Advice to Americans from their embassy: steer clear of massed Koreans

It’s Independence Day. So I’ll start with some advice emailed last Friday by the American Embassy to their citzens in Korea, and then consolidate a few related links on anti-americanism.

August 15 is Korean Liberation or Independence Day, and civil gatherings and demonstrations are expected throughout South Korea. A large demonstration is scheduled to start at approximately 0900 hours on August 15 in the vicinity of Yongsan Garrison Gate #5 (near the Korean War Museum) and will continue as a planned march via public roads to Kyobo Small Park in the Gwanghwamun area of downtown Seoul, very close to the U.S. Embassy. The demonstrators are expected to focus on anti-American themes.

The size of the demonstration is estimated from 6,000 to 8,000 participants at the start in the vicinity of Yongsan Garrison Gate #5 to upwards of 30,000 participants at the final destination near Kyobo Small Park and the vicinity of the U.S. Embassy. These numbers will warrant area restrictions such as gate and road closures.

American citizens are reminded to avoid large civil gatherings and any interaction with demonstrators. A significant numbers of demonstrators will use public transportation to reach these gathering so avoid these systems in the downtown Seoul area on August 15. As always, maintain good security awareness and personal protective measures at all times.

Prudent advice, given the fate of some hapless Swiss visitors who got mistaken for Americans at a recent anti-FTA demonstration. But as Tom Coyner points out in his usual pithy commentary accompanying his news service, some Koreans forget that

had the Americans not defeated the Japanese in 1945, most Koreans would be speaking Japanese today, with perhaps many younger people no longer speaking Chosen satori (“Korean dialect”) as is the similar case in today’s Okinawa.

This seemingly growing amnesia also seems to be extending to the US role in the Korean War. Andrei Lankov in the Asia Times has just picked up a history book which airbrushes the Americans out of the Incheon landings:

A recent visit to a major Seoul bookstore provided a small gem, a great specimen of this new school of historiography – a book titled Living in Two Koreas, One Nation, Two Lives (this is how its authors translated the title, the book itself is in Korean). This is a final volume in a long series dealing with the history of daily life in Korea since time immemorial, and its intended readers are obviously high-school students with a serious interest in history. Truly wonderful discoveries await these young minds in this volume, produced by a large group of young (and, obviously, very “progressive”) professors.

The first part deals with the history of the South. From the beginning, there are things that raise eyebrows. For example, the authors do not mention the US decision to dispatch troops to Korea after the North Korean invasion in June 1950, and they describe the Seoul takeover in September 1950 thusly: “The South Korean Army, which had retreated to the Namgang River under the ferocious attacks of the North Korean forces, reversed the situation through the Incheon landing on September 15.” US forces comprised the overwhelming majority of the troops during this amphibious operation, but their participation in Incheon is not mentioned.

The American soldiers are not quite absent from the book, however. A large drawing shows an evening near an entrance to a US military club about 1955 – grinning US soldiers accompanied by desperate and helpless Korean women who are obviously driven to prostitution by despair. Somewhere in the background a particularly sinister American is dragging an under-age Korean girl, with implication of a possible rape. The coffee-table format allows for wonderful richness of details on a double-page illustration.

Of course, another big issue right now is the debate about handing over operational control of the military. One day there won’t be a threat north of the border, there will be no US troops on the Korean peninsula and there won’t be any need for the arrangements whereby a US general has operational control over the combined forces. And the US accepts that the current arrangements are beginning to be anachronistic. There’s a good article in the Joongang Ilbo, which mentions a planned demonstration by former defense ministers against the hand-over. Here’s Coyner again:

the expected demonstration did take place with the former defense ministers showing up in uniform for the first time — and with a much, much larger turn out of conservatives than expected — including many of the here-to-date politically timid. No one knows where this is all going, but something significant may be building.

At the same time, there appears to be growing motivation within American political and military circles to start disentangling the U.S. from Korea given the anti-Americanism in the streets and the Korean administration’s significantly different vision from that of the U.S.

Needless to say, this de facto break down in US-ROK relations is highly alarming to Korea’s conservatives

I’m not done with my accumulated links yet.

Aidan Foster-Carter in the New York Times notes how the success of The Host has highlighted another topic for which Americans can be criticised: pollution by military bases (the Chosun and Yonhap also have the story).

“Guimul” (“The Host”) is a monster movie, and a monster hit, drawing a record audience of 6 million – equivalent to one in eight South Koreans – in its first 11 days. It’s about a child-snatching mutant that rears up into Seoul out of the Han River, spawned by toxic fluid carelessly discharged from – guess where – an American military base.

Harmless fiction? Not quite. The director, Bong Joon-ho, says he based it on an incident in 2000 when a mortician with the United States military was arrested over a discharge of formaldehyde. Though the incident was regrettable, the uproar it created was out of proportion. There was no lasting pollution, much less any monsters.

But the theme rumbles on. The United States is returning 59 military bases to South Korea, which has complained that many have unacceptable soil pollution (Washington says it’s being held to an unfair standard). The allies have been wrangling for two years about who will clean up.

Now environmental groups and anti-American partisans are milking “Guimul” for political gain, and the minister of the environment, Lee Chi-beom, says he is worried that the sentiments spurred by the movie could make it harder to reach any agreement on the bases.

Foster-Carter’s article is well worth reading in its entirety. But mention of pollution and monsters provides an interesting if unexpected segue into the Free Trade Agreement talks. In an editorial fable in the Hankyoreh the FTA is likened to a 17-horned monster. Coyner’s comment:

What I find interesting is the repeated, but unexplained connection, between FTA’s and the right of foreign companies to pollute pristine Korea.

Here’s what he’s talking about.

The shield of the monster continues to protect the interests of this foreign capital. If a foreign company pollutes the environment and causes many local residents to die, and if as a result, the government steps in to prevent further damage, the monster will attack the government with the pointed spear: it sues the government. Then, the government will have to pay the monster, while no compensation will be given to the victims.

Actually, this very thing happened between an American company and the Mexican government. While watching its citizens dying from pollution, the Mexican government still had to pay 16.5 million USD to the American company. The Canadian government also had a similar painful experience of having to pay 13 million USD when a similar incident happened. Both of these countries were victims of the American capital and its monster friend, the FTA.

Association of trade with nasty chemicals isn’t new. I quote from Mark Clifford’s Troubled Tiger:

Dan Gunter hadn’t planned his trip to Seoul. Gunter, an agricultural scientist and the executive director of Florida’s citrus department, had hopped on a plane for the long trip to Korea only after reports of carcinogenic Florida grapefruits had threatened one of the state’s newest and fastest-growing export markets. Gunter was a scientist, not a slick public relations man, and he was totally unprepared for what the Korean press hit him with.

At issue was a claim that American grapefruit growers had used alar — a growth hormone for apples — on fruit shipped to Korea. The Korean market had just been opened to grapefruit imports, and sales had boomed until the alar reports hit the papers. The tempest began after a local consumer protection group, whose major goal was to protect domestic farmers, misinterpreted a test result. For more than a week the government refused to clarify the situation or to temper the hysteria in the press. Sales stopped almost overnight, and grapefruits rotted in crates.

The questions — speeches, really — that Korean journalists hurled at Gunter during an early morning press conference made it seem as if America itself was on trial. The Koreans refused to accept Gunter’s contention that alar was not used, if only because it was ineffective on citrus, and the press conference turned into a quintessential display of the conspiratorial, xenophobic side of the Korean character. One journalist wanted to know if alar was put only on export fruit, as opposed to grapefruit consumed in the United States, or if it was possibly added during shipping; another said that even if it were true that grapefruit contained no alar, other nasty chemicals almost certainly were used, perhaps arsenic or lead. The unstated theme of many questions was that Korean consumers were being singled out by American farmers and food companies who were trying to poison them in order to increase profits.

Tellingly, the local press accounts did not mention that Korean farmers used more than 3,000 metric tons a year of alar on the apples and pears that make up a traditional Korean dessert plate.

As in most FTA negotiations, farming is a key consideration which always comes up. American rice is a big issue in the current talks, but as the Joongang points out, Chinese rice is probably a bigger threat to Korean farmers. As film-buffs will be aware, it was as a sweetener to get the FTA talks going that the government unilaterally halved the screen quota. So movie-lovers who are free-traders at heart can feel a bit of sympathy for the anti-FTA protests. And the screen quota protests continue: Yonhap has two items here and here.

I think I’ve now used up most of my interesting accumulated links, and this post has now degenerated into a ramble. Congratulations if you got this far. The end.

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