In November 1983, US President Ronald Reagan visited South Korea amid rising global tension. In September that year, the Soviet Union shot Korean Air Lines’ flight 007 out of the air, killing the 269 people aboard. One month later, many senior members of the South Korean government were killed by a North Korean bomb attack in Rangoon, Burma. The 1980s economic boom in South Korea was gathering steam, but anger at Chun Doo-hwan’s dictatorship was building.
During his visit, Reagan addressed the National Assembly. I remember hearing the speech on the radio while riding a bus stuck in traffic in Jongno. I did not like Reagan and was tempted to boo, but held back because I was worried about how some older people on the bus might react. As the speech went on, some of those older people began to clap. A few looked at me, as if to invite me to join them in clapping. I smiled back.
As the rest of my one-year stay went on, I learned that Reagan was far more popular in South Korea than he was with the people I knew in the US. Jimmy Carter, Reagan’s predecessor, was widely disliked because he had threatened to withdraw US troops from South Korea. Reagan was popular because of his strong anti-communist stance and efforts to strengthen the alliance with South Korea.
Beneath the surface, however, anti-American sentiment was spreading among intellectuals and university students. Instead of supporting freedom and democracy in South Korea, the US was blamed for helping Chun repress the democracy movement in 1980 that ended in the bloody suppression of demonstrations in Gwangju in May that year. Reagan was not president at the time, but he was blamed for supporting Chun and offering him legitimacy.
I was studying Korean at Seoul National University at the time and became familiar with the anti-American stance. To me, a critical stance toward the US seemed more rational than the blind adulation of the US as a beneficent great power that had Korea’s interest at heart. I was a sympathetic, if not curious, ear for students who wanted to vent about the US, Chun and Reagan.
As I moved through the year, I remember wondering how long the pro-American consensus would hold if most young people I met were more critical, if not outright anti-American. I remember wondering if the US had any knowledge of the degree of anti-Americanism in South Korea and had any intention to address its cause.
During the 34 years since Reagan’s visit, the pro-American consensus has steadily weakened to the point that the anti-American consensus is now mainstream. Instead of being seen as a trusted ally, the US is now seen as a selfish and unstable power. The students of 1983 have indeed grown up and trust is in short supply.
US President Donald Trump is now visiting South Korea, almost 34 years to the day after President Reagan’s visit. He, too, is visiting amid rising tensions and the threat of war. This time, however, the tension is greatest between the US and North Korea because the security equation has now changed. From the end of the Korean War until this year, the US military presence was designed to protect South Korea from a North Korean invasion. A series of nuclear and missile tests this year suggests that North Korea will soon have the capability to strike the US with a nuclear missile.
This is a new situation that is putting existing security relationships in the region under stress, with the relationship between South Korea and the US being the most stressed. To date, neither leader has dealt well with the stress. President Trump has demanded that South Korea blindly follow the US approach to North Korea. President Moon Jae-in, meanwhile, has failed to articulate a clear and realistic vision for dealing with North Korea.
To overcome the impasse, South Korea and the US have to ask each other what they want out of the relationship. Both nations need to be clear about what they expect from the relationship, and those expectations need to be realistic. The US needs to understand that South Korea is a prosperous democracy that can no longer follow along blindly. South Korea needs to understand that US interests have changed as the security equation has changed. Leaders come and go, but the decisions they take from day to day last longer, which is why they need to take the long view and focus on common interests on which good relationships are built.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.