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First Person

You're either for us or against us': understanding anti-American sentiment in South Korea.



The acquittal of two U.S. military soldiers, Sgts. Fernando Nino and Mark Walker, in the slaying of two 14-year old Korean girls, Shim Mi-Sun and Shin Hyo-Son, has sparked intense anti-American sentiments regarding the role of U.S. military in South Korea. A 1966 law, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that gives the U.S. military jurisdiction over criminal cases involving U.S. soldiers on duty is under fierce scrutiny as only 3 percent of the 7,381 crimes committed by U.S. soldiers in South Korea from 1991-2000 have been passed over to the Korean government for jurisdiction.

On June 13, 2002, a 50-ton U.S. military armored mine-clearing vehicle (AVLM) hit and killed two 14-year-old Korean girls walking alongside a narrow village road outside of Seoul. The two schoolgirls walking on the pedestrian shoulder of the road, a common practice, were on their way to a friend's birthday party when the AVLM vehicle hit and crushed them from behind.

Although the SOFA agreement allows the U.S. to hand over jurisdiction to the South Korean government on a case by case basis, this criminal trial was conducted in a U.S. military court and closed off to the scrutiny of Korean law. In two separate trials on Nov. 20 and 23, the U.S. military court found Nino and Walker not guilty on charges of negligent homicide. The closed-door trial, acquittal decision, and quick transference of soldiers back to the United States has initiated a national protest among all groups of Korean citizens from university students and political activists to Buddhist monks and Catholic priests.

The strong sentiment of injustice has also hit locally in the Triangle among Korean university students and faculty. Korean students and scholars at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill held a campus candlelight vigil ceremony on Dec. 12 to mourn the death of two innocent girls, to speak out against this injustice, and to raise awareness about U.S. foreign policies.

Regardless whether this was just an accident or a case of negligent homicide, the inability of the Korean government to have some voice in this judicial process when the crime was committed on Korean soil is the source of our frustration and anger with the current SOFA agreement.

What is especially disconcerting about this event is the dearth of coverage in the U.S. media and the lack of public discourse and public awareness about this event and other U.S. military actions abroad. Conversations about this topic elicit compassion from the conscientious and critical few. Then there are conversations with those blinded by their unquestionable allegiance to the Jeffersonian notions of freedom and democracy, who defensively retort with self-righteous anger. For example, when a fellow Korean student wrote an article about this event in his university student paper, several students posted e-mail comments such as, "Didn't we save South Korea's ass back in the '50s from communism? Of course, we saved France from having to speak German several times, and they seem to be equally appreciative." No Korean I know would argue the instrumental role that the U.S. military played during the Korean War period. What we would argue is that American foreign policies and support efforts are not entirely based on purely egalitarian values, but motivated by personal gains that are covetously disguised under altruistic rhetoric such as "good will."

This dissension and anger at U.S. foreign relations is not an isolated incident. Our history is plagued with cases of inequity, inequity in power, resources, and capital, and yet the only "facts" we learn are about virtuous men who believed in hard work, determinism, freedom and democracy, and as a result prevailed over hardship and evil, with no mention that his success came at the cost of others' misfortunes. Can we escape the consequences of our capitalistic and imperialistic actions with no repercussions? How far will homeland security propaganda take us away from the historical re-assessment, the 200-plus years of psychotherapy that we as a nation need? Has 12-plus years of spoon-fed Addison-Wesley published "history" books damaged any possibility of free thinking? Have we all bought into the deception that the United States is the world's leader and anyone who expresses any anti-American sentiment is simply jealous of our freedom?

The United States has built a global empire and its strongest weapon in achieving global hegemony is not amassing control of foreign lands, but cultivating a desire and need for American-centric social and cultural goods--an imperialistic state of the worst kind.

Why is there no action? Is the idea that we need to take a stand in this struggle against mental imperialism too disjunctured from our daily comforts of sipping Starbucks lattes and discussing the latest happenings on Survivor, our "reality" TV? Would we have to acknowledge that even news is nothing but entertainment with stories reduced to 10-second headlines that are devoid of any critical voices of dissension? Why is it that if we want to know anything about the world beyond the latest updates on drug-addicted entertainment stars, we need to actively seek out other sources on the Internet or public radio? What possible damage could daily hours of apathy-inducing television do?

As a Korean-American who was born in South Korea and raised in the U.S., I am constantly challenged to dispel stereotypical myths too often perpetuated in the media. Yes, I can speak English, no I don't know karate or taek-won-do, and really, you think I look like Lucy Liu, the only Asian woman you know? No, my criticism of the U.S. government does not mean I am ungrateful and want to return to "my country." I am already in my country. Where are you? Are you here with me, in our country, and if you are, why are you angry with me? Yes, I vote. Do you? What, I'm not "Asian" enough for you? Hmm, perhaps I should bind my feet, wear my ethnic Korean han-bok dress, and stay at home serving my husband? And please, don't think you know me because you've had bul-go-gi at a Korean barbecue restaurant or got "peace" tattooed in Chinese characters on your arm.

Don't compare my anger or criticisms to terrorist threats. I am simply exercising my right to our freedom of speech that too few of us exercise. I am proposing that we engage in more critical inquiry into the actions of our government and the consequences of our policies. Let's candidly speak about the injustices our country has committed and not fall prey to the conspiracy fears that our telephone conversations and personal e-mails are under governmental scrutiny. Let's step outside of our deceit and generate public discourse about how our country's actions and inactions are changing the world's political, economic and social climate. Let's renounce the historical "facts" we were taught, the stereotyped media images we were brainwashed into believing are reality, and begin to work toward true international diplomacy. Perhaps this tragedy in South Korea can serve as a talking piece to understanding why anti-American sentiment exists and how we as individuals are knowingly or unknowingly contributing to its perpetuation. EndBlock

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