South Korean Politics and Rising Anti-Americanism: Implications for U.S. Policy Toward North Korea
Report for Congress
South Korean Politics and Rising
“Anti-Americanism”: Implications for
U.S. Policy Toward North Korea
May 6, 2003
Mark E. Manyin
Analyst in Asian Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
South Korean Politics and Rising “Anti-Americanism”:
Implications for U.S. Policy Toward North Korea
In December 2002, South Koreans elected Roh Moo-hyun, a little-known, self-
educated lawyer, as their president. The left-of-center Roh narrowly defeated the
conservative candidate, Lee Hoi Chang. Roh ran on a platform of reform, pledging
to make South Korean politics more transparent and accountable, to make the
economy more equitable, and to make South Korea a more equal partner in its
alliance with the United States. During the campaign, Roh pledged to continue his
predecessor, Kim Dae Jung’s, “sunshine policy” of engaging North Korea, and
harshly criticized the Bush Administration’s approach to Pyongyang.
The 2002 election was notable for several inter-related reasons. First, it exposed
the deep generational divide among South Koreans. Roh was favored by voters
under the age of 45, who emerged during the election as an anti-status quo force. In
contrast, Lee easily won the votes of those over 45. Second, Roh’s victory was due
in part to his criticisms of the United States, and he benefitted from the massive
demonstrations in late 2002 protesting the acquittal of two U.S. servicemen who were
operating a military vehicle when it killed two Korean schoolgirls. Third, the
election and the anti-American demonstrations highlighted the growing influence and
sophistication of Korean civil society groups, which now have a significant voice in
determining policy outcomes in Seoul.
These shifts in the South Korean polity, particularly the rise in anti-
Americanism, confront the Bush Administration with a policy dilemma: how to
manage the U.S.-ROK alliance while pursuing a more confrontational approach
toward North Korea than that favored by many, if not most, South Koreans.
Institutionally, the South Korean presidency has few checks on its power. While
the unicameral National Assembly’s influence has been slowly rising since South
Korea became a democracy in 1987, it is hampered by formal and informal
limitations on its power. The National Assembly is controlled by the opposition,
right-of-center Grand National Party (GNP). The second-largest grouping is
President Roh’s party, the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP). Both major parties
are under significant internal stress, and there is speculation that they will split and
be reconstituted before the next quadrennial legislative election, to be held in April
This report will be updated periodically.
Noteworthy Aspects of the 2002 Presidential Election.............1
A Country Divided.........................................2
South Korea’s Political System.......................................2
A Weak Legislature........................................2
Decent r al i z at i o n ...........................................7
South Korea’s Media.......................................7
Current Political Situation and Analysis................................8
Relations with the United States under Roh.....................9
Relations with North Korea.................................10
Implications for the United States....................................11
The U.S.-ROK Alliance Cannot be Taken for Granted................11
Anti-American Sentiment Is Likely to Continue ....................12
A Need for Greater Public Outreach?.............................13
List of Figures
Figure 1. Political Regionalism in South Korea..........................5
South Korean Politics and Rising “Anti-
Americanism”: Implications for U.S. Policy
Toward North Korea
For most of the first four decades after the country was founded in 1948, South
Korea was ruled by authoritarian governments. Ever since the mid-1980s, when
widespread anti-government protests forced the country’s military rulers to enact
sweeping democratic reforms, democratic institutions and traditions have deepened
in South Korea. In 1997, long-time dissident and opposition politician Kim Dae
Jung (commonly referred to as “DJ”) was elected to the presidency, the first time an
opposition party had prevailed in a South Korean presidential election. By law,
Korean presidents can only serve one five-year term. In December 2002, Kim was
succeeded by a member of his party, Roh (pronounced “noh”) Moo-hyun, a self-
educated former human rights lawyer who emerged from relative obscurity to defeat
establishment candidates in both the primary and general elections. Roh campaigned
on a platform of reform — reform of Korean politics, economic policymaking, and
U.S.-ROK relations — to narrowly defeat conservative candidate Lee Hoi Chang in
the general election. Roh captured 48.9% of the vote to Lee’s 46.6%.
Prior to assuming the Presidency, Roh’s only previous government experience
was an eight-month term as Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries in 2000 and
2001, and two stints as a lawmaker in the National Assembly, from 1988-1992 and
1998-2000. During the 1990s, Roh lost two legislative elections and one bid for the
mayoralty of his hometown, Pusan. Ironically, during the presidential campaign, the
circumstances surrounding these defeats contributed to Roh’s image as a principled
Noteworthy Aspects of the 2002 Presidential Election. The 2002
election was notable for several inter-related reasons. First, it exposed the deep
generational divide among South Koreans. Exit polls showed that nearly 60% of
people in their 20s and 30s voted for Mr Roh, compared with less than 40% of people
in their 50s and 60s. It is perhaps not coincidental that those supporting Lee directly
experienced the Korean War (1950-53) and its immediate aftermath.
Roh, 56, himself represents a generational shift. Eleven years younger than Lee,
he also is the first South Korean president who was not an established political figure
when the country began to emerge from authoritarian rule in the late 1980s.
Second, Roh’s victory was due in part to his call for South Korea to become a
more “equal” partner in the U.S.-ROK alliance and to his criticism of U.S. policies
on the Korean peninsula. Roh pledged to largely continue Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine
policy” of engaging North Korea. Although these views resonated most strongly
among younger generations of South Koreans, they have entered the mainstream of
Korean society, as shown by the massive demonstrations in late 2002 protesting the
acquittal of two U.S. servicemen who were operating a military vehicle when it killed
two Korean schoolgirls.
Third, the election and the anti-American demonstrations highlighted the
growing influence and sophistication of Korean civil society groups, which now have
a significant voice in determining policy outcomes in Seoul. Many of these
organizations garnered support for Roh during the election campaign and organized
the anti-U.S. protests and the “Red Devil” rallies to cheer South Korea’s national
team on to the semifinal during the 2002 Soccer World Cup. The groups’ goals and
means — which tend to rely heavily upon networking through the Internet — have
been particularly effective in encouraging younger Koreans to become politically
active. Higher-than-expected turnout of younger voters benefitted Roh, as overall
turnout in the 2002 election was a record low of 70%, compared with 80% in the
A Country Divided. The challenge facing Roh, who was inaugurated on
February 25, 2003, is how to carry out his reform agenda despite the deep divisions
in South Korea. The country is split not only generationally, but also regionally. The
National Assembly is controlled by the opposition Grand National Party (GNP). And
Roh’s own party, the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) is also divided between
his supporters and a large faction of party elders that nearly succeeded in ousting Roh
as the MDP’s presidential candidate several weeks before the election.
Roh’s task will be complicated by the National Assembly elections scheduled
to take place in April 2004. These are likely to exacerbate the zero-sum tendency in
South Korean politics, in which ruling and opposition parties rarely cooperate.
Furthermore, both the ruling MDP and opposition GNP are under significant internal
stress, and there is speculation that there will be a major political realignment before
the next legislative election.
South Korea’s Political System
A Weak Legislature. Nominally, power in South Korea is shared by the
President, who is elected to one five-year term, and the 273-member unicameral
National Assembly. National Assembly members are elected to 4-year terms. Of
these, 227 members represent single-member constituencies. The remaining 46 are
“at large” members selected on the basis of proportional voting. As mentioned
above, the next legislative elections will be held in April 2004.
Since the Assembly’s powers were enhanced in the 1987 constitution, it has at
times altered the political climate by providing opposition parties with a forum to
criticize, inspect, and attempt to embarrass the executive branch. Indeed, one of the
Assembly’s major accomplishments since 1987 has been to institutionalize its
oversight of the executive; executive branch officials regularly appear before
committees, helping to make South Korean policy-making more transparent. Also,
from time to time, opposition parties have used Assembly proceedings to
successfully stymie presidential initiatives, usually by boycotting legislative sessions.
In reality, however, the President continues to be the dominant force in South
Korean policymaking, as formal and informal limitations prevent the National
Assembly from initiating major pieces of legislation. For instance, the Korean
constitution grants the Assembly the power only to cut funds from the President’s
budget, not to propose any increases or alter the executive’s budgetary allocations.
(Article 57) Also, the Assembly must act on the budget not later than thirty days
before the start of the new fiscal year on January 1. (Article 54)
South Korean legislators suffer from numerous other limitations. They have
little in the way of legislative support agencies, and the typical Seoul legislative
office is staffed by three salaried, full-time workers. Even the Prime Minister, who
has little power, is nominated by the President. The fact that parties in the Assembly
repeatedly have resorted to the brinkmanship tactic of the boycott reflects the
legislative branch’s weakness.
Institution-Building by the National Assembly. Roh’s election has
accelerated moves by the opposition Grand National Party (GNP), which controls the
National Assembly, to increase the National Assembly’s resources through the
creation of institutions modeled after the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, the
Congressional Research Service, and/or the General Accounting Office.
The Assembly’s Other Powers. A bill in the National Assembly may be
introduced by members or by the executive branch. If passed, a bill is sent to the
executive for presidential promulgation within 15 days. The President may veto the
bill and send it back to the National Assembly for reconsideration. If the assembly
overrides the veto with the concurrence of two-thirds or more of members present,
the bill will become law. With respect to the judiciary, the consent of the National
Assembly is also required for the presidential appointment of all Supreme Court
justices. Also required is the ratification by the Assembly of treaties and agreements
as well as international acts or conventions to which South Korea is a signatory. The
declaration of war, the dispatch of troops
abroad, or the stationing of foreign troops in
South Korea’s Major PoliticalSouth Korean territory requires the consent
Parties, as of August 2002 of the Assembly as well.
(273 seats in the National Assembly.)
Political Parties. South Korean
GNP — (Grand National Party, 153political parties form, disband, and merge
seats) Victories in the August 2002 bi-regularly, in part because they tend to be
elections gave the GNP its firstregionally-based and centered around
majority in the National Assemblycharismatic personalities rather than
MDP — (Millennium Democraticsubstantive issues. It is not uncommon for
Party, 101 seats) The party ofmembers of the National Assembly to jump
President Roh Moo-hyun. Foundedfrom one party to another, a practice that
by former President Kim Dae Jung.has led to considerable disaffection among
The MDP controlled the Nationalthe South Korean electorate. During the
Assembly via an alliance with another2002 presidential election, Roh Moo-hyun
party until September 2001.benefitted from his image of a principled
politician who had suffered personally because of his resolution not to participate in
these political machinations. In 1990, Roh chose not to follow his mentor and long-
time opposition leader, Kim Young Sam, into an alliance with the then-ruling party,
a decision that contributed to Roh’s defeats in the 1992 National Assembly election
and the 1995 Pusan mayoralty election. In 1992, Kim won the presidential election.
Presently, there are three major political parties in South Korea: President Roh
Moo-hyun’s center-left ruling Millennium Democratic Party (MDP, formerly the
National Congress for New Politics), which has 101 seats in the National Assembly
(137 seats constitutes a parliamentary majority); the generally conservative
opposition Grand National Party (GNP), which at 153 seats has a majority in the
Assembly; and the smaller (14 seats) conservative United Liberal Democrats (ULD),
which is led by the veteran politician Kim Jong-pil and has declined dramatically in
size and influence in recent years. In April 2003, the GNP further increased its
majority by winning 2 of 3 bi-elections that were notable for a turnout of below 30%,
the lowest in nearly 40 years.
There is speculation that there may be a major political realignment before the
April 2004 National Assembly elections. The MDP and GNP both are undergoing
unsettled times. The GNP, which suffered from defections early in the presidential
campaign, is still recovering from Lee Hoi Chang’s defeat. The divisions are even
more acute in the MDP, where Roh’s base of support within the ruling party is
confined to a relatively small group of younger reformers. During the presidential
election, the party’s “establishment” figures favored another candidate who Roh
defeated in the MDP’s primaries — the country’s first-ever — in the winter of 2002.
Later in the presidential campaign, opposition to Roh inside the MDP grew to such
an extent that several party leaders publicly talked of disbanding and forming a new
party led by another candidate. Some political analysts speculate that Roh may seek
to gather into a new party reformist politicians from the MDP, GNP, and smaller
Regionalism. South Korean politics is highly regionalized. The MDP’s base
is in the southwestern Cholla region (also known as Honam), where Roh won 93%
of the vote in the 2002 presidential election. (See Figure 2) In the last nation-wide
National Assembly elections, held in April 2000, no GNP candidate won any of
Cholla’s 29 seats.
Conversely, GNP candidate Lee Hoi Chang won 71% of the vote in the
southeastern Kyongsang region (also known as Yongnam), the GNP’s stronghold.
In the 2000 National Assembly elections, the GNP won 64 of the 65 constituencies
in Kyongsang. Before Kim Dae Jung’s victory in 1997, South Korea’s military
governments gave preferential treatment to the Kyongsang region, leading Cholla
residents to accuse the government of discrimination. The greater Seoul area, which
is the home of nearly half of the South Korean electorate, has emerged as the swing
vote. There has been discussion of combating regionalism by adopting multiple-seat
constituencies in the National Assembly.
Figure 1. Political Regionalism in South Korea
Corruption. Corruption appears to be institutionalized in political and
economic life in South Korea. The country regularly receives poor marks on
international indexes of bribe-taking and other forms of corruption, in part because
the economy remains highly regulated compared to many other industrialized
nations.1 President Kim Dae Jung made fighting corruption a high priority when he
was elected in 1997. However, in 2002, when his two younger sons were arrested on
charges of influence peddling, Kim became the third successive Korean president to
be tainted by major money-related scandals during his final months in office. Both
sons were convicted, and one was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. The
scandals led Kim to resign from the MDP. Ironically, during his long years as an
opposition politician, President Kim frequently had railed against the corruption and
insularity of the ruling establishment. The former GNP opposition leader, Lee Hoi
Chang, has also been tainted with corruption allegations of arranging for his son to
avoid Korea’s mandatory 26-month military service. President Roh has pledged to
reduce corruption, particularly in the office of the prosecutor-general, which has been
tainted by bribery scandals.
NGOs. Since the end of military rule, non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
have increased dramatically in South Korea, particularly in the past five years. The
groups exist on both the local and national levels, range widely in size, and focus on
a wide array of issues, including the environment, government and corporate
corruption, disability rights, women’s rights, crimes committed by U.S. forces in
Korea, revising the U.S.-ROK Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), and returning
land used by U.S. forces. Many international NGOs have set up local chapters in
Seoul. In contrast to the student-led, class-based groups of the 1980s that spent much
of their time organizing militant anti-government and anti-U.S. protests, an
increasing number of NGOs have hiring permanent staff, fundraisers, and research
offices.2 As they have begun to professionalize their operations, they seem to have
begun to have a greater impact on South Korean domestic and foreign policy.
South Korean NGOs have been particularly adept at forming loose, temporary
coalitions with one another to organize large-scale protests on a particular issue.
Many of the most successful examples of citizen activism in South Korea involved
the formation of umbrella organizations that pool the resources of member groups.
The country’s rapid adoption of the Internet — South Korea has one of the world’s
highest rates of Internet usage — has facilitated such networking by enabling groups
1 Berlin-based Transparency International, for instance, gave South Korea a score of 4.5 on
its 2002 corruption perception index, with “0"indicating “highly corrupt and “10"
representing “highly clean.” The United States scored a 7.7. The index aggregates surveys
of well-informed people” with regard to the extent of corruption, defined as the misuse of
public power for private benefit, and indicated by the frequency of corrupt payments, the
value of bribes paid, and the resulting obstacle imposed on businesses. Additionally, Southth
Korean companies scored a 3.9 — 18-lowest of the world’s 21 largest exporters — on
Transparency International’s bribe payers index, which measures perceptions of the
likelihood that companies will pay bribes when they do business abroad. “0" indicates “high
bribery” and “10" indicates “low bribery.” U.S. companies scored a 5.3. Transparency
International, Global Corruption Report 2003, p. 262-67;
[ h t t p : / / www.gl oba l c or r upt i onr e por t .or g] .
2 Katharine Moon, “Korean Nationalism, Anti-Americanism, and Democratic
Consolidation,” in Samuel S. Kim, ed., Korea’s Democratization, (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2003).
to quickly establish linkages, coordinate activities, and spread the word about protest
activities.3 The anti-American protests in 2002 were a case in point.
Decentralization. The growing influence of Korean civil society groups has
been possible in part because of the growing decentralization of power in South
Korea. In the early and mid-1990s, new laws were passed creating local assemblies
and establishing popular election of local officials for the first time since the 1950s.
Increased local autonomy has encouraged political consciousness and activism, as
South Koreans have come to expect local and national elected leaders to be more
responsive and accountable to their constituents.4 Despite these changes, Seoul
remains the locus of political power in South Korea, in part because local
governments have little authority to impose their own taxes.5 President Roh Moo-
hyun has vowed to further decentralize political power giving more autonomy to the
provinces and by transferring certain executive offices to locations outside of Seoul.
South Korea’s Media. During the country’s period of military rule, South
Korea’s media operated under tight censorship rules. Additionally, the government
rewarded favorable coverage by exempting Korean newspapers from intrusive
scrutiny into the companies’ internal operations. In recent years, however, tensions
between the government and South Korea’s print media have surfaced, and appear
to have worsened under the current Roh administration.
South Korea has nearly two dozen major newspaper and broadcast companies.
Korea’s three leading mainstream newspapers, the Chosun Ilbo, Donga Ilbo, and the
JoongAng Ilbo, control about 70% of the market. All claim circulation figures of
between 1.8 and 2.1 million and have right-of-center political leanings. The leading
left-of-center daily, Hankyoreh, has an estimated readership of 400,000.6 In recent
years, many younger South Koreans have turned to internet news sources such as
Most Korean newspapers are affiliates of and/or highly dependent on the
advertising revenues from the country’s chaebol conglomerates, giving many an
allegedly predisposed hostility to the chaebol reforms pushed by former President
Kim Dae Jung and continued by President Roh. Traditionally, mainstream
newspapers have been opaque operations that have benefitted their corporate
patronage . Circulation figures are not independently audited, journalists are known
to accept pay-offs from companies and government agencies to supplement low
wages, and for years newspapers were exempt from tax audits. The government
3 March and April 2003 correspondence with Katharine Moon, Jane Bishop Associate
Professor of Political Science, Wellesley College, based on her November 2002 draft article,
“Political Sociology of USFK-Korea Relations,” p. 8-9.
4 March and April 2003 with Katharine Moon, and Moon, “Political Sociology of USFK-
Korea Relations,” p.13-14.
5 Paul Chamberlain, Korea 2010. The Challenges of the New Millenium, (Washington, DC:
CSIS Press, 2001), p. 109-10.
6 New York Times, “South Korea’s Conservative Press Takes Heat From the Liberals,” May
often has been reluctant to criticize the media because of fears that owners would
retaliate by publishing embarrassing stories. Korean newspapers’ political biases
frequently are reflected in their news coverage, and articles often are based upon
rumors or hearsay rather than actual evidence.7
In 2001, President Kim Dae Jung launched a highly public tax probe of the
country’s leading dailies that was criticized for targeting those papers that were most
critical of the government. During the 2002 campaign, President Roh frequently
complained about a “conservative” bias in the press and made greater openness in the
media an element of his reform platform. Since his inauguration, Roh has acted to
contain “unfair” ways newspapers “distort” government policies by replacing
restrictive press clubs with open press briefings and by requiring government
agencies to prepare daily summaries that classify newspaper articles into one of five
categories: “positive, straight and simple, constructive criticism, malicious criticism,
and error.” The reports are then to be sent to the Blue House, the President’s office.
Criticism over these moves contributed to the resignation of Roh’s appointee as
president of the state-run Korean Broadcasting System (KBS). Roh has also moved
to grant greater access to Korea’s internet publications that are widely used by
younger readers and many of which backed Roh during the election campaign.8
Current Political Situation and Analysis
Roh Moo-hyun won the South Korean Presidency by adopting a mantle of
reform, one that covers three areas: Korea’s relations with the United States, Korea’s
economic policy, and Korean politics. Additionally, Roh has pledged to continue the
essence of Kim Dae Jung’s sunshine policy toward North Korea, which he has
renamed the “peace and prosperity” policy.
“Anti-Americanism”. Anti-American sentiments have long been present in
South Korean society, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. After the end of
military rule they were largely confined to highly ideological groups, particularly
student organizations, that generally operated on the political margins in Korea. In
the late 1990s, however, criticisms of United States policy moved into the
mainstream, a move that also has made anti-Americanism less ideological and more
issue-specific. The criticisms range widely and include accusations that the Bush
Administration is not listening to South Koreans in general, that the Bush
Administration is blocking rapprochement between North and South Korea, that U.S.
forces in South Korea are not sufficiently accountable for crimes they commit in
South Korea, that the United States is covering up alleged atrocities committed
during the Korean War, and that the South Korean government too often caters to
7 Financial Times 2001 Survey of South Korea, “Tax Probes: Clean-up or a Charter for
Censorship?” October 24, 2001.
8 The Economist 2003 Survey of South Korea, “South Korea’s Press: A Question of
Distortion,” April 17, 2003; Chungang Ilbo (English Internet Version), “ROK Plan for
‘Daily Summaries’,” April 11, 2003; Asian Wall Street Journal, “No Sunshine for South
Korea’s Media,” March 20, 2003.
U.S. interests.9 Underlying these sentiments is the declining sense of threat that
South Koreans feel from North Korea. This trend was evident in the late 1990s, and
has deepened since the North-South Korean summit in June 2000.10 Two events in
President Bush’s inclusion of North Korea in his “axis of evil” countries, and the
June 2002 killing of two Korean schoolgirls by a U.S. military vehicle.
Critics of the United States tend to be younger than 50, and appear to fall into
three broad groups: 1) radical leftists, many of whom ideologically reject the U.S.-
ROK alliance and some of whom support North Korea; 2) nationalists, who resent
perceived intrusions into South Korea’s sovereignty by the United States (most
prominently, the U.S.-South Korea status of forces agreement) but who do not
necessarily oppose the alliance per se; and 3) individuals who support the alliance
but oppose U.S. policy on specific issues, such as alleged crimes committed by U.S.
servicemen. This latter group appears to be in the majority among current anti-
American activists.11 Some analysts have pointed out that a failure to address the
concerns of the latter group could exacerbate the problem by causing these
individuals’ concerns to morph into a nationalistic or ideological-based opposition
to the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
Opinion polls taken over the past few years generally have found that large
majorities of respondents favor a partial or total withdrawal of U.S. troops from
South Korea, though most holding this position say they favor a drawdown unless
there are improvements in North-South Korean relations; few favor an outright
withdrawal. The Bush Administration’s initiatives to act upon longstanding, but
never enacted, plans to reduce or redeploy U.S. forces, including an April 2003
pledge to move from the Yongsan base in Seoul, appear to have calmed the anti-base
movement somewhat. The Roh government has asked the U.S. not to undertake
these moves until the nuclear issue with North Korea is settled.
Relations with the United States under Roh. During the presidential
campaign, Roh tapped into anti-American sentiments in several ways. He criticized
the Bush Administration for not negotiating with North Korea. He called for
“modernizing” the U.S.-ROK alliance to make South Korea a more equal partner in
the relationship. He demanded a renegotiation of the U.S.-South Korea Status of
Forces Agreement (SOFA). And, Roh bucked South Korean tradition by not
traveling to the United States during the campaign. Indeed, Roh’s May 14, 2003
summit with President Bush in Washington, DC will be his first trip to the United
States. In the late 1980s, Roh called for a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces after
9 For a useful survey of the attitudes of more than 50 young (30-49 years-old) Korean
leaders, see William Watts, Next Generation Leaders in the Republic of Korea: Opinion
Survey Report and Analysis, April 2002. Available at
[ h t t p : / / www.ke i a .c om/ o t h e r Pa pe r s .ht m] .
10 For pre-summit evidence of this trend, see Norman Levin, The Shape of Korea’s Future.
South Korean Attitudes Toward Unification and Long-Term Security Issues, (RAND: Santa
Monica, CA, 1999).
11 Moon, “Korean Nationalism, Anti-Americanism, and Democratic Consolidation,” p. 137.
a hoped-for reunification with the North, a stance he backed away from during the
Since winning the election, Roh has sought to reduce bilateral tensions by
moderating the tone of many his statements regarding U.S.-South Korean relations.
Additionally, in March, he risked alienating many of his supporters by publicly
supporting the U.S.-led war against Iraq and promising to send 700 engineering and
medical troops to Iraq. Polls show that about 80% of South Koreans opposed the
invasion of Iraq. While Roh has expressed reservations about the war, he has
justified the move as necessary to maintain South Korea’s ability to influence U.S.
policy toward North Korea. The move prompted large anti-war demonstrations in
South Korea, leading the South Korean National Assembly to delay a vote on the
deployment three times. In response, Roh appeared before the National Assembly
— a rare event in South Korea — to personally appeal for the measure. The
deployment was approved on April 2, 2003, thanks to support from the opposition
GNP, which has long supported close alliance relations with the United States.
Relations with North Korea. Underlying the wave of America bashing in
South Korea is the declining sense of threat most South Koreans feel from North
Korea. During the presidential campaign, Roh called for a continuation of Kim Dae
Jung’s sunshine policy of engaging North Korea, albeit under a different name and
with broader domestic support. He frequently stated that “South and North Korea are
the two main actors in inter-Korean relations.” Additionally, he often criticized the
Bush Administration’s refusal to negotiate with Pyongyang, and on the eve of the
election stated that South Korea should try to play the role of a semi-neutral mediator
over the nuclear dispute between the two countries.
Roh has called for the North to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, though
he has opposed the Bush Administration’s desire to use economic sanctions to
achieve this end. Instead, he has called for a peaceful resolution of the problem
In his inaugural address, Roh put forth the vague outlines for a “policy of peace
and prosperity” on the Korean Peninsula, one that he said will include a greater
transparency than was true of the sunshine policy. This last item was a reference to
$500 million in secret payments the Hyundai corporation made to North Korea
shortly before the historic North-South Korean summit in June 2000. In March 2003,
Roh announced he would not oppose the formation of an independent prosecutor to
investigate charges that the Kim Dae Jung administration reimbursed Hyundai for
much of the payments. The prosecutor’s office reportedly began its probe in April
Although some in Washington, DC, viewed Roh’s main opponent, Lee Hoi
Chang, as a staunch critic of the sunshine policy, others believed that if elected, Lee
would not have ushered in a wholesale change in South Korea’s policy toward the
North. Though Lee called for a greater “reciprocity” in North-South relations, the
main thrust of his criticisms were about implementation rather than overall direction.
Lee proposed that further South Korean aid should be made conditional upon
reductions in the North’s military threat, a linkage that the Kim government did not
make, and that the Roh government has only implied without making explicit. Lee
also said that no new aid should be provided until North Korea dismantles its nuclear
Economic Policy. President Roh has stated that market-oriented reforms are
a key to achieving his goal of turning South Korea into “an international logistics and
financial hub in Northeast Asia.” During the campaign, Roh pledged to continue
Kim Dae Jung’s economic reforms, to force Korea’s huge conglomerates (chaebol)
to become more transparent and to redress Korea’s income gap, which has widened
since the country’s 1997 financial crisis. Since his inauguration in February, Roh has
pushed his chaebol reforms aggressively. His government has encouraged the
investigation and prosecution of fraudulent accounting of SK Global, the trading arm
of the third-largest chaebol, SK. His administration also is discussing proposals to
induce the chaebol to form holding companies that would reduce the power of the
founding families who currently dominate many conglomerates and reduce the
practice of cross-shareholding among individual companies within each
conglomerate. Although some chaebol leaders have adopted these practices on their
own, others have stated their opposition to the government’s proposals.
Roh’s ability to push through his reforms is expected to be made more difficult
by the country’s current economic slowdown. The Bank of Korea recently revised
its economic growth forecast for 2003 from 5.7% to 4.1%, due to rising tensions with
North Korea, rising oil prices, declining exports, the repercussions of the SK Global
scandal, and a slump in consumer confidence. Additionally, pursuing economic
reforms aggressively could require Roh to take steps that could antagonize South
Korean organized labor, which is one of the few big and coherent interest groups
with which Roh has close ties.12
Political Reforms. By allowing the National Assembly to appoint a
prosecutor to investigate Hyundai’s secret payments to North Korea, Roh was
seeking to fulfill three campaign goals: make North-South relations more transparent,
reduce corruption, and increase cooperation with the opposition GNP. Tactical,
bipartisan alliances on individual issues is a rarity in South Korea, where politics tend
to have a zero-sum quality. The GNP’s control of the legislature, a situation that
Kim Dae Jung did not face until the GNP took control in his third year in office,
makes it imperative that Roh periodically work with the opposition. However, such
political pragmatism risks alienating his base in the MDP. The fast-looming National
Assembly elections, to be held in April 2004, are likely to reduce the likelihood of
Roh and the GNP cooperating.
Implications for the United States
The U.S.-ROK Alliance Cannot be Taken for Granted
The deepening of democracy and related support for populist and nationalistic
policies in South Korea is likely to make U.S.-ROK alliance relations more difficult
12 Brian Barry, “Survey: South Korea. A Democratic Riddle,” The Economist, April 17,
to manage and reduces U.S. options in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and
A policy of confronting Pyongyang — for instance, by asking for the United
Nations to impose sanctions — almost certainly would require at least the tacit
cooperation of Seoul to be successful. A preemptive attack on North Korea’s known
nuclear facilities, as was contemplated by the Clinton Administration in 1994, would
likely be strongly opposed by the Roh government and the South Korean people. The
recent surge in anti-American sentiment also mean that a failure to obtain South
Korea’s cooperation could lead to a serious strain, if not a rupture, in the fifty year
old U.S.-ROK alliance. Yet suspicions of the Bush Administration’s policy toward
North Korea among many South Koreans arguably will make it politically costly for
President Roh to support a more confrontational approach if the United States
decides to pursue this course, particularly during a year when Roh’s party is trying
to capture the National Assembly.
On the other hand, Roh’s election could present the Bush Administration with
an opportunity. If Roh is persuaded to follow the United States’ lead, his outspoken
advocacy of engaging North Korea may position him to sell a more aggressive North
Korea policy to the South Korean public, which remains divided about how best to
deal with North Korea. As recently as the summer of 2002 — before the anti-
American protests grew in size — domestic disenchantment with Kim Dae Jung’s
sunshine policy appeared sufficiently strong that Roh began to distance himself from
Anti-American Sentiment Is Likely to Continue
NGO activity in South Korea tends to have an exaggerated peak-and-valley
nature that appears to be a direct result of what one U.S. scholar of Korean politics
has called a “loose, coalition style of civic activism.” Typically, a high-profile event
results in a few groups taking the lead in putting together a coalition of disparate
NGOs, resulting in large-scale protests. As issues lose steam, the activism fades
dramatically because each member organization has its own agendas that may have
nothing to do with the anti-American issue at hand.13
Thus, although the recent anti-American demonstrations have largely vanished
from South Korea’s streets, this does not necessarily mean that anti-American
sentiments have died down. It may only mean that the feelings are lying dormant
until either another event triggers a further round of protests or the fundamental
issues of concern are addressed. The recent announcements by the U.S. Department
of Defense that it plans to realign the structure of U.S. forces in South Korea may
represent a fundamental change that could address some of the concerns that have
generated anti-American attitudes.
13 March and April 2003 correspondence with Katherine Moon; Moon, “Political Sociology
of USFK-Korea Relations,” p.8-9.
A Need for Greater Public Outreach?
Roh Moo-hyun’s election demonstrated the degree to which Korean non-
governmental organizations now are able to influence South Korean politics and
policy. This development places constraints upon the Seoul government, which is
under pressure from its own citizens to be more accountable and transparent than
ever before. In turn, this perhaps points to a need for U.S. public diplomacy to focus
on reaching out to Korean interest groups and new online news sources. At one time,
particularly at the height of anti-American activity in the 1980s, the United States had
a large public affairs presence across South Korea. However, all of the USIS centers
in South Korea have been permanently closed for security reasons, replaced by
Internet libraries and increased public affairs staff in Seoul. Additionally, there are
few if any cultural exchanges conducted with South Korea.
For decades, South Korea foreign policy was dominated by a set of elites who
generally came from the same region, attended the same schools and universities, and
tended to have a similar world-view that revolved around maintaining a strong U.S.-
ROK alliance. This monopoly on power was broken somewhat in the 1997 election
of former opposition leader Kim Dae Jung. Roh’s election demonstrated that the
South Korean polity has shifted further, bringing to power a new set of individuals
who — like Roh himself — on the whole are younger, did not necessarily attend elite
schools, and are more apt to criticize the United States, particularly on matters
relating to North Korea and to the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula.
Indeed, many of these individuals have complained in the past that they have been
ignored by the United States, raising the point that perhaps the U.S. government
should make more concerted efforts to reach out to these groups, which often do not
rely upon the mainstream media for news and analysis. For their part, many U.S.
policymakers are worried that the number of defenders of the United States is
decreasing, outside of the conservative South Korean elite.
As reported out of the House International Relations Committee on May 8,
2003, the House version of The Foreign Relations Authorization Act for Fiscal Years
2004 and 2005 (H.R. 1950), contains four sections directed at U.S. public diplomacy
in Korea, including sections that: a) would create a new, $750,000 per year program
of summer institutes in the U.S. for Korean students; b) would increase funding for
the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program in Korea, which sends United
States citizens to serve as English language teaching assistants at Korean colleges
and high schools; c) convey the sense of the Congress that the U.S.-Korea Fulbright
program should try to expand beyond traditional Korean elites and elite institutions;
and d) convey the sense of the Congress that the Secretary of State should try to
establish a diplomatic presence in the city of Pusan.14
14 Respectively, these provisions are contained in sections 112(b)(3)(C), Sec. 112(b)(4)(G),
225, and 255 of H.R. 1950, as reported by the House International Relations Committee on
May 8, 2003.