In S. Korea, generations view U.S. through different prisms

Recent deaths, success in soccer intensify feelings

January 24, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SEOUL, South Korea - Some of Soe Kee Beom's opinions about the United States and North Korea are exactly what members of his parents' generation are tired of reading as proof of a new pro-North, anti-United States sentiment in the South.

"We should not consider North Korea an enemy," said Soe, 30, a Web designer, speaking with friends one recent evening at a popular restaurant in southern Seoul. "One of us has to be able to forgive the other brother and embrace him.

"In the last two years, my feelings toward reunification have grown stronger while my dislike for the U.S. has grown stronger," he said.

Many older South Koreans would prefer to dismiss Soe as a radical expressing a minority viewpoint.

"Have you seen any `Yankee Go Home' slogans? If you did, it was a very, very isolated minority," said Ben Q. Limb, an adviser to South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun, who won an upset victory last month thanks to the strong support of younger Koreans.

"Some in the foreign media, they interview a number of young people, and rather than reporting the majority opinion of those demonstrators, they just pick up one who is rather sensational, who states that we regard North Koreans as our own brothers and sisters, and they are not going to attack us and so on and so forth."

But Soe is a moderate among his friends. He considers North Korean leader Kim Jong Il "evil" and expresses gratitude for the U.S. role in the Korean War and in helping develop the prospering South Korean economy. He does not argue that America's 37,000 troops on the peninsula should leave.

"We're very angry with the U.S. right now, but it's not hatred," Soe said. "We still have friendly feelings."

These complicated reactions toward the United States and North Korea reflect more than the psychology of a people that has been divided and aided by superpowers. Since the end of the Korean War 50 years ago, South Koreans' appreciation for the United States has never been without qualms, and antipathy toward the North has always been tempered by a hope for reunification.

In the past year, a series of events that in this high-tech society were greatly magnified by the Internet provoked a surge in national pride and expressions of frustration and anger with the United States.

South Korea's World Cup soccer successes, the deaths of two teen-agers in a road accident involving a U.S. military vehicle, Roh's upstart presidential candidacy and even a James Bond film with a North Korean villain stirred young South Koreans.

Whether their outlook is a passing fancy, as some older Koreans hope, or a fundamental shift in attitude is difficult to discern. Despite recent polls showing more South Koreans have a negative regard for the United States than North Korea, the vast majority of the nation's 48 million people support the continued presence of U.S. troops.

Some Koreans say the seeds for today's anti-American anger were sown by President Bush's blunt brand of diplomacy. South Koreans believe Bush embarrassed President Kim Dae Jung when Kim visited Washington in March 2001 by dismissing Kim's "sunshine" policy of engagement with the North.

When Bush included North Korea in the "axis of evil," he reinforced the sense that he was paying too little respect to the South. So did the administration's tough talk toward the North beginning last fall.

"That anger that Koreans feel, it's more focused toward the Bush administration than the country," Soe said. "It's the Bush administration that has taken too strong a stance against North Korea. That's the cause of all these problems. That's why even moderate South Koreans are reacting in such a drastic way."

Beyond politics

But as Soe and his 30-something friends are quick to add, the atmosphere is charged by more than geopolitics.

The influence of the Internet on South Koreans in their 20s and 30s (what the Koreans call the "2030 generation") has emerged in force in the past year, and the beginning of it was the short-track speed skating event at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

South Korean skater Kim Dong Sung crossed the finish line first in a 1,500-meter race. But he was disqualified for bumping Japanese-American skater Apolo Anton Ohno, who was awarded the gold medal. A vague blur in the memories of Americans, the incident riled Koreans, who flooded Internet chat rooms and Web sites with postings and e-mails.

Korean Internet chat followed every development, no matter how small, including a Jay Leno joke about Kim's eating dog. The joke prompted an American law firm to prepare a class action lawsuit on behalf of tens of thousands of Koreans. Much venom was reserved for Ohno himself.

"After I sent Ohno an e-mail and protested his unfair play, I received an insulting reply. Many of my friends received similar responses," said an Internet posting recounted in the Korea Times. "I will keep a close eye on whether the U.S. will manipulate the result of the legal action, as it did in the Olympics."

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