Anti-Americanism In Korea: Causes And Implications


While prior to the transition to democratization, anti-Americanism was either diffused or suppressed by the government, with the advent of democracy, this was no longer the case as anti-Americanism got wide publicity and popular support. For some, this was the result of the long association between the two nations that began after the World War II and the massive American presence in their country. Growth of nationalism and the feelings that America’s inimical policies towards the Communist North have been hampering the reunification of the two Koreas have increased anti-Americanism among the Southerners. This paper attempts to identify the causes of this rising popular feeling and highlight its implications on the Korea-US relations.


Koreans in general and the Southerners in particular have, witnessed anti-Americanism after their liberation from Japanese colonialism and the years following the Korean War (1950-1953). The authoritarian regime that came to power following the War, however, not only suppressed such sentiment in the South but also sought to justify such measures on the pretext of national security citing the looming threats of a North Korean invasion. The transition to democracy began since the 1980s, however, was a big boost to anti-Americanism. As Kim (2010) rightly points out that, anti-American sentiment and movements in South Korea was a product of domestic politicsi. Therefore, to identify the causes of anti-Americanism, it is not only important to look at the democratic transition but also to analyze the implications of democracy on Korea-US relations.

Defining anti-Americanism is no easy task. Various scholars have treated this anti-Americanism with different motives and patterns such as nationalism, anti-capitalism, anti-Western sentiment and so on. In fact, even its motives have changed over time. Marie France Toinet defines it as a complete rejection of everything and anything Americanii. On the contrary, Meredith Woo-Cumings (2003) feels that one needs to look beyond the popular opinion poll on South Koreans’ anti-Americanism that Koreans’ resentment against the Americans have no meaning except that it is nothing but biting off the hands that fed them so long. As such, she rightly pointed out that it is equally important to examine the unraveling of the Cold War alliance between South Korea and the United Statesiii. However, the best way to understand South Koreans’ anti-Americanism is to look at it through, as Shin (1996), says as cultural criticism of American society and values, political and economic resentments, and an ideological rejection of the USiv.

Historical Background

South Korea’s democratic process began in the 1980s and lasted through the 1990s. It was during this period that the past atrocities of the US and those inflicted by the authoritarian government were revisited, as prior to that protests against both the government and the US were suppressed by the state. From its establishment in 1948 as a separate country, and until the 1980s, South Korea was under authoritarian regimes, but the most important period was the presidency of Park Chung Hee (1962-1979), who bluntly justified his military coup as a necessity to strengthen national security and to bring about economic development. The Park regime saw rapid economic development, lifting millions out of poverty, and thereby increasing the overall standard of living for the masses. Due to the Cold War and the threat of North Korea, President Park Chung Hee focused profoundly on the stability of the state at the cost of the freedom and democracy of the Koreans. For these reasons, his legacy was overshadowed by his leadership style which was more authoritarian than consultative. While the Koreans loved the economic development and better lives under a stable government, at the same time, they also yearned for personal freedom. Thus, with the end of the Cold War, authoritarian regimes was discarded and paved the way for the democratization of the countryv.

The first civilian president Kim Young Sam (1993-1998), focused on human rights and social welfare. It was during this transition that the past atrocities of the authoritarian regime were revisited and revealed. The democratic governments of Kim Young Sam (1993-1998) and Kim Dae Jung (1998-2003) ordered an investigation into the No Gun Ri firing in 1950 involving American forces when they opened fire on innocent civilians after mistaking them to be North Korean soldiers; and the 1980 Kwangju massacre by the army. The revelation from these incidents generated great hatred towards the US and the past authoritarian regimes, which overshadowed the legacy of massive economic growth. Following this, tens of thousands of ordinary Koreans took to the streets protesting against these atrocities. As Katherine Moon observes, “decentralization of government functions and authority emboldened local citizens and politicians, and challenged the central government’s long monopoly of power especially in the area of national security and foreign policy.”vi

This paper attempts to highlight the escalation in protests against anti-Americanism through the following developments: the No Gun Ri incident of 1950; the 1980 Kwangju massacre; the status of force agreement; American policy towards North Korea; Korea’s increasing international muscle and the recent events.

a) No Gun Ri Firing

With the liberation of the Korean peninsula from the Japanese colonialism, the peninsula was divided into two zones after the World War II between the US allied South Korea and Soviet-allied North Korea. On July 25, 1950, North Korea marched towards South in its attempt to unify the peninsula. The United States that fought alongside the South Korean army dispatched its army in an attempt to fight back the North Korean aggression. No Gun Ri is a small village located in the Chungcheon province. The incident occurred in early Korean War on July 26-29, 1950 when American soldiers opened fire on Korean refugees on the pretext of assuming the Korean refugees as North Koreans infiltrators.

While the US administration justified the killing as they presumed the Korean refugees to be North Korean soldiers, the survivors of the incident and their relatives filed a bunch of petitions in the US embassy in Seoul. For many years, the incident was either unknown or silenced, but after the democratic transition, the incident resurfaced. It was only in 1999 when the Associated Press published a thorough report of the incident that US army agreed to conduct a serious investigation. Though the estimates of dead is far from accurate, in 2005, South Korean government report listed 163 dead or missing and 55 wounded along with many being not reported. In 2001, President Bill Clinton offered deep regret; however, public awareness of this incident added fuel to the burning strong anti-Americanism.

b) Kwangju Massacre

The events of Kwangju uprising unfolded after the assassination of former president Park Chung Hee in 1979 which left the country in political turmoil. The unforeseen death of Park Chung Hee was expected to usher in an era of democracy which was long hoped-for by the Koreans. However, General Chun Doo Hwan tried to stabilize the country after a successful coup; the public was against having another authoritarian regime as they have long fought for freedom. As a result, anti-martial law demonstrations took place in various parts of the country. On May 18, 1980 many Koreans took to the streets in protest against the government in the Kwangju province. A salient feature of this protest was the massive participation of students and civilians. With the approval of the United States, the new military government under President Chun (1980-1988) sent out the army to suppress the protest and in the ensuing firing saw thousands of civilians being shot dead in cold-blood. The Chun Doo Hwan government issued a report stating that 144 civilians, 22 troops and four police officers had been killed during the uprisings. However, census figures revealed that more than 2000 citizens of Kwangju disappeared during the uprising.

The massacre left the Koreans traumatized and led to a steep escalation in anti-Americanism because they had once considered the US to be a country that stood for democracy and human rights. Instead, they saw the US administration openly supporting Chun Doo Hwan’s military coup. Prior to this incident, anti-Americanism was directed towards the remnants of the Korean War. But this incident made the hatred towards the US, official and nationwide.

c) The Status of Force Agreement (SOFA)

Apart from the remnants of the Korean War and Kwangju massacre, there were other issues that added oil to the already burning lamp of anti-Americanism such as the Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) and the rising number of crimes being committed by the US military on the civilians. Right from the Chinese domination of the undivided Korea starting from the Silla and Koryo dynasties to the Mongolian rule during the Chosun dynasty to the Japanese imperialism and to the end of the World War II, the Korean peninsula was always under foreign domination, which got further transformed by the pulls and pressures of the Cold War. The permanent American settlement in South Korea during the Cold War era not only insulated Seoul from the threats of a North Korea attack but also helped in netting billions of dollars from the US to nurse its war ravaged economy back to health. Even as government, military and economic ties between the two nations grew rapidly, leading to massive improvement in the overall economic wellbeing of the public, the open conflicts between American soldiers and Korean civilians as also crimes involving them only grew rapidly leading to increased hatred between the two.

The result was the adoption of the SOFA between the American soldiers and the local Koreans in July 1966. The SOFA is “a detailed set of rules, protocols and promises that governs the actual stationing of American troops… is signed with the host nation of U.S. bases and contains the agreements that define the rights and duties of U.S. military personnel and their dependents.”vii According to Cooley (2008), from 1967 to 2003, American servicemen committed over 55,000 crimes over the Koreansviii, which according to him came down after the country moved onto the path of democracy.

d) Death of Two School Girls

The Koreans considered the SOFA favoring the US military, as was reflected in the death of two school girls on June 13, 2002. The importance of this incident to the escalation in anti-Americanism was such that it happened during the FIFA World Cup that Seoul hosted in 2002 and when Korean nationalism was at its peak. The incident took place during a routine US military exercise when an armored truck killed two school girls in the heart of the national capital. What was worse was that the US acquitted the soldiers responsible for the killing, citing the terms of the SOFAix, and the American justice system that emphasizes on intent rather than the result. This created deep-hearted hatred towards the Americans.
Campaigns against the mishandling of the death of two Korean school girls varied widely from the Anti-American citizens’ demand for the U.S. military’s pulling out of Korea to the demand for an apology by U.S. government officials. Following this campaign, Koreans demanded that the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) be amended so that in future U.S. soldiers who commit crimes against Koreans cannot be immune from prosecution in Korean courts.

e) American policy towards North Korea

Initially after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the US received support from various countries in its fight against global terrorism, but anti-Americanism gained momentum after the US invaded Iraq in 2003 under the pretext of eliminating weapons of mass destruction which were never found but with the covert plan of securing Iraqi oil fields the US companies.

After 2001 terror attack on its soil, the US adopted a stricter foreign policy and it went to the extent of declaring North Korea as the “axis of evil” along with Iraq. Unfortunately in 2002, the Kim Dae Jung government (1998-2003), in its bid to engage North Korea and further the prospects of unification, announced a “sunshine policy.”x But the US move to label North Korea as the ‘axis of evil’ not only impacted Seoul’s engagement with Pyongyang but also hampered its relations with the US.

f) Mad Cow Disease

In 2008, there was a series of protests against the government reversal of the ban on US beef imports which was in place since 2003 when the mad cow virus was detected in American cattle. Since there is a free trade agreement between the two nations, tying the hands of Seoul, the demonstrators accused the government of giving US unwarranted concessions. They also accused their former president Lee Myun Bak (2008-2013) of compromising national interest and public health while ratifying the FTA, which ultimately led to him to tender a public apology. On the whole, “the demonstration contained the undercurrents of anti-American sentiment, proving that it was still a force in the South Korean consciousness.”xi

g) Korea-US Military Exercise

Korea and the US have been conducting joint field training exercise annually from 1997 under the auspices of the Combined Forces Command, and is one of the largest military exercises in the world. Known as Foal Eagle till 2008 and Key Resolve from 2009, the military exercise tests the capability of Korea to defend against foreign threats. The combined military exercise between United States and South Korea as of 2014 under the name Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (UFG) primarily focuses on defending South Korea from the treats of possible attack from North Korea. Beginning from 1976, the exercise is conducted annually during August or September. However, these exercises, like that of the UFG exercise, often led North Korea to accuse the US of arming and preparing South Korea to invade them.

h) Attack on US Envoy

The recent attack on the US ambassador Mark Lippert by one Kim Ki-Jong on March 5, 2015 in the Korean capital was bizarre as it was one of the first such incidents in Korea where a personal attack was made on a foreign official. In fact, during the course of anti-Americanism protests, particularly during the 1980s, students used to repeatedly capture American cultural centres but no attempt was ever made on anyone in particular. Such flare-ups are mostly limited to certain sections of the extreme political left who blame the US for the division of the Korean peninsula. Kim Ki-Jong’s ultimate protest was against the recent Korea-US military exercise as he feared this would further escalate the already tense atmosphere on the peninsula.

Interestingly, Koreans were divided in their reactions against the attack. As pointed out by Kim (2010), the two political forces still discernible in the country are the ‘conservative-rightists’ and the ‘progressive-leftists’.xii While the conservative-rightists adopt a pro-American and anti-North Korean stance and looks at the US as a saviour who had sacrificed thousands of lives during the Korean War, the progressive-leftists are openly anti-American and pro-North. Here, Kim Ki-Jong can be thought as progressive-leftist who wanted an end to the Korean-US military drills to improve South-North relations.

As pointed out by Konstantin Asmolov, “nationalism is a rather important part of the Korean state ideology. And when the actions of nationalists, even if they are radical actions, protect the interests of the country, a blind eye is often turned…”xiii, however, the danger of such nationalism-driven violence is that it can turn costly for the country as a whole in the long run.


Any alliance is built on common goals and when either of the party starts looking at the other as a point of no return, the alliance begins to weaken and eventually breaks up. Similarly, the rise of anti-Americanism in Korea will, in the long run, weaken the Korea-US alliance unless necessary steps are taken immediately. Kim (1989) has rightly pointed out that this feeling of anti-Americanism is predominant among the younger generations as they had neither witnessed nor experienced the American role in both the liberation from Japanese imperialism and the Korean War, the older generation on the other hand has been relatively friendly towards the United States.xiv As long as Korea considers US’ ‘war on terrorism’ and its policies towards North Korea as a threat to its own national interest and security, there cannot be a strong relationship between the two. In the foreseeable future, there is bound to be frictions between the two as the rising tide of nationalistic jingoism gains ground in Korea. In fact, one cannot simply ignore the fact that these anti-Americanism rose after the partition of the Korean peninsula in the post-World War II sharing of the booty between the US and the erstwhile Communist USSR. The Koreans tends to be fed up with the crimes being committed by the American soldiers on them and keep getting away from punishment under the terms of SOFA, the rising trade frictions and the lingering prospects of a reunification due to American policies. It would be in the interest of the US to heed to the rising tide of anti-Americanism as the best way to resolve issues is to understand the evolving social and cultural differences.

i. Kim, Hakjoon (May, 2010), “A Brief History of the U.S.-ROK Alliance and Anti-Americanism in South Korea”, Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, 31 (1): 5.
ii. Shin, Gi-Wook (Aug, 1996), “South Korean Anti-Americanism: A Comparative Perspective”, Asian Survey, 36 (8): 789.
iii. Cumings, Meredith Woo (July, 2003), “South Korean Anti-Americanism” JPRI Working Paper, 93.
iv. Shin, Gi-Wook (Aug, 1996), “South Korean Anti-Americanism: A Comparative Perspective”, Asian Survey, 36 (8): 789.
v. Oh, Chang Hun and Celeste Arrington (2007), “Democratization and Changing Anti-American Sentiments in South Korea”, Asian Survey, 330.
vi. Moon, Katherine (2004), “South Korea-U.S. Relations”, Asian Perspective, 44-45.
vii. Alexander Cooley (2008), Base Politics: Democratic Change and the U.S. Military Overseas. Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 33.
viii. Ibid, 122-123
ix. Article 22, Section 3 of the SOFA states: (a) The military authorities of the United States shall have the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over members of the United States armed forces or civilian component, and their dependents, in relation to: offenses arising out of any act or omission done in the performance of official duty. (b) In the case of any other offense, the authorities of the Republic of Korea shall have the primary right to exercise jurisdiction. ROK-US Status of Forces Agreement Article 22, Section 3.
x. Buzo, Adrian (2007), The making of Modern Korea, Routledge, 168.
xi. Kim, Hakjoon (May, 2010), “A Brief History of the U.S.-ROK Alliance and Anti-Americanism in South Korea”, Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, 31 (1): 33.
xii. Ibid, 5.
xiii. Konstantin Asmolov, Attack on the US Ambassador to South Korea.
xiv. Kim, Jinwung (Aug, 1989), “Recent Anti-Americanism in South Korea: The Causes”, Asian Survey, 29 (8): 752-754.