journalism from the period (particularly Far Eastern Economic Review) and parsing then-U.S. ambassador William H. Gleysteen’s accounts of the event. Drennan’s final argument ­ that the memory of Kwangju will continue to cast a long shadow over the U.S.-ROK alliance ­ has been examined in greater depth by other authors, but his essay nevertheless stands as a solid and independent introduction to the rupture caused by Kwangju.

Lest the paradoxes of democracy and dictatorship prove wearisome, the volume lays out the U.S.-Korea military alliance as a complementary major theme. James V. Feinerman’s work on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) illuminates the existing tensions between U.S. prerogatives and South Korean security needs. Likewise, Brent Wong-ki Choi argues that anti-Americanism among Koreans is not rooted in blind revulsion, but is simply “anti-baseism.” Brad Glosserman’s comparative look at resistance to American military bases in Okinawa (and Puerto Rico) is particularly salient, even if an American paring back of bases in Korea may only bolster the U.S. presence in Japan. Tension resulting from bases, command structure, and U.S./ROK posture toward North Korea, will remain an inexorable point of contention until that distant day when the U.S. finally pulls out of Korea completely. Donald Rumsfeld’s final apparent policy decision before he submitted his resignation letter as Secretary of Defense in November 2006 ­ reducing forces in Korea ­ makes the essays from Feinerman, Glosserman, and Choi all the more timely.

While the U.S. Defense Secretary’s attitudes toward Korea elude deep examination, the role of George W. Bush, who might be considered the great polarizing figure of the early 21st century, is debated in various forms. Bush’s eclipse of the Sunshine Policy is raised a handful of times, but receives a fascinating defense by Victor D. Cha, who notes that the Sunshine Policy itself “had the unintended consequence of creating nationwide perceptions of the United States as an impediment to inter-Korean relations” (126). Finally, the construct of “anti-Bushism” as distinct from anti-Americanism contributes to an interesting interplay between the essays.

If the volume has a weakness, the paucity of ink spilled on the significant topic of generational cleavages in Korea with regard to attitudes toward the U.S. must be one. In connection with this theme, an essay dealing more fully with the impact and memory of the Korean War would have been welcome, especially given the many investigations pursued since 1999 into the massacre at No Gun Ri. The experience of the Korean War, one can assume, lies at the core of the generational split in Korea, but pro-US organizations who commemorate the war and rallied behind the United States in 2003 demonstrations are not engaged in this book.

Likewise, the role of popular culture is interfaced in this volume frequently, but never dealt with head on. South Korean hip-hop dancers may never meet their teenage counterparts busy with Mass Games preparation in Pyongyang, but the impact (both potential and actual) of American popular culture on Korean youth is worth discussion. While popular music may have been too amorphous a theme for this volume, the volume does manage a number of references to popular sports, including controversy over U.S. speed skater Anton Ono and pride stemming from Korea’s hosting of the 2002 World Cup. On the latter theme, Hahm Chaibong’s essay masterfully braids together the exuberant nationalism of the young soccer fans, or “Red Devils,” with their anger over the death of two schoolgirls killed by U.S. soldiers in Seoul. The complexity of attitudes among Koreans with personal ties to the United States is expertly navigated by Chung-in Moon in “Between Banmi and Sungmi,” an essay grounded in a fascinating array of primary Korean sources.

Like most good scholarship, the volume raises fruitful lines for future inquiry. The volume’s focus on the executive branch of the South Korean government is logical, but somewhat myopic. How do attitudes toward the United States differ between the Korean president and the military or, say, further differ between the ROK Army officer corps and the KCIA leadership? While Lee Hoi Chang, former leader of the nominally pro-U.S. Grand National (Hannara) Party merits a few references in the essays, the basis of his party’s popular strength, or the right wing more generally in South Korea, is rarely engaged. U.S. attitudes toward North Korea, quite logically, turn up time and again, but tend to be fixated on Bush’s opposition to the “Sunshine Policy” (does Bush’s attitude toward North Korea therefore constitute a “Darkness Policy”?). North Korean attitudes toward the United States ­ arguably as important as South Korean attitudes ­ are never examined on their own merits. Calling attention to perceived lacunae in a volume of such broad scope is inherently unfair, but Changing Dynamics leaves one with a dissatisfying feeling that the surface has only been scratched.

Perhaps the time has come for the publication of more monographs on South Korean attitudes toward the United States. Certainly a number of fine dissertations on this topic have been completed in recent years, including those by Lee Jae-Kyoung (U. of Iowa, 1993) and Lee Jae-Bong (U. of Hawaii, 1994), while others are in gestation in graduate programs around the world. Gregg Brazinsky’s forthcoming book with University of North Carolina Press on the cultural impact of American troops in 1950s South Korea may partially fill the void. However, since most major presses appear to have bypassed the topic, one can only hope that David Steinberg, the conveners of the 2003 conference, and the editors at M.E. Sharpe will sharpen their pencils and repeat their labor of love once the Bush administration sulks its way out of Washington.


Cathcart, Adam J. 2007
Review of Korean Attitudes toward the United States: Changing Dynamics, edited by David I. Steinberg (2005)
Korean Studies Review
2007, no. 1
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr07-01.htm

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