I’ve been trying to prepare to write a review of Cows Gone Wild!! Hysteria — and I stumbled across something that could turn into a good post — if I don’t lose my way.
I was thinking about the future of President Lee’s time in office – specifically – whether he’d get the chance to exercise his voter-mandate now that the beef issue has died down —
— and that made me think of Pres. Roh’s tenure in office – and it became highly interesting.
What mandate was Roh given by voters in 2002?
Since the majority of the readers here are fairly familiar with South Korean society already —- I won’t have to go to the trouble of justifying this next statement: That Roh won a very close election thanks to his anti-US in Korea credentials.
So, due to that fact — was his election victory a mandate to significantly alter the status quo in the SK-US relationship?
Again, people familiar with Korean society over the last few years would unanimously say the answer to that question is — Most certainly not.
In fact, Korean society put great pressure on Roh to fight against the US Defense Department’s attempts to fundamentally alter the status quo.
Also in point of fact, one of Roh’s first actions as president gives us an excellent idea of the position Roh found himself in immediately after winning office:
I’m talking about his trip to Washington DC to meet with President Bush.
Many will remember —- one of Roh’s key campaign pledges — was specifically that — he would be the first president in Korean history NOT to fly over to America to “kowtow” for the White House.
(See this CNN article for a run down of all of this and what Roh thought his mandate was just as he stepped into the Blue House)
Another thing he boasted about at this time – as he tried to squeeze out those last few votes that might push him over the top — was how proud he was that he had never traveled to America before in his life.
So — since he said all that in the home stretch of the election – and it helped him win —– what should we expect as a reaction when he immediately broke that promise?
When Korean voters saw Roh rush over to the US after assuming the presidency — and saw him “kowtowing” to President Bush — a man despised by most of Korean society —- what would any reasonable person believe should have happened?
South Korean society breathing a sigh of relief should not have come close to entering your head while pondering that question —
—- but that is exactly what happened.
And expats in the K-blogsphere, who generally understand South Korea’s complex relationship with the US, were not surprised at Korean society’s reaction.
During this time period, the US media was giving a very large amount of attention to the anti-American frenzy taking place in Korea. 60 Minutes was doing specials in which a 3 or 4 star general in charge of troops in Korea broke down crying at a simple question about how he felt seeing hundreds of thousands of Koreans marching in the street burning American flags.
What was worse — from the Korean point of view —- Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was boldly calling South Korea’s bluff — stating the US would gladly take all US troops out if Korea wanted.
He even went further — he announced – regardless of Korea’s wishes – the US was going to take 1/3rd of the troops out no matter what.
That is the context in which President Roh made his trip to Washington to meet with Bush.
Korean society made him go back on his promise not to kowtow — because they were petrified they had gotten too carried away in their anti-American fun and might have done real damage to the relationship. (Well, they knew they had done real damage – so much so – they felt they had to do something to repair it)
No. Roh’s victory most definitely did not mean he had a mandate to fundamentally alter the US relationship.
In fact, the reason he won the close election – is exactly what caused Korean society to turn on him and hem his administration in for the next 5 years.
Every chance they got, no matter what Roh did, the voters voted his party out and put pressure on him to do things that were not in his character or ideology.
Like sending troops to Iraq.
Looking at what Korean society professes to believe — would any rational person believe —– they would have supported Roh’s decision to send troops to Iraq (and Afghanistan)?
Iraq War II was always highly unpopular in South Korea.
George Bush has always been despised — especially after he embarrassed President Kim Dae-Jung at the White House when he pissed on the Sunshine Policy.
There is still a very bitter taste over Korea’s government sending a large number of troops to fight with the Americans in Vietnam.
And again — Roh was pushed over the top thanks to his anti-US past.
So, when he decided to send troops to Iraq, why didn’t we see at least as many Koreans filling the streets day-after-day demanding his head on a platter —- as we witnessed over President Lee’s US beef deal????
Flash forward to Lee and the beef deal:
Would any rational person have guessed that his trip to Washington after his taking office and his signing a beef deal —- would have caused such a uproar?
Roh — a man who defined a state visit to Washington as “kowtowing” does it — and Korean society feels better.
Lee — a man Korean society hoped would further undue the damage done to the US relationship by the 2002 orgy of anger – and Roh’s presidency —- goes to Washington and — Korean society screams he is kowtowing!!
And look at the fact Pres. Lee was invited to Camp David — the first for a Korean president.
Did Korean society breathe a sigh of relief after having walked on egg-shells for five years under Roh – scared every time one of Roh’s people said something in public that could damage the US relationship — like the Unification Minister saying it was the “invisible hand” of the US ruining Korea as far back as the Taft-Katsura “Treaty” —– ???
No. Just the opposite:
Safe in the knowledge that the US relationship will be better off under Lee —- they went nuts — attacking him for doing exactly what they expected (and wanted) him to do!!!
A rational person might scratch his head at this point.
Even Lee, a man of Korean society, was flabbergasted.
But…..I think it all makes sense.
Anybody who has been reading my coverage of anti-US culture over the years — would get it.
I know I have beat this point a lot this year —-
—– but —— I did predict we’d see this kind of thing happen.
I was saying for the past couple of years, once Korean voters had the chance to replace Roh with a GNP-er — we would have to start watching for a return of typical anti-US activity.
This was predictable.
It fits with what I’ve been saying about Korea’s anti-US culture since 2000:
Anti-US culture became a habit during the period of resistance to Korea’s authoritarian government.
By the mid-1990s, however, which is when I first went to Korea, it had evolved into primarily a way to stoke feelings of nationalism.
It was something meant only for internal Korean consumption.
It was not something Korean’s wanted to reach international ears.
And it was also something they did not want their president to put into actual policy.
In short, Korean society wanted to have their cake and eat it too:
They want strong trade relations with the US and the US military security blanket — but they want to feel better about being Korea – in a somewhat masochistic way — by periodically beating the hell out of the relationship with the US.
It’s a “Han” thing….
Is this person happy?
It does look like he is smiling.
But, as Koreans will tell any foreigner who’ll bother to listen — this is Han…
The squinty eyes and gaping smile — actually represent a deep, profound sadness — “that no foreigner can understand.”
It’s a Korean thing….
Koreans are raised from the earliest age about this Han thing.
And they are taught about “Korea’s-five-thousand-year-history-of-being-invaded-and-pushed-around-by-other-countries” yada yada yada….
…..you hear this ad nauseum in Korean society….
So, it shouldn’t be that hard to understand why —- Korea’s anti-US culture functions as it does.
Koreans are smart enough to understand how their bread gets buttered.
They understand the benefits of a working relationship with the US.
They want that relationship to remain strong.
If any Korean president tries to damage it, he’ll get his head handed to him. Roh understood that —- and adjusted his policies away from his ideology…..
But, Korean society also —- loves to enjoy beating up on that relationship. It makes them happy — in a somewhat sick, masochistic way. It makes them feel like they are doing the opposite of saddaeism (serving the great) — and makes them feel like they are fighting against their 5,000 years of oppression.
So, President Lee shouldn’t be too confused for too long on why or how his impressive mandate given in the election was so immediately ripped from his hands — for going to the US and signing a minor trade deal with Washington….
It’s simply habit.
And now that Korean society has had a couple months of fun —
—- I expect Korean society will — unlike with Roh —- allow Lee to get back to putting policies in place that match his ideology.
If he makes deals with the US to shore up the military alliance or strengthen trade between the two nations, I think he’ll get public support.
Maybe a year to a year and a half from now – they’ll pound him over something large or small connected to the US in Korea.
But, he should have smooth sailing for awhile.