Friday, June 20, 2008

2002 Tank Incident and Aftermath

Students and other participants stage a candlelight vigil to commemorate the 2002 death of two middle schoolgirls in central Seoul, June 13. The girls ― Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun ― were accidentally struck and killed by a U.S. armored vehicle north of Seoul six years ago. The commemoration was part of the ongoing demonstrations against U.S. beef imports. / Korea Times

By Brian Deutsch

Since the beginning of the anti-beef protests, the media has been drawing cautious parallels between these demonstrations and the anti-American rallies that swept the nation in 2002 and 2003.

Those came after two middle schoolgirls were accidentally killed by an American military vehicle. Conservative newspapers were, last month, expressing concern that these latest protests might equal the level of anti-Americanism on display back then.

We have certainly been reminded of those 2002 demonstrations these past few weeks. Newspapers often mention them in articles on the anti-beef protests, because for a lot of cities and towns, the last time the citizenry got together for a candlelight protest was to rally against the American military.

We saw anti-Americanism on display in Gwangju during commemorative festivities for the Gwangju Massacre, where paintings of shredded American flags, tanks and corpses, grieving mothers, and ``F* USA" were prominently exhibited next to information booths on mad cow disease.

And, now that the sixth anniversary of those girls' deaths is upon us, we see some groups have decided, as expected, to incorporate them into these latest rallies to inject even more emotion into an already hysterical public.

But now that we're six years on from the incident, it's time for some reflection. In the aftermath of the accident, after the U.S. genuinely and sincerely apologized numerous times, paid damages, and followed all protocol dictated by culture and by treaty, we witnessed a display of anti-Americanism and plain old xenophobic hatred that perhaps may never be rivaled here again.

Soldiers were stabbed, kidnapped, beaten up, and showered with rocks and aggression. There were numerous cases of assaults against foreigners, and countless cases of intimidation and discrimination against foreigners and Korean women in the company of foreign-looking men.

Restaurants and businesses prohibited foreigners from entering, with signs that said ``Americans not welcome here'' and ``USFK You are all guilty.''

And the netizens and mainstream media, then as now, distorted facts, fabricated accounts and intentionally mislead the public into taking to the streets with a wild-eyed fervor usually reserved for democratic movements and soccer games.

As with the anti-beef protests of today, when it comes to this incident, opinions seem to be divided according to nationality.

Koreans, in general, still firmly believe the U.S. military committed a grievous error and still contend the incident represented U.S. arrogance and carelessness.

On the other hand, Americans look at the events of 2002 and see that, though the deaths were a tragedy, the public outrage was far too aggressive for such an accident.

Yes, no amount of money can bring those two girls back, but is it not hypocritical to be so outraged in a country ranked the most-dangerous in the world for pedestrians? Is it not hypocritical to protest the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) when South Korea has them with countries that quarter the ROK military?

Is it not hypocritical to bemoan the U.S. military in this case when vehicular homicides involving South Koreans go unnoticed every day? And is it not hypocritical to profess to want to internationalize and welcome foreigners, while at the same time attacking them, blaming them, and forcing them away?

Thus, in order to properly normalize relations between cultures, it is proper that South Korea and its level-headed citizens apologize for the ugly behavior exhibited in the aftermath of this accident.

Apologize for attacking foreigners indiscriminately, and for holding all military members accountable for the actions of a few. Apologize for assaulting and discriminating against foreigners who were no more related to the accident than Koreans in the U.S. were to Cho Seung-hui and his massacre on the campus of Virginia Tech.

And apologize for fostering an environment of irrational hate and reckless journalism that still can be seen today and which still threaten its foreign residents.

If South Korea is a nation that truly wishes to accept foreigners, foreign culture, and perhaps most importantly foreign investment, it cannot let its crimes of hate and anger be unaccounted for.

And, if South Korea is a mature, dignified, modern nation, it will not let itself be associated with thuggery and discrimination on par with some of the worst campaigns in recent memory.

As a gesture of good faith in these trying times, South Koreans need to recognize the ugliness and irresponsibility of their actions and make atonement.

Brian Deutsch is an English teacher in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province. He can be reached at The views expressed in the above article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Korea Times.

The 2002 Accident Myth

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