The Story Behind the Story
There have been a couple watershed years in Korea when a lot of crazy and intense shit was going down but for all the years that I have been in Korea, one year that stands out the most was 2002.
In Korea it was a year filled with drama, hope, and protest. And as an American living and working in Korea, it was one of those years that we carried a little more cultural baggage than usual.
The highlight of the year was without question that 2002 World Cup that was co-hosted by Japan and Korea. I was still writing a lot for the Korea Times and many of the stories that I did write were about the World Cup—including a series of interviews I had with the ambassadors of countries that had teams playing in Korea.
The World Cup was a festive and exciting time to be in Korea, especially when I had the chance to see the U.S. play Portugal in Suwon (south of Seoul). What made it all the more exciting for me was that a few months earlier I had met some of the players and their coach Bruce Arena when they toured Panmunjom (they had come to Korea to play a friendly match with Korea’s national team) and wrote a story about it for the Korea Times.
Inasmuch as the 2002 World Cup was another “coming out” party for Korea to show the world how much they had progressed since the 1988 Olympics as well as recover from the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis, things also turned a little sour, tragic, and eventually ugly by the end of the year.
When you are an expat living overseas—especially an American expat—you sometimes find yourself skating a little bit on thin ice when your country’s policies are not too well received in the country you are currently residing in. When I came overseas I left my politics at home. There’s no point in being an “ugly” American and calling attention to some policies that don’t travel well overseas. Sure, some people might want to know what you might have to say on a particular issue or policy, but as Shakespeare penned, “discretion is the better part of valor.”
There were two incidents at the beginning of 2002, which might not have seemed very much at first because they were not related in any way; however, the fallout from them would prove damaging enough that would ultimately lead to a surge of anti-American sentiment and nationalistic fervor.
The first one was when President George Bush came out with his “Axis of Evil” announcement that kind of raised a few eyebrows here especially with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s practical “Sunshine Policy” aimed at getting the reclusive and Stalinist North Korea to warm up a little. Sure the North and South are still technically at war, but that kind of rhetoric smacked of the kind of foolhardy foreign policy that would get the U.S. bogged down in Iraq and did not bode too well here.
This was followed by the Apolo Ohno incident at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City when Ohno defeated South Korean rival Kim dong-sun in the short track ice skating event after Kim had been disqualified for cross-tracking. Immediately there was public uproar in Korea that it was Ohno’s fault (he did a good job of acting which might have been enough to convince an Australian judge of the infraction and that the U.S. was just as much to blame because the Olympics were held in the States, that the U.S. is a superpower and so on and so on. Blah, blah, blah. The press had a field day with that story here and it also galvanized Internet savvy Netizens who took to the broadband to get the word out that Ohno stole the gold away from one of their countrymen.
It got a little ugly when the World Cup took place because the U.S. and South Korea were in the same bracket and would play each other (fortunately it was a tie). Interestingly, when South Korea scored their goal, some of the players mocked Ohno’s speed skating form at the end of the pitch. Of course, the joke was lost on the rest of the world but not South Korea.
What wasn’t lost and also not talked about too much were all the anti-American signs at the previous U.S.- Portugal match. “F**K America (written in Hangul) was one of the more popular signs. Also many Koreans in attendance booed America every time the team brought the ball down the field or attempted a shot.
(The same thing happened in the 1988 Olympics when the USSR played the US in basketball and the Americans could not understand why their ally’s fans were cheering the Soviet team).
Then, right in the middle of the World Cup tragedy struck on one of Korea’s country roads when two middle school students were accidentally struck and killed by a U.S. military vehicle while they were walking down the road. The large vehicle was unable to swerve or stop in time and the two girls were killed instantly. Immediately following this tragedy USFK (United States Forces Korea) issued an apology and gave some retribution (more would follow later) to the family. The story was not “news” in that most of the coverage was about the World Cup. Indeed, the story that appeared in the Korea Times was only a few lines and buried on page 3. However, the story indicated that it had been an accident and that USFK had issued an apology.
A week later, tragedy struck again—this time on the high seas, the East Sea to be exact when a North Korean naval vessel attacked a South Korean patrol boat killing eight ROK (Republic of Korea) sailors. The timing couldn’t have been worse—the World Cup semifinals. It was almost as though North Korea had deliberately planned to upstage the World Cup by attacking the South Korean patrol boat.
What happened next was both surreal and absurd. There was some public outcry over the naval battle, but not as much as the outcry over the deaths of the two middle school students. After much of the World Cup fervor had begun to dissipate and things got back to normal, that story was front-page news. People who paid no attention to the deaths of these two young girls back in June now demanded an apology and retribution as well as a revision of the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement)—an agreement that defines the legal position of a visiting military force deployed in the territory of a friendly state with provisions for how the authorities of a visiting force may control members of that force and the amenability of the force or its members to the local law or to the authority of local officials.
By November and December this would escalate into a frenzy of anti-American sentiment, candlelight vigils (for the deaths of the two middle school girls), protests outside the U.S. Embassy in downtown Seoul, flag burnings, and even prompted some restaurant owners in Seoul to post signs forbidding American customers.
Looking back on 2002, I think Bush’s Axis of Evil reference in his State of the Union Address and Ohno’s acting skills at the Winter Olympics riled up people enough and ruffled just enough feathers for many people to become a little more vocal and later to take to the streets. Little did anyone know at the time that this would be the beginning of a different kind of a protest movement in Korea—one that started on the Internet and ended on the streets of Seoul. It was this kind of Internet grassroots movement—along with the candlelight vigils and street protests that played a key role in getting Roh Moo-hyun elected president in 2002.
I had a feeling something was up after these two events that inspired me to write this Op-Ed piece. Little did I know just how much of what I alluded to in this Op-Ed piece would ring true a few months later.
All That Matters, Isn’t Gold
I knew I was in trouble when the driver of the taxi that I got into this past weekend in downtown Seoul found out I was from America.
“That short-track race was terrible,” the driver said in passable English.
Here it comes, I thought. I am going to have to defend the honor of my country because of some so-called controversial call and subsequent disqualification of a Korean skater for an Olympic sport that I could really care less about.
“Kim dong-sun was the winner,” said the cab driver. “He should have won the medal, not the American.”
I was in no mood for any great debate about who was at fault and who was not, so I nodded silently and stared out the window as the taxi passed the U.S. Embassy where riot police stood poised for trouble and a coterie of photographers milled around waiting for a story. Perhaps another demonstration against the U.S. for having something to do with the outcome of that questionable race.
Yes, I’ve seen that footage over and over on television; read all the reports and articles in the local press and on the Internet, and yes it probably wasn’t the cleanest of races. If anyone is to blame it’s the Australian referee, but one gets the impression that the Americans were somehow behind it all. It’s a time like this when it’s tough being an American living overseas. We carry enough historical and cultural baggage to begin with. Now this.
Okay, to be fair there was that controversial first race when Apolo Ohno might have bumped one of the Korean speed skaters. And maybe Ohno should be in line for an Academy Award for his great job of acting after the alleged infraction by Kim. I agree that Kim’s disqualification is a bitter pill to swallow here in Korea, but it prefaces a much larger problem that if not checked is going to get way out of hand even though some might believe that it has already.
Immediately after the race, as reported here and abroad, there have been numerous reports of Ohno receiving email death threats as well as netizens calling for the boycott of U.S. goods, even calls for South Korea to pull out its bids for the controversial FX fighter. There were even threats that the U.S. will pay dearly when the U.S. team comes here to play during the 2002 World Cup.
Granted these are just a handful of email threats and quotes in the local papers and in no way indicative of what all Koreans feel. These email messages could just be from kids with nothing better to do on their school break. However, it’s still being reported and talked about around the water cooler at work or at the supper table. Even in taxis.
Like I said, with all this baggage we carry as Americans living overseas, maybe I’m reading more into this than I probably should: a rise in anti-American sentiment. Nonetheless, living here in Korea you kind of expect this anti-American sentiment from time to time here in Korea especially with 37,000 U.S. service members in your backyard. On the other hand, it worries me that some people are maybe blowing this whole short-track thing out of proportion and at the same time calling attention to a more serious problem.
What happened on the ice in Salt Lake City in some ways encapsulates the wave of anti-American sentiment here: from the controversy of new apartments on Yongsan and the failure of USFK to turn over Andrew McFarland to Korean authorities to recent claims about more Korean War atrocities committed by U.S. service members, the controversial missile defense shield, and President Bush’s comment about an “axis of evil.”
(For the record, just once I wish someone would get this McFarland story right: he did not “dump” chemicals into the Han River directly, he poured them down a drain. By the time these chemicals reached the Han they had been treated twice both by U.S. and ROK sewage treatment facilities and posed no threat to the environment. Gee, you’d think the guy drove down to the Han late at night with a couple of jugs of the formaldehyde to surreptitiously commit some evil act of mortuary espionage!)
Even though I have lived in Korea for over 11 years, I don’t know what to make of this current wave of anti-American sentiment. To be honest, it has gotten me a little worried. After September 11 when the world stood by the United States in her hour of need and mourned along with the U.S. the loss of thousands of innocent civilians from the U.S. as well as other countries, the world for one shining moment seemed united. Six months later, it doesn’t seem that way any more.
Looks like everything is getting back to normal again.
Of course President Bush probably didn’t help things much here with his State of the Union Address last month. First, he refers to North Korea as an “axis of evil,” and the next thing you know you’ve got people demonstrating down in front of the American Embassy because he might have offended their brethren in the North. Granted Bush’s choice of words might have played well in Washington, but here in Seoul they piqued a different kind of response. Maybe this hard-line stance works with members of the U.S. Congress, but it does not bode well for most Koreans. Still, it’s not like Bush was pushing both Koreas to the brink of another war because he’s feeling a little cocky with his war against terrorism.
However to play the Devil’s Advocate for a bit, since the historic summit in Pyongyang in 2000 has the North been really keen on reciprocating the peace gestures made by the South? What more does the South have to do? What’s it going to take to convince the Dear One that the gig is up and that it is time to cash in his chips and get with the program?
I want Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy to work just as much as the next guy, but what has the North really showed to the South? I would love for President Kim to finish off his presidency with a bang and not a whimper, but the clock is ticking and the North is still trying to play hardball with the rest of the world.
So, President Bush comes to town and as expected people took to the streets. There were a couple of demonstrations against this visit as expected. But you know, I didn’t hear about any movements in America to boycott Korea goods, or deny Koreans visas to come to America because of the young lad who climbed up on the statue of Admiral Yi and burned the American flag. Nor do I believe that act is representative of how all Koreans feel. Likewise, I didn’t hear of any other movements against South Korea when some other feisty youths, misguided in their nationalistic fervor decided to take over the AmCham office.
This brings me back to Kim and Ohno. Yes, it was an unfortunate call, but it’s time to move on. I don’t care if Kim is guilty of cross-tracking, if Ohno did a good acting job, or if the Australian referee needs a new pair of glasses. These are athletes and not politicians. It’s wrong to make some international incident out of a questionable call in an athletic event, which is supposed to promote the betterment of the human spirit.
South Korea has bigger things to think about.
With the World Cup rapidly approaching and Korea the focus of international attention, it’s important to turn down the nationalistic zeal a notch or two. Let the referees and officials do their jobs and avoid these international incidents or public outcry if things don’t go as planned on the playing field. Likewise, it’s important to act responsibly in the stands and out: remember, the whole world is watching. Above all, remember the spirit of the sport, not “us against them.” If not, I pity the U.S. team if they happen to beat Korea as well as the national embarrassment that could follow here.
In the meantime, to play it safe, I might be better off telling taxi drivers that I am from Canada or England.