Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
October 23, 2006

South Korean Protests? - Not Really ...

Shortly after North Koreas first nuke test, there were reports on CNN and elsewhere about South Korean protests against NoKo. The most replayed TV clip included the burning of a North Korean flag.

These protests looked as genuine as the tearing down of Saddams statue in Baghdad. Was the main stream media telling a straight story here or was the reporting biased?

Monolycus, who lives and teaches in South Korea, gives us his impression.

by Monolycus

My position then (as it is now) is that there is no peninsula-wide hysteria as you see reported on CNN.

I did not think it would be any problem to write up an authoritative article to that effect, complete with sources and pictures. But I discovered very quickly that what I am trying to do here is to prove a negative. Few people write about things that haven't happened to them.

I've tried to interview many, many people about this non-issue. They are aware of how they are being portrayed on CNN and elsewhere, they just don't think it's important enough to make a fuss about.

A standard South Korean response to a Westerner who tries to make them see something as important is "Don't worry about that", and that was the bulk of the responses I received when I asked about North Korea, Kim Jong-il, nuclear weapons or the United Nations.

It's just not something they feel is worth worrying over for a few reasons.

To begin with, as I mentioned once in a comment shortly after the Monday of NoKo's test, I was told "If we die, they die". If North Korea possessed tactical nuclear weapons with a low blast radius and had a delivery system with the means to send them anywhere with the slightest degree of accuracy (there is no indication that either of these conditions are close to being fulfilled), the winds on the peninsula blow roughly northwards for six months out of the year.

This would send any fallout or contamination almost directly back onto Pyongyang. If South Korea is going to be truly worried about an attack from NoKo (and there is no indication that they are), it would not be until the winter-spring months when the prevailing winds blow more north to south.

I don't suspect that even this is a tremendous consideration given that Israel recently used depleted uranium munitions on its own doorstep (Lebanon), but Koreans are not Israelis, and the quality of the food they eat and the air they breathe is something that is generally on their minds.

More importantly, though, it is not in South Korea's interest to become too belligerent with North Korea, because they simply do not have the inclination to escalate a conflict.

The United States has been decreasing its troop strength in South Korea and NOBODY here wants to see a larger US presence. During one of my interviews, I was told in no uncertain terms that "Yes, we hate North Korea. But we hate Mi-guk (the USA) even more. And we hate Il-bon (Japan) even more than that."

The Korean hatred of Japan is entirely understandable given the events between 1910 and 1945 in which Korean women were forced into sex-slavery, medical experiments were performed upon captured Koreans, an attempt was made to stamp out the Korean language, and even to this day, Japan has tried to expand its territories to include traditionally Korean geography. South Koreans are hearing the rhetoric from Japan and they are extremely suspicious about what this might entail.

I would sooner expect to see an Israeli-Palestinian alliance than the South Koreans lending their support to a Japanese military venture.

So why do the South Koreans, who were ostensibly liberated from the Japanese by US forces, also hold on to such profound anti-US sentiment? It is primarily because the US established "permanent bases" within South Korea (sound familar?) and the behaviour of US servicemen to host populations, while never stellar, has become decreasingly tolerable over the years.

USGI's are often drunken and combative with the locals (in stark contrast to Asian sensibilities), and fewer and fewer South Koreans are alive to remember any pre-1953 US nobility. These days, all they see are newspaper reports about once per week involving a drunken members of the US Army assaulting cab drivers. USGI's are still tolerated by most, but only just.

Now, when I heard about South Korean demonstrators burning North Korean flags in the MSM, I was immediately suspicious. To begin with, I have seen a total of zero anti-North Korean demonstrations and after making a few inquiries, would not know where one could obtain a North Korean flag in the first place (the unofficial consensus is that it is illegal to sell one here). Flag burning is not a typical Korean form of protest, anyway... it is illegal to do so, and that is an official consensus.

In addition, the kinds of groups who stage protests, do so against US interests and in support of reunification with North Korea (groups such as the unpopular "Hanjungnyon", for example). Incidentally, there is some question as to how "independently" violent protesters like these are operating. They are certainly a minority and nobody takes them very seriously.

A genuine South Korean protest generally involves a speaker with a bullhorn, some traditional drum music, oversized posters, and occasional go-go dancers (It's just something they do here, don't ask me to explain it).

The only thing I have seen reflecting a genuine South Korean sentiment in the media is a small side-comment by Michael Levi speaking on behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations:

"Opinion will be mixed there. This is one place where the United States really needs to engage a whole variety of forces. We're going to see in the news photos of South Koreans burning North Korean flags, etc. But we shouldn't conclude that reflects the preponderance of public opinion. There is a widespread belief in South Korea that this is as much America's fault as North Korea's. Seeing how public opinion plays out in South Korea will be very interesting."

South Korea does not need to take Michael Hirsch's advice to "calm down" about things they never really got worked up in the first place.

Posted by b on October 23, 2006 at 10:19 UTC | Permalink


Excellent analysis! Thanks both to b, and Monolycus!

Ha! GoGo

Posted by: Uncle $cam | Oct 23 2006 10:34 utc | 1

All the photos and television reports I've seen of South Korean protestors burning North Korean flags show handmade flags or flag images on banners. I've also seen photos of men described as former South Korean special forces soldiers wearing mock North Korean uniforms. I wonder what that's all about.

Posted by: Gag Halfrunt | Oct 23 2006 13:24 utc | 2

very very entertaining monolycus. south koreans sound sensible. let's not discount the go go dancers, we may get a higher turnout in the states if we incorporate them into our protests ;)

Posted by: annie | Oct 23 2006 14:09 utc | 3

Ah, the go-go dancers. I'm sure there is a word for them in Korean, but I have no idea what it is. They seem to serve the purpose of lending an air of legitimacy to things, from supporting a local election to handing out free samples at the supermarket. Any "event" that wants to be taken seriously has at least a pair of them...even if it's only the grand opening of the corner bakery. It's been remarked that a local politician does not stand a chance if he doesn't have a bare minimum of four bored-looking women in miniskirts and leg warmers dancing away in the back of his campaign Bongo truck.

As for SoKo special forces in mock NoKo uniforms, I haven't heard anything about that at all. Where did you run across those photos, Gag?

Posted by: Monolycus | Oct 23 2006 15:42 utc | 4

I always wonder how such fakes become news.

Best guess - CNN needs "just something" from the ground in South Korea. Some fringe group there has set up its five people demonstration and phoned up every news agency they could reach. In lack of any other "event" that could be filmed, the CNN crews goes and films that one. The editor back in the states lacking any perspective or history knowledge finds that protest "logical" and puts it up as top-news for the day.

There certainly are more devilish explanations possible. But I tend to believe in incompetence.

@Monolycus - recently neocon Krauthammer argued pro-Japanes nukes in an NYT OpEd. I am sure the Koreans did get some real warm feelings over that. I wonder when they will kick the US out.

Posted by: b | Oct 23 2006 16:21 utc | 5

@b #5

I suspect you might be right about news agencies looking for something-- anything-- "on the ground" to report, and four or five hotheads is better than nothing. Lord knows I had enough problem obtaining anything committal with which to write the piece, but it's kind of a relief in a way when you have to look long and hard to find evidence of people behaving badly.

The other possibility is that it is like that inflammatory photo in which those little Jewish girls were shown writing messages on Israeli warheads destined for Lebanon. I'm pretty sure in that case, the photographers were having a slow day and, while they might not have specifically told the girls to do anything, they provided the pens and suggestions.

I really couldn't say what precisely happened here, except that what is shown is atypical.

As far as SoKo "kicking the US out", I don't think that's especially likely in the very near future. Until the 1980's, the US presence here was viewed as serving a purpose (viz. to provide a visual reassurance against a North Korean invasion which, under Kim Il-sung, was not as far fetched a notion as all that... technically, North and South Korea are observing a "cease-fire" dating back to 1953, and once a month, civilian air-raid drills are still performed). US troops were in that way like unsightly roach motels in one's homes... ugly and embarrassing, but probably better to have around than not.

Unfortunately, with the restationing of US troops to fill in the gaps in Afghanistan and Iraq, this purpose is seeming less and less credible. Still, "kicking them out" altogether would be uncharacterically inhospitable in a cultural sense and would be viewed as potentially generating unnecessary antagonism. This, too, is not altogether an unreasonable stance in light of the treatment the US gave the French in 2003 for simply not joining the "coalition of the willing" against Iraq.

I think the SoKo plan is to simply wait it out and let the US Army deplete itself in other foreign wars. Then, when the US can no longer afford to keep their troops on the Korean peninsula, South Korea can be the ones who pretend to be affronted by this "abandonment". It would save them some face and give them a bargaining chip later if they required US assistance for anything.

Posted by: Monolycus | Oct 23 2006 17:12 utc | 6

I tend to believe in incompetence.

not me

the photographers were having a slow day and, while they might not have specifically told the girls to do anything, they provided the pens and suggestions.

how many options do we have for this scenario? perhaps they display the warheads downtown for tourists and residents to have a peak before they use them? perhaps a school takes a fieldtrip to visit the missles? i'm not seeing many opportunities for randomness w/this. little kids and ammunition usually do not go hand in hand unless someone's getting blown up.

Posted by: annie | Oct 23 2006 17:24 utc | 7

@annie #7

"little kids and ammunition usually do not go hand in hand unless someone's getting blown up."

All's fair in love and photo-ops, apparently. I'll concede that it seems a pretty damned unlikely confluence of events that led to up to little girls practicing their penmanship on high explosives while the paparazzi happily captured the scene for posterity... but whose interests did it serve to have that set of photos published? Certainly not Israel's ("Even our cute kids are twisted, bloodthirsty monsters!"). If we have learned anything in Iraq or Viet">">Viet Nam, it's that imagery gets iconic pretty quickly... and it costs the aggressor plenty in terms of public support when photos that aren't "on message" get circulated. Since those shots of the happy tykes didn't make anyone feel especially anti-Hizbollah, they probably just represent the individual photographers poor judgement and that's why they weren't more widely circulated.

The burning of the NoKo flags, on the other hand, was about as "on message" as one can expect to find... but they, too, are only getting a limited circulation. This is probably because they're crappy compositions that are too lightweight to be influencing anyone's opinions they way they were designed to. A pro-Western message and reality have decided it's best to see other people these days, and this is reflected by the quality of the war porn... it takes something more hardcore than a burning flag to do the trick when a message gets as lonely as this one has.

Posted by: Monolycus | Oct 24 2006 5:09 utc | 8

A hearty thanks the our Lone Wolf in Korea the illuminating
comments. This is the type of reporting thats makes MOA really precious to its

Posted by: Hannah K. O'Luthon | Oct 24 2006 10:05 utc | 9

Finally, the NYT did get someone on the ground: In South Korea, Softer Feelings Toward the North

With news about the North Korean nuclear crisis flashing on the living room television, Kim Yoon-sup unleashed a verbal barrage of his own at the heavily armed Communist nation, some 60 miles north of this wealthy Seoul suburb.
But asked if South Korea should sever its growing trade and investment ties with the North, as many in the United States advocate, his answer was a firm no. His country must continue engagement, he said, to avoid either backing the government into a corner or causing further economic hardship for its people.

“We can’t be too harsh,” he said. “North and South, we share the same blood, after all. Of course, it’s good to help them.” His son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren all agreed.
This bedrock of public sentiment underlies the different responses to the crisis by South Korea and the United States. Many in Washington have called for tougher sanctions or even a naval blockade to further isolate the North’s impoverished government and force it to relinquish its nuclear ambitions. But Seoul has been reluctant to tighten the economic screws on the North, hoping instead to entice it to the bargaining table with increased links with the outside world.
Similar attitudes appear in recent public opinion polls, which show that while the claimed nuclear detonation hardened attitudes toward the North, a majority of South Koreans still oppose outright confrontation. According to a telephone survey of 800 people last week by the Naeil Shinmun-Hangil Research Center, only 15 percent of respondents called for ending economic ties, compared with 83 percent who supported their continuation.
The three generations of Kims also showed subtle differences in their views of America’s role in the nuclear standoff. All agreed that the United States was a friend, and that the crisis had made them appreciate the protection offered by the American nuclear umbrella.

But while the elder Mr. Kim expressed confidence that Washington was working to resolve the crisis, his granddaughters suggested that America bore some blame for the standoff — a common sentiment here.

“If the U.S. isolates North Korea, it’s just silencing someone who has something to say,” said Kim Ta-yon, the university junior. “I don’t think North Korea did the test to provoke war, but because it wants a voice in international society.”

Thanks Monolycus for being faster and better than the NYT here.

Posted by: b | Oct 25 2006 7:17 utc | 10

U.S. Nukes to Return to South Korea

Seoul and Washington will add use of nuclear arms by U.S. forces in response to North Korean atomic weapons in a joint operation strategy codenamed OPLAN 5027, sources said Thursday. That would mean the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea 15 years after they were pulled out in 1991.

Posted by: Uncle $cam | Oct 25 2006 11:37 utc | 11

Pyongyang warning to South Korea

Why do I get the feeling, that this is complete bullshit?

Posted by: Uncle $cam | Oct 25 2006 16:59 utc | 12

@$cam #12

I don't know... I saw basically the same story on Yahoo!News, and I'm not entirely sure how to interpret it myself.

One thing is clear from the story... even if Kim Jong-il is issuing threats, South Korea is not reciprocating in kind...

"Also at issue was whether South Korea would expand its participation in a U.S.-led drive to interdict North Korean ships and aircraft suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction or related material.

South Korea has been reluctant to participate fully in the Proliferation Security Initiative because of concerns it could lead to clashes with North Korea and undermine efforts to persuade the communist state to give up its nuclear ambitions through diplomacy."

And reading between the lines a bit, it's also clear the Vladimir Putin is using this opportunity to get in a few jabs at Bush...

""One should never lead the situation into an impasse, one should never put one of the negotiating sides in a position from which it virtually has no way out but one: an escalation of the situation," Putin said in televised comments broadcast in Moscow.

The only ones pressing for a hardline here as far as I can tell are the US and Japan, although what is in it for the US is beyond me. It should be clear what Shinzo Abe is after.

No word yet what Ban Ki-moon's take on any of this is.

@HK'OL (#9) and b (#10)

I'm just happy to be doing good works. *insert smiley face emoticon here*

Posted by: Monolycus | Oct 25 2006 17:29 utc | 13

I'll be damned. Apparently, there actually are some measurable effects of South Korean anxiety as a result of the October 9th NoKo test.

Posted by: Monolycus | Oct 26 2006 5:56 utc | 14

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