“Anti-americanism” – an important law of thumb

I guess it is not only my experience – looking upon the past and getting oneself surprised about “how could I say/do this?” 15 years ago, when I was a 3-year student, on exchange at Koryo University, I once suggested in a discussion with my advisor at that time, Prof. Cho Kwang, that the presence of the American troops in South Korea might have benefited the smooth development of Korea’s capitalism by bringing stability and defraying the security costs South Korea was in no position to shoulder in the beginning. Further, I lamented that no GIs were forthcoming to the USSR, in the pains of (what I considered at that time) “transition to democracy”. Prof. Cho was in a sort of consternation on having heard this revelation from his 18-year old charge, but, being possibly the gentlest person I have ever met in Korea (and, frankly, elsewhere as well), just limited himself to saying that foreign troops is not something a normal nation-state is supposed to depend upon. Well, if I were to hear something like my 1991 apologetic account of the GI presence from somebody today, I am afraid my reaction may be much harsher…. An interesting thing – in the USSR back in 1991, the positiveness of the attitude towards the former cold war enemy was in reverse proportion to the intensity of the Stalinist denunciations of “American imperialism”. Folks back then used to read Pravda assuming that the truth was the direct opposite of what was written – the sort of attitude NYT and WP readers seem to be seriously lacking. For many people around me, America was a sort of great unknown – and was assumed to offer some solutions for “our” problems – while the evils of Stalinist system were more than well known. And today, after 15 years, the malnutrition and chaos of the IMF-dominated early 1990s, after the ruins of Belgrade and Baghdad… I am afraid that if some bolder tourist company in Moscow would recruit clients for a week-long hunt for some unlucky GIs in cooperation with a business-minded Iraqi resistance group, the business would prosper. The euphoria of the early 1990s is gone, and a stubborn, strongly emotion-laden enemy picture has taken its place – after 15 years of getting better, more direct knowledge about what a combination of McDonalds with McDouglas (and also Harvard University – where many of the consultants for the “Yeltsin reforms” happened to come from) may mean for “the rest” of the world, and after a decade of economic growth, which, at least, gave a part of the urban middle classes an option of NOT going to the Russian branches/affiliates of the assorted Mcs hat in hand looking for a job.

So, a rule of thumb is here – a decade of more of being directly subject to GI presence/”shock therapy” on Dr.Reagan’s precepts/”vicarious assaults” (many people in Moscow or Beijing assumed that the bombs pouring upon Belgrade were pouring upon them too) and more + some degree of capitalist well-being (a more or less definite position inside the world capitalist system) = outpouring of the “anti-hegemonic sentiments”. Not to be confused with anti-imperialist/anti-capitalist ones – as the majority of those (reportedly up to 10 thousand) Muscovites who telephoned Iraqi embassy back in 2003 asking whether they may be of any help in the Defence of Baghdad, had no intention of defending Grozny against the assault of their “own” thugs in uniforms a couple of years before that. In fact, strongly nationalist/masculine/militaristic “anti-hegemonism” is largely destroying the ground for the real anti-imperialism/anti-capitalism – just like the way it happens with the NL (“national liberation”)-dominated Korean left today.

Back to Korea! The same rule of thumb applies here as well. Before 1945, when the “white men’s burden” was mostly borne “in the Korean field” by several hundred of missionaries, and for the majority of Koreans, even for those with some education, “America” was more of a myth than reality, “anti-Americanism” in Korea – if we do not count the official Japanese Imperial declarations against “Anglo-American beasts” after 1941 – amounted to very little. Well, Yun Ch’iho (1865-1945) bitterly complained in his diary about being racially insulted and gravely assaulted while in the US in 1888-1893, and struggled not to lose the newfound faith in the Protestant God in the sight of the dog-eats-dog realities of God’s “chosen country” – but he chose to follow a typically American combination of Protestantism and Social Darwinism, and did not explicitly criticise the US in his published Korean writings until it became a trendy issue at the beginning of the Pacific War. An Ch’angho (1878-1938) was in a perfect position to know what racism against “Orientals” meant, as he, unlike Yun, lived in the US as a migrant worker/activist, not as a student, but he chose a typical middle-class, Protestant trick of blaming the victim for its own victimization – and mostly criticized Koreans’ supposed lack of “hygiene”, “moral strength” and good manners, not the institutionalized racism of the host country. Pak Honyong (1900-1955), Korea’s great – if misled – Communist, made some good salvos against the American Myth back in 1925:

“세상은 米國建國의 역사를 보고 淸敎徒的 殉道의 정신과 英雄的 行爲가 충만하다고 찬미하나 그것은 표면만 본 皮相的 관찰이 아니면 그짓말로서 정확한 史實을 숨기는데 불과하다.
米國의 역사는 「土人虐殺」로 그 첫페이지가 열린다.
米國에 처음 이주한 歐洲人은 新領土의 森林과 荒野에 사는 土人을 放逐하고 土民을 학살하고 土人의 住家를 약탈하는 일이 彼等에게 上帝가 준 「神聖한 事業」이엿다. 원래 土人은 歐洲人의 移住에 대하야 적극적으로 능동적으로 방해한 것이 아니엇다. 그런데 和蘭人, 佛人, 英人, 西班人들은 基督敎의 博愛主義를 신봉하고 맘대로 土民의 住家를 蹂躪하고 粉碎하고 彼等을 虐殺 屠戮하고 그리고 서서히 彼等에게 愛의 福音을 선전하엿다.
神을 사랑하고 사람을 불상히 녀긴다는 淸敎徒는 토인의 土地를 약탈하고 土人의 가옥을 태우고 土人을 죽이고 토인을 죽이지 안해도 土人을 속이어 彼等의 富를 맨드럿다.” (“歷史上으로 본 基督敎의 內面”, < 개벽>, Issue 63, Nov. 1925, pp. 67-68)

“The first page of America’s history begins with the ‘massacre of the natives'” – NOBODY said this in such an open way in the whole 30-40 year-long history of Korea’s modern intelligentsia before Pak, and that may be one more reason to appreciate the contribution of the Communists to our modern ideological development. But then, the same Pak happened to believe in September 1945 that the invading GIs are “our liberators from a democratic country” (the Soviet Stalinists, who worked with him at that point, are partly to be blamed) – until the “democrats” sent him fleeing in September 1946. So, the pre-1945 “anti-Americanism” was a bookish exercise at best, without a systematic, independent approach, or sometimes just a simple personal reaction against mistreatment. In 1950-70, we have some intellectuals coming to the understanding that the externally imposed hegemonic power greatly limited the possible range of development for the country (the brilliant poet Kim Suyong, for example), but that did not come to the mass level even among the intellectuals – Korea was still too poor to allow itself the luxury of standing up to its Big Brother. And the breakthrough came, as is well-know, after Kwangju 1980 – when Korea accumulated enough experience with the “democratic liberators”, and when its middle classes became confident enough to question whether they needed their erstwhile benefactors any more. That is how I explain the origins of the “NL mood” among quite a big stratum of Korea’s educated (I do not necessarily speak about hardcore “chusap’a”). And I am sure, this phenomenon – just like back there in Moscow – will stay and flourish here, given the fact that the New Rome still did not learn to retreat gracefully.


  1. Nice piece, I’m glad somewhat is posting here again. When I think about the notes, I realize that the common thems was things to make Noja feel better. Here they are:

    – It may make you feel better to know that many right-wingers would love to withdraw the American troopsfrom Korea.

    – It may make you feel better to know that I personally don’t trust the NYT or the WP. Those commie ragas are no good.

    – It may make you feel better to know that many on the American right opposed the war in Kosovo. We believed that the Europeans should have taken the lead in that conflict.

    If that doesn’t make you feel better, maybe I should just give you a hug.

    BTW, thanks for refering to the USA as ‘New Rome.’ It would really be something if we could maintain its hegemonic status for 300-400 years. The Brits only kept theirs for about 150 years.

  2. If I were an American right-winger myself, I probably would have loved to have the US troops withdrawn from Korea too. It is not a particularly good investment of money and capasity unless you do not opt for a sort of “final solution of North Korean problem” here and now – after all, there is Okinawa nearby anyway. But that is a perpetual problem of all empires – there are always some smarter planners in the center who would prefer to steer clear of any overstretch and streamline the commitments putting the imperial sinews at the right (that is resource rich/close to the main centers of the potential rivals) places, and then there are overblown bureaucracies and the vested interests on the local level around. The life on an American base in a safe and calm place like Korea must be a good thing many people would not like to miss…

  3. Pak Noja. I am confused. “the first page of America’s history begins with the massacre of the natives?” Are we speaking of the European conquest of the Caribbean, Cortes’ conquest of Mexico, Pizarro’s conquest of Peru, or the North American historical experience (which is an amalgam of British and French colonial histories). Or are we speaking of the U.S. in the 19th Century (which wouldn’t qualify as “first page”). I remember reading Engels’ accounts of a very utopian communism among North American natives in New York state, but they were hardly contemporary accounts of high reliability. As for the invading GIs, did South Koreans have any more say in the early development of their government than the North Koreans did in the development of the Kim Il-sung regime? Dr. Lankov’s articles, coupled with the comments gleaned from various studies on U.S. military government in Korea, noting the difficulties in dealing with Rhee Syngman, suggests to me that neither regime had much success in standing up to its respective “Big Brother”, but of the two, Rhee had far more flexibility with the Americans. But then, at the time, he was the more experienced politician. And what does Kwangju have to do with the Americans? By the way, I am all for pulling U.S. bases out of Korea, but even this ROK government appears split on the issue. All Koreans have to do is elect a government that stands on a platform of telling the Americans to leave.

    On a mundane note, please accept my best wishes for a Happy and Prosperous New Year.

  4. Concerning the “massacre of the natives” – my understanding of Pak Honyong’s text is that he basically meant the sad story of the relationship between the white, Protestant settlers and the original Americans (“Indians”) throughout 17-19 C. Where his knowledge of American history comes from is quite uncertain, but, judging from the word usage etc. I suspect he gleaned some facts from the contemporary Japanese accounts and then interpreted them in a very critical light. By the way, Pak Honyong had very good command of English – the lectures at the KUTV in Moscow he attended in 1928-1931, were primarily in English. His English notes are still kept by his son intact!
    Then, about Rhee Syngman’s government – yes, he was famous for his lobbying skills in Washington and his ability to drive crazy the Empire’s proconsuls in Seoul. but everybody knew that Am. aid made up to 70% of the currency earnings in the budget of the “independent Korean state” – and when US understood that Rhee outlived his usefullness and started to screw down the aid, the regime was doomed.

    Anyway, have a Happy New Year too!

  5. Noja’s attitudes seem typical of people in China who at first expect the US to be perfect, and then discover that it is not and therefore declare it to be evil.
    I figured out already that this blog had a communist, slightly anti-US tilt, but calling this tirade scholarship or an explanation of history is just ridiculous. All it seems to be saying is that expect for some intellectuals, Koreans didn’t realize the obvious (that the US is an evil empire hellbent on oppressing other countries) until after the Gwangju Massacre.
    Sorry, but it’s not so obvious to me. But then I suppose I’m just brainwashed by the New York Times, which of course is a tool of the US government.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.