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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Leftist students climbing over a fence and trying to occupy the residence of the American Ambassador in Seoul, while chanting anti-American, pro-North Korean slogans, is nothing new.
This is what happened again in Seoul in October when what the Korea Herald described as “a progressive civic group” of students went over the wall. There were as many as 19 involved and Seoul police reportedly issued arrest warrants for nine.
Slogans used included urging U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris “to leave this land” as well as a claim that what the U.S. has done is “kill, rape, poison our land and threaten our people’s lives.”
CBS News reported that Ambassador “Harris gave a ‘shout out’ to police, tweeting in English and Korean about the incident and saying his cats ‘are OK.’”
The students also used wording right out of the North Korean propaganda playbook, including “Get out! We don’t need U.S. troops!”
The students’ chants indicate that they may be blissfully unaware that they are promoting President Trump’s nationalist call to crack down on “deadbeat” allies.
Otherwise, in fact, they may be deliberate fellow travelers in the renewed suggestion to remove at least some U.S. forces from Korea — a suggestion that has not been heard in Washington since the days of the Carter administration.
Current, tense negotiations over cost-sharing for the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea reportedly triggered this latest protest.
President Trump had tweeted in August that the U.S. pays too much for South Korea’s defense costs, according to Defense News. He said Seoul should pay “substantially more money to the United States.”
Defense News added that “Trump’s financial demands have triggered worries in South Korea that he might withdraw some of the 28,500 U.S. troops.”
Voice of America confirmed on November 10th that the U.S. side made a request for a substantial increase in funds during the last round of negotiations for the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) in Honolulu in October. The increase “is more than five times the $924 million that South Korea agreed to shoulder this year.”
UPI reported October 15th that “the United States says Seoul should increase its contribution to $4.8 billion for basing 28,500 troops — more than Japan paid for U.S. bases for 50,000 troops in 2017.”
On October 14th, in an interview with South Korea’s newspaper Dong-a Ilbo, Ambassador Harris echoed President Trump’s complaints about the level of defense burden-sharing: “U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris has said that Seoul’s financial contribution for the deployment of U.S. troops, who he said are performing a role to protect the country, is not enough. From the perspective of the United States, South Korea could be seen as having funded only one-fifth of the total defense cost, he commented, adding that as the world’s 12th largest economy, South Korea can and should take a larger share.”
An unspoken issue concerning the Ambassador’s remarks is that he is the first U.S. Ambassador of Japanese heritage, through his mother, to hold the top U.S. diplomatic post in Seoul. With South Korean-Japanese relations near an all-time low, this has led to certain whispered questions about Harris’s impartiality.
The RAND Corporation’s Bruce Bennett told VOA that, amid rising alliance tensions, it is important not to forget the big picture in the negotiations.
Bennett noted that “the allies have to bear in mind Pyongyang’s objective, which is to break the alliance so North Korea can have military superiority over South Korea, which it sees as a threat.”
VOA pointed out a second source of friction in the alliance concerning the General Security of Military Information Agreement, further fallout from deteriorating South Korean-Japanese relations: “In August, Seoul announced it would withdraw from (the) General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Tokyo. That came during a trade row that broke out in the summer, a disagreement rooted in South Korea’s historical grievances over forced labor during the Japanese colonial period from 1910 to 1940.”
The student break-in at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Seoul… is a flashing warning signal
The latest “progressive” students’ actions reflect a traditional ideological right-left split that has long been a central fact of South Korean political life.
It dates back to the traumatic days at the end of the Second World War when the peninsula was divided by foreign powers.
Korean nationalistic feelings seem to always lie just below the surface. These feelings have led to periodic public outbursts of anti-American resentment over the presence of U.S. troops.
The last major eruption followed a tragic accident in June 2002, when two 13-year-old South Korean schoolgirls were crushed to death by a U.S. armored vehicle on a country road. This led to the narrow (2 percent of the vote) election victory of progressive and reportedly anti-America inclined Roh Moo-hyun later that year, the political mentor of South Korea’s current president.
It also led to the cancellation of a major congressional delegation’s visit to Seoul in December of that year, led by then-House Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, due to the presence of “up to one million anti-American demonstrators” on Seoul’s streets – as the delegation was informed while still in Tokyo.
In the intervening years, Korean nationalism has been directed more at Japan for its colonial occupation and for such past human rights violations as forced labor and the ‘comfort women’ issue – responses to which include the statue placed across from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in 2011.
There was also resentment toward China, mobilized by the “save my friend” movement in South Korea protesting Beijing’s forced repatriation of North Korean asylum seekers.
There was also nationalist resentment directed at Beijing’s economic pressure on Seoul in response to the 2016 deployment of the U.S.’s Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile battery in South Korea.
Climbing the walls of the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Seoul has occurred once before.
The Los Angeles Times reported thirty years ago, in the fall of 1989, that “prosecutors in Seoul indicted six radical students in connection with an attack on the U.S. ambassador’s residence last month and ordered a nationwide manhunt for four other suspects. Government prosecutors said criminal charges were filed against Jung Chung Rae, a senior at Seoul’s Konkuk University, and five others as a result of the Oct. 13 attack on the residence of U.S. Ambassador Donald Gregg in Seoul. The six students are accused of climbing over a stone wall, hurling homemade bombs at guards and smashing artwork and windows in Gregg’s living room. He and his wife escaped unharmed.”
Security personnel informed me subsequently, as I was then serving as U.S. consul in Busan, that the students were carrying flammable materials. I was told that their goal was to set fire to the traditional Korean wooden structure where the Ambassador resided and burn it to the ground.
South Korean “progressive” students in the late 1980s were enamored by British historian Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.
They were speculating that the “Yankee” Empire, which they perceived as engaging in a military occupation of their country, was about to follow the pattern Kennedy laid out and collapse.
Of course just a month after the break-in at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Seoul, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down – and it turned out that it was the Soviet Empire, not the American, that had been pushed to the brink.
The students’ chants indicate that they may be blissfully unaware that they are promoting President Trump’s nationalist call to crack down on “deadbeat” allies
My own experience with South Korean student radicalism came a few years later, as a result of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
A delegation of Busan community leaders, including students, called at the consulate to complain that then-President George H. W. Bush was not doing enough to protect their ethnic Korean brethren: Korean-American businesses in Koreatown in Los Angeles were being vandalized during the riots.
I explained that under America’s federal system – a concept largely not understood in South Korea where political power was then centralized in the capital of Seoul – it was the mayor of Los Angeles and governor of California who were responsible for maintaining law and order, not the president.
I thought that had resolved the matter until I was leaving the office that evening. My car was hit by a firebomb hurled by some students who had remained behind to protest further.
Fortunately, the firebomb bounced off the trunk and ignited in the street. But violence was not ruled out as a tactic by South Korean “progressive” students three decades ago.
The student break-in at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Seoul, although not a first and fortunately not involving any violence this time, is a flashing warning signal.
Strains in the U.S.-South Korean alliance are on the rise again. Skillful alliance management, beyond inflammatory remarks about “deadbeat” allies, is needed in an era of diminishing U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific and with the twin challenges of North Korea’s nuclear development and a rising China.
The alliance appears to be at a crossroads as the Asia-Pacific region undergoes its first major security transition since the end of the Second World War.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: The White House