Thursday, June 12, 2008

Protests in Seoul more about nationalism than U.S. beef
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

SEOUL: When tens of thousands of South Koreans spilled into central Seoul in the country's largest anti-government protest in 20 years, the police built a barricade out of shipping containers. They coated them with oil and filled them with sand bags so protesters could not climb or knock them over to march on President Lee Myung Bak's office a couple blocks away.

Faced with this wall, people pasted numerous identical leaflets on the barrier, their message dramatically summarizing Lee's image and alienation from many of his people: "This is a new border for our country. From here starts the U.S. state of South Korea."

In the background, a shrill female voice from a battery of loudspeakers led the crowd in the chant: "Lee Myung Bak is Lee Wan Yong!"

As every South Korean schoolchild knows, Lee Wan Yong was the infamous turn-of-the-century royal minister who helped Imperial Japan annex Korea as a colony - national traitor No. 1.

The scenes Tuesday illuminated the dramatic shift in President Lee's political fortunes. When he was elected last December, South Koreans hailed him as a long-awaited leader who could salvage their country's alliance with the United States, which was strained under Lee's left-leaning predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun.

Only six months later, Lee finds Koreans vilifying him as something Roh famously said he would never become - "a Korean leader kowtowing to the Americans."

"While championing a pragmatic leadership, Lee overlooked Koreans' nationalistic pride," said Choi Jin, director of the Institute of Presidential Leadership in Seoul. "If what troubled Roh's presidency was too much nationalism, Lee's problem is a lack of it."

If Lee had mixed with the demonstrators on Tuesday, he would have seen that it was not just his deeply unpopular decision to lift an import ban on American beef that brought them to the streets.

People felt their national pride hurt. Protesters, some weeping, were singing a popular song about, not American beef, but an ancient Korean kingdom that extended into what become Manchuria, now northeast China.

"How can we stop here, when the vast expanse of Manchuria awaits us?" the lyrics go.

Lee's slide in popularity is rooted in his first glorious moment as president.

On April 19, he became the first South Korean leader to be invited to Camp David, the U.S. presidential retreat. Days beforehand, his aides billed the meeting with President George W. Bush as a momentous event - one that Washington would never have granted to leaders like Roh, who was often accused of being too nationalistic and anti-American.

Aging South Koreans who fought alongside U.S. troops in the Korean War in the early 1950s, took to the streets in joy. They trusted Lee to save the country from what they called "leftist, anti-U.S. and pro-North Korean elements," such as Roh.

On the eve of the meeting with Bush, Seoul agreed to lift a five-year-old ban on American beef imports, first imposed in 2003 after a case of mad cow disease was discovered in the United States. The gesture demonstrated Lee's eagerness to rebuild ties with Washington.

He apparently did not anticipate the reaction at home, especially among younger South Koreans, who had been watching him coldly.

"What he did was little different from an ancient Korean king offering tribute to a Chinese emperor," said Kim Sook Yi, a 35-year-old homemaker who joined the Tuesday protest. "This time we give a tribute to Washington? It's humiliating, bad for education for Korean children."

The demonstrations that began on May 2, when hundreds of uniformed schoolgirls held candles in downtown Seoul, quickly snowballed. By this week, they became so huge that Lee's cabinet offered to resign.

To many South Koreans, the beef dispute was not entirely about health or science. Nor is it entirely about economics; U.S. beef is half the price of Korean. Rather, it is the latest test of whether their leaders can resist pressure from superpowers like the United States, even if that pressure is legitimate, as is the case in the beef dispute. South Korea had promised to lift the ban once the World Organization for Animal Health ruled American beef fit for consummation, as it did in September.

South Korea has built the world's 13th largest economy largely through exports. Still, in a country that has been invaded by bigger neighbors throughout its history, people harbor a deep suspicion about big powers, even allies like the United States.

Koreans in their 40s remember a childhood song handed down from their fathers and grandfathers: "Don't be cheated by the Soviets. Don't trust the Americans. Or the Japanese will rise again." Koreans still chafe at the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea into the Communist North and the pro-U.S. South after liberating it from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II.

Whether a South Korean leader can navigate such nationalistic sentiment can make or break his career.

When two teenage girls were killed by a U.S. military armored vehicle six years ago, it appeared to be little more than a tragic traffic accident. But many young Koreans who felt humiliated by the U.S. military presence rallied in protest.

Roh quickly rode that nationalist wave to election victory, pledging during his campaign never to "kowtow to the Americans."

It did not take long for South Koreans to grow tired of Roh's ideological pronouncements that strained the alliance with the United States. They gave a landslide victory to Lee, who promised to bring pragmatism into the presidency and mend ties with Washington.

"Lee was overconfident. He thought since people had rejected Roh, he could go in the opposite direction," said Kang Won Taek, a political science professor at Soongsil University.

Many analysts in Seoul draw a careful line between nationalism and anti-Americanism among Koreans. They say these demonstrations are more an expression of the first than the latter. But the divide sometimes is very thin.

This month, Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, got a taste of the simmering anti-American sentiment when he defended the safety of U.S. beef. "We hope that Koreans will begin to understand more about the science and about the facts of American beef," he said. The next day, politicians and protesters called the comment an "insult to all Korean citizens." Vershbow expressed regret that he was misunderstood.

"These days, Koreans say there are only two anti-Americans in South Korea," said Jeon Sang Il, a sociologist at Sogang University. "One is Lee Myung Bak and the other Vershbow. They stoked anti-American sentiments with what they did and what they said."

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