When foreign protesters are stomping over your flag but are otherwise nonviolent, the mature reaction is to put your fingertips together like a literature professor and ask what they’re upset about. But that’s hard. Because the torn cloth is alive with meaning, the boots on its pattern are studs on the faces of your teachers, your heroes, and your children, down your street, across the lawn, and onto your grandma’s apron. The Korean protesters knew that, of course. That’s why they did it. By the time fifty thousand demonstrators were done, the Stars and Stripes was a mess.
But it was a symbolic victim and a small mess, in their view, weighed against the crime committed against them when a U.S. military tribunal on a U.S. military base in their country tried—and acquitted—two U.S. soldiers who had been driving a U.S. military vehicle on a public road in Korea, and had run over and killed two local teenagers.
Koreans thought the men should have been tried in a Korean court. But the commander of U.S. forces in Korea had rejected a justice ministry request for jurisdiction, as was his prerogative under the bilateral agreement. The charge was negligent homicide, which is less than murder but still criminal, so the public was hopeful. The tribunal found no criminal intent. Legally and rationally, it was hard to argue with this. The men had been operating a fifty-seven-ton armored vehicle-launched bridge during maneuvers. Such monsters were allowed during exercises on public roads and the driver did not see the girls crouching down against a wall covering their ears because of the noise. He did not deliberately hit them. The whole terrible thing was an accident.
On this day, I found one of my Korean colleagues in a state of rage.
“What a joke. Being tried by their friends,” he said.
He showed me a local newspaper commentary featuring a cartoon of Osama bin Laden in front of a jury of twelve men with beards.
“Do you think they were guilty of negligent homicide?” My question annoyed him. It sounded like the setup for one of those typical American technicalities used to evade responsibility.
“Whatever that means, they were guilty.”
“Because they killed those little girls.” He had tears in his eyes.
“But it was an accident.”
“I don’t care. That is not the point. They should have been found guilty.”
“But why? If it was an accident.”
“To assuage the feelings of the people.”
I found it hard to believe that this highly educated man thought in this way, but he did, and his views were representative. The nation was furious. Even a young rapper called PSY smashed a toy American tank on stage over this, something he later had to explain when he became famous in America.
In Korean decision-making, such public sentiment matters. The people were angry. The soldiers were guilty. No one would say it aloud, but if the pattern held, the soldiers would have been released early after the public focus had moved elsewhere because everyone knew that—actually—it was an accident. In other countries, particularly those familiar with how the main story in the New Testament ends, people equate this approach with mob rule and see law as an electric fence between it and a defendant for justice. But not the Koreans. Their inclination is to see the mob as “the people” and responding to its will as the essence of democracy.
A few days after the flag stomping, some commentators in the U.S. media suggested the U.S. should withdraw its troops if they were not wanted. This suggestion, a masterful and democratic tempering of American hurt with good sense, prompted a fresh round of criticism from protest organizers in Korea. But this time, the theme shifted in a somewhat surprising direction. After years of attacking the U.S. for having supported dictators, for pressuring Korea to open its markets, and for “crimes of American soldiers,” anti-American demonstrators now charged the United States with something altogether new: failure to understand their anti-Americanism.
This new sin was not well-explained. In fact, it left foreign diplomats and journalists in Seoul, who had to report on this, quite bewildered. Just because we set fire to your flag and get tens of thousands of people protesting against you and your soldiers doesn’t mean we are protesting against you and your soldiers. We want them here. But we want you to change your attitude. And what attitude would that be? Not letting our courts try your soldiers. Acting as if you are better than us. Being superior. Because that makes us feel inferior.
I realized then that the anti-American protests were not about military exercises on public roads, or crimes of American soldiers, or even about America. They were really about how Koreans felt they were being made to feel about themselves.
And that led to a revelation: You have to approach these issues like a therapist, not a policy analyst.
This may sound flippant and condescending, but it’s not meant to be. I had spent twenty years trying to understand things, then something inside me relaxed and I stopped trying to be right. I accepted I had been trying to turn Koreans into Americans and then I stopped. In marriage, this surrender moment is necessary for real, deeper love. No more wriggling inside the onion to find the core and coming out empty-handed and in tears. No more judgment or moaning. I just observed. Like, at that second round of anti-American demos, I observed as Roman Catholic nuns in the newly named “Peace Square” near the U.S. embassy innocently pinned “Fucking USA” badges on to their habits. No longer would I add this to the list proving Koreans were wrong. A Fucking USA badge is a Fucking USA badge is a Fucking USA badge. It was color on the canvas. I was no longer an analyst, but an artist. (In case you’re wondering, it was a song title, although it could have been a mistranslated reference to the new phenomenon of Korean Christian missionaries going forth and multiplying in the United States.)
I point out this change of heart to underscore how difficult it actually is, when you’ve been in the middle of all of the junk and broken pieces in the tsunami of Korean democratization, to step back and grasp how truly inspirational and impressive it has been.
While dreams of democracy began with some Koreans at the end of the nineteenth century, the real and practical start of popular democracy began when Koreans met their first Americans, and aspired to be like them. That was in 1945, at the height of American influence and power in the world. We might forget but Americans back then exuded something intangible but wonderfully attractive. My father, a Royal Air Force officer, saw it in the sloppy way the GI saluted his officer. Civilians saw it in the friendly way in which soldiers threw chewing gum, Coca-Cola, and chocolate to them from army trucks. I remember feeling the same at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin back when communists and dinosaurs roamed Eastern Europe. The American soldiers just looked different. They were so friendly. Free and unharassed, they had, it seemed, in their freedom, chosen to be friendly. I dare say that no other people has ever been so admired on such a scale.
Copyright © 2017 by Michael Breen
Michael Breen is a writer and consultant who first went to Korea as a correspondent in 1982. He covered North and South Korea for several newspapers, including the Guardian (UK), the Times (UK), and the Washington Times. He lives in Seoul.