[Column] What to make of Koreans’ newfound pro-American lean

Posted on : 2023-05-21 11:13 KST Modified on : 2023-05-21 11:13 KST
Three factors can be seen as contributing to the unprecedentedly high levels of positive attitudes toward the US shown by South Koreans
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung

By Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov), professor of Korean Studies at the University of Oslo

In the era of neoliberalism, South Korea has found itself attached with several “world’s highest,” “world’s worst,” and “world’s lowest” labels.

For instance, South Korea has the most irregular workers among all wealthy countries (around 37% of all wage earners) and the highest poverty rate among seniors (37.6%). Its total fertility rate of 0.78 is the world’s lowest, and its suicide rate (23.6 per 100,000 people) is the worst among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development members.

Another “world record” for Korea appears in a survey about public attitudes on foreign affairs. I’m talking about Koreans’ positive attitude toward the US.

According to the US-based Pew Research Center’s 2022 Global Attitudes Survey, 89% of Korean respondents said they have a favorable opinion of the US. That was far and away the highest level in Asia and second only to Poland (91%) in the world.

While the US’ long-standing allies of Israel and Japan both tend to have positive opinions of the US (83% and 70%, respectively), they can’t match Koreans’ intense affection for Americans.

This overwhelming positive view of the US is a new phenomenon, historically speaking. Given Korea’s claustrophobic yet asymmetrical relationship with the US, there have occasionally been outbursts of anti-American sentiment.

Indeed, unease with the nature of the relationship has been the norm rather than the exception. It was only 15 years ago that disgust with former President Lee Myung-bak’s subservient approach to the US took the form of candlelit rallies.

While unwavering obedience and obsequious kowtowing have been frequently exhibited by current President Yoon Suk-yeol, public opposition doesn’t appear to be as vigorous as it was under the Lee administration. The old anti-American sentiment faded years ago, and nowadays even reasonable criticism of unbalanced pro-American policy struggles to hit the mark.

What could have made Korea the world’s most pro-American country? We’ll examine three relevant factors below.

First, we have Koreans’ collective self-consciousness as being affluent on a global level.

To be sure, statistics about Korea being a high-income society are cold comfort for members of the working class who are struggling under the triple threat of high consumer prices, high gas prices and high interest rates. But regardless of individual hardship, even the working poor can find confirmation of the impressive perch Korea has reached in the global food chain.

Even as Korea’s foreign population, including highly educated Westerners, continues to grow, the number of Koreans who traveled abroad came close to 30 million in the year before the pandemic. Just like the advanced economies of Europe, Korea has become a country where more than half of the population, including members of the working class, get to take an occasional jaunt abroad.

As one of the rare countries that have risen from rags to riches, Korea has witnessed the formation of a collective desire to affirm and defend the current world order that guarantees its privilege. And since American hegemony epitomizes the current order, Koreans’ attitude toward that hegemony is bound to be different from the past.

The big shift in attitudes toward North Korea and reunification can also be explained through the logic of affluence. Surveys find that 61% of South Koreans in their 20s and 30s regard unification as “unnecessary.” That’s because it’s obvious to most South Koreans that North Korea won’t be able to join the ranks of the wealthy countries for some time under the current world order.

For South Koreans, the US functions as a policeman protecting their wealth and status, while North Korea is more of a “needy relative” — a bothersome and burdensome presence who might beg for money or even threaten South Koreans’ wealth and status.

North Korean media may appeal to a spirit of kinship by declaring that “blood is thicker than water,” but in neoliberal Korea, money is more important than blood.

A second factor is that Koreans don’t see much of an appeal about the global challengers who are engaged in a geopolitical confrontation with the US.

Korean conservatives have been historically pro-American, but Korean progressives don’t see any signs of the progressive ideal of an eco-friendly welfare state in China. China’s welfare expenditure as a share of GDP (around 10%) is even lower than Korea’s.

The authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party reminds Koreans of their own dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine calls to mind horrifying historical memories, including Japan’s invasion of the Asian continent.

Many Koreans share the view that while the US has its fair share of problems, it’s still better than China and Russia.

Third, Korean journalists often stoke the flames of competition with the economic powerhouse of China. Korea and China may have achieved a regional division of labor, but there are many finished goods that they compete over in the global market.

Since there are few major products other than semiconductors in which Korean companies maintain a technological edge, Korean journalists tend to highlight competitive issues, which are more dramatic than the division of labor. As a result, close to 80% of Koreans have an unfavorable opinion of China (another world record!) and favorable opinions of the US are steadily increasing amid its bloodless war with China.

The result of the complex interplay of these factors is Korea’s unprecedented turn toward the US, a long-term trend that wouldn’t be easy to reverse.

Favorable views of the US only reach 60% even in European countries where many people believe they benefit from the existing world order, albeit not to the extent of Korea.

For now at least, repugnance for the Chinese model and a sense of competition with China will be constant factors, rather than variables.

In addition, Korea’s conservative newspapers are inflating a bubble of hatred for China, opposition to North Korea, and support for the US with their overtly biased and one-sided reporting.

The problem is that this long-term shift toward conservative viewpoints and pro-American sentiment is likely to lead to unbalanced pro-American foreign policy, the de facto abandonment of unification policy, creeping militarism including the permanent retention of conscription amid the confrontation between the US and China, and even pressure from the US to intervene in an armed conflict with China.

The obvious duty of the press is to refrain from swearing unconditional loyalty to one side in a geopolitical struggle and to call out those who do, but there are few newspapers willing to take that stand in Korea.

Canada declined to take part in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, despite being a neighbor of the US and one of its closest allies. And while both Germany and France are friends and allies of the US, they have taken a markedly different approach to China than the US, boldly visiting Beijing for summit diplomacy, despite the intensifying conflict between the US and China.

In the end, shouldn’t Korea’s policy toward the US be grounded in the national interest and peace on the Korean Peninsula, rather than mindless obedience? The first step in that direction is popping the bubble of excessive pro-American sentiment that the conservative press has produced.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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