At a rally in late 2017 to support disgraced former president Park Geun-hye, elderly participants waved South Korean flags as they marched down Seoul’s main boulevard. Park, the daughter of long-serving dictator Park Chung-hee, had been impeached and imprisoned on numerous counts of abusing office, but a fraction of the population remained devoted to her and the staunchly anti-communist vision they associated with her. Scattered among the banners at the procession were the stars and stripes of the American flag; a group of supporters also carried a massive American flag.
The Park scandal had nothing to do with the United States. Protesters were not appealing for U.S. support. So why was the American flag on display?
This use of the American flag is hardly exceptional in South Korean politics. It is a mainstay at rightwing rallies. Conservative activists, who stress a hardline on North Korea even at the cost of trampling on civil liberties at home, long ago appropriated the flag. Based on their experiences and understanding of history, “America” could be associated with their intolerance of progressive forces. For progressives, who wish for dialogue and reconciliation with North Korea, “America” is a barrier to the realization of the Korean nation.
With a little empathy, anyone should be able to understand these strong feelings toward the United States. It was junior American officers, completely unfamiliar with the East Asian nation, who drew the initial line that separated the north and south Korean regimes in 1945. Run by an American army military government for three years (1945-48), South Korea has been profoundly shaped by the United States. Over decades of authoritarian rule, Washington quickly accepted dictators as they emerged in Seoul. While a segment of society lauded the priority given to order and strength at any cost, others found the costs too high and chafed at encroachment on national sovereignty.
For liberals in South Korea, the United States can represent a powerful foreign force that supported anti-democratic governments. Such a view underpins the sensitivity surrounding the Kwangju Uprising of 1980. In that episode, the military, under the command of General Chun Doo-hwan, slaughtered hundreds if not thousands of civilians. While the United States was not involved, American military cooperation with the South Korean armed forces meant that the U.S. authorities would have been informed of troop movements. That they failed to stop the massacre creates grounds for profound skepticism of the United States.
In the early 2000s, the U.S. media featured stories of rising “anti-Americanism” in South Korea. Scenes of protesters burning American flags offered provocative images. The most passionate demonstrations reacted to the tragic deaths of two schoolgirls, run over inadvertently by a U.S. military tank in 2002; American commanders subsequently refused to allow the soldiers involved to be tried in the Korean justice system. The hosting that summer of the football World Cup, in which the South Korean national team surpassed expectations to reach the semifinals, also brought an outpouring of confident, patriotic sentiment. The successful presidential campaign of Roh Moo-hyun that year drew on this sentiment and included rhetoric critical of Washington. Researchers launched a flurry of opinion surveys to figure out how Koreans had turned against their allies.
They missed the point. Criticism of the United States did not follow from a general “anti-American” attitude but reflected frustration with specific policies. George W. Bush had inexplicably declared North Korea a member of the “axis of evil,” slamming shut the opening created under South Korean president Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy. Bush’s move undermined Korea-led efforts to work toward reconciliation on the peninsula. South Koreans were angry with Bush and the neoconservatives – just as many Americans were. Burning the American flag came from that anger, even though the image spoke differently to the average American viewer. As a prominent Korean sociologist once told me, South Koreans should each have half a vote in U.S. presidential elections. This statement, made tongue in cheek, speaks to the intimate connection between public power in the U.S. and Korea’s fate.
Koreans are not divided between “pro-U.S.” and “anti-U.S.” camps in the way Americans in their own country would interpret such terms. Rather, “America” takes on a meaning of its own in the Korean context, a meaning that relates to U.S. actions in Korea, not to America as a nation.
The Trump administration’s engagement with Pyongyang complicates the meaning of “America” in South Korea. Suddenly, the American flag cannot be an appeal to hardline threats against Pyongyang, nor a symbol of foreign intrusions that undermine Korean national aspirations. Trump’s meeting with Kim placed the United States squarely in the peace and reconciliation camp. By demonstrating a willingness to use discussion to alter the status quo, Washington has indicated an unprecedented degree of support for Korean initiatives to make peace on the peninsula and make progress toward reconciliation. This move makes friends of another set of Koreans, those led by President Moon Jae-in, and makes them feel Koreans – rather than foreign powers – can be authors of their nation’s fate.
The Trump-Kim meeting came also as a shock to conservatives in South Korea, who had welcomed the Trump presidency as they thought further isolation of Pyongyang would follow.
For the first time, the United States has made a major decision on Korean affairs that does not align with conservative forces in South Korea. For that country’s domestic politics and for how distinct political forces view the United States, the implications are profound. This shift is as significant as the agreements reached in the meeting. While the headlines following the meeting got stuck on tired questions about whether Trump or Kim struck a better deal, the meeting’s impact in South Korea has received less attention.
U.S. policymakers are also likely blind to the meeting’s effect in the South Korean capital. While American officials can insist that they are supporting South Korea as they have always supported South Korea, and that the country should be grateful, such statements fail to consider the view from Seoul. The signal received in Seoul is that the United States is willing to allow Koreans to play a larger role in determining their future. While administrations have claimed as much in the past, none has previously taken action that convinces Koreans that the United States is departing from the role it has played in entrenching division on the peninsula.
It is only a pity that Washington waited until North Korea developed nuclear weapons to try diplomacy.
The Trump administration now has an opportunity to consolidate a transformed friendship with Seoul. Seizing this opportunity by continuing dialogue with Pyongyang will expand positive sentiments in South Korea toward the United States, contribute to reconciliation on the peninsula, and diminish the risks associated with one of East Asia’s thorniest security problems.
Erik Mobrand, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Korean Studies at Seoul National University. He is the author of a forthcoming book called Top-Down Democracy in South Korea (University of Washington Press, 2019).