If you were to ask a group of average Americans to list the major allies of the United States, you'd probably get several remarkably similar lists of countries. Okay, a large percentage would probably be unable to list any, and another large percentage would probably list "Middle Earth" as our major ally in the world. But of the people who list actual countries, you'd probably find a lot of European countries, even despite the recent disputes over the Iraq War. Great Britain, Germany, Italy... maybe even some Eastern European countries like Poland would make the list, along with, hopefully, our neighbor to the north, Canada, and Australia. Some might even correctly list one of our most steadfast allies, Japan. Yet one of our strongest allies is often overlooked by Americans, perhaps owing to a serious image problem stemming from an unfortunate incident nearly 5 years ago, and a historical perception that is no longer valid.
South Korea is an easy country to forget about, sandwiched in between China and Japan, and often overshadowed by its "Mr. Hyde" brother to the North. The historical perception of South Korea in the United States has been of a nation in a weak position -- not an equal ally, but a quasi-protectorate, a nation that would crumble or be destroyed if the United States was not guaranteeing its security. And for many years, this was basically true: South Korea was a fledgling nation, one that was in a vastly weaker position than the Soviet-backed North, and one that very likely would have crumbled under the military and political weight of its northern half, if not for the U.S. presence there.
The problem is that the average American's perception hasn't caught up with the reality of the 21st century. Once one of the world's most impoverished nations, South Korea today owns the 11th largest economy in the world. It is a powerhouse in several industries, including shipbuilding and electronics. Although its per capita GDP is still not quite at Western standards, it is one of the wealthier nations on the planet. And despite the significant U.S. military presence, it has far outpaced the dictatorship in the North in virtually every way, and has a mature, modern military that is capable of defending itself. The historical perception of South Korea as a poor, backwards country is no longer applicable.
Aside from the outdated historical point of view, there is also a common perception of South Korea as a country that is "anti-American," and thus not a true ally. Much of this stems from a very unfortunate incident that occurred nearly twelve years ago, in 2002. That year, two young schoolgirls were tragically killed by a U.S. Army armored vehicle, a catalyst that caused an almost "perfect storm" of factors to explode into widespread anti-American demonstrations. At the time, South Korea was basking in the short-lived glow of President Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine Policy," resulting in the first-ever joint summit between the North and the South accompanied by widespread calls for reconciliation. This naturally led to questions about the necessity of U.S. forces in Korea. Exasperating that, less seven years before, U.S. President George W. Bush listed North Korea in its "Axis of Evil," along with Iraq and Iran, putting it at odds with South Korea's new policy. When the accident occurred, U.S. officials underestimated the effect of the accident on South Korean public opinion, and failed to promptly atone for the accident in a timely manner. Finally, the nature of the accident itself - two young schoolgirls crushed to death by a huge armored vehicle - was naturally powerful and evoked strong emotions.
The combination of the above factors whipped South Korea into an anti-American rage whose vitriol was shocking to many Americans. Images of South Koreans protesting and burning American flags were splashed across American televisions and newspapers, alongside pictures of restaurants in Seoul with "Americans Not Welcome" signs in the windows, and videos of children clad in their school uniforms, chanting anti-American slogans. The venomous and hateful rhetoric that emerged from South Korea during this time seemed more befitting Iran or North Korea, rather than an alleged ally. The incident even propelled President Roh Moo-Hyun into office, the man who during his campaign famously remarked, "What's wrong with being anti-American?"
The final consequence of this incident was that the American media has stuck with showing images of South Korean anti-American protesters, and the notion of South Korea as an anti-American country has stuck in the minds of Americans, even though the climate has charged remarkably in the past 5 years. The Sunshine Policy is all but dead thanks to years of stonewalling by the north, North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon and the South's patience, and the "what's wrong with being anti-American" President is having a great day if he gets an approval rating of over 20%.
Nevertheless, the images of South Korea haven't changed much. In 2005, articles about a group of South Korean protestors trying to tear down a statue of Douglas MacArthur in Incheon made American newspapers, along with articles about the violent anti-American protests outside the proposed new U.S. military headquarters. Pictures of South Koreans trying to topple a statue of an American general, burning American flags, and fighting with riot police evoked memories of 2002. The trouble over the statue even led U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton to accuse them of having "historical amnesia," a remark that was picked up by the Korean media. Largely ignored were the several thousand South Koreans who showed up to protect the statue from the protesters, or the tens of thousands of South Koreans who showed up for a pro-American rally that same year.
The idea of South Korea as an anti-American country has been ingrained in the American psyche, to the detriment of lots of evidence that suggests otherwise. Some 71% of South Koreans polled by Gallup in 2006 answered that they did not want U.S. troops to leave soon. Korea also sends more exchange students to U.S. colleges than any other country in the world, and the two countries recently concluded a free trade agreement. None of this necessarily means that Koreans love the United States - it just means they see some practical reasons for remaining on good terms with America. But Korea has proved itself to be a strong ally in more significant ways. In spite of the unpopularity of the war in Iraq, Korea still has the third largest contingent of troops there, behind only the United States and the United Kingdom, and also has troops in Afghanistan - of which it lost one earlier this year. And this isn't the first time South Korea has stood by the United States: over 300,000 South Koreans fought in Vietnam, the largest foreign contributor of troops aside from the U.S. itself.
That South Korea was willing to commit so many Soldiers to Iraq when many other countries wouldn't, and has stood by the U.S. in Afghanistan, and 40 years ago in Vietnam, should be plenty to show Americans their worth as an ally. The 2002 protests were ugly, but both countries had a hand in causing them: the United States in failing to react properly to their legitimate anger over a tragic accident, and South Korea for allowing a single accident to spiral into an orgy of hatred against its strongest ally. Neither nation is perfect. As with any relationship, there are bound to be disagreements, rough patches, and difficulties. But the U.S.-South Korean alliance has endured for 40 years, and has been more reciprocal than most Americans realize. It's time we added our friend in Asia to our list of strong allies. They've earned it.