Anti-Americanism in South Korea: Why one of our closest allies has mixed feelings

Roots of Anti-American Sentiment

            In a 2011 BBC poll on countries perceptions of the United States’ influence in the world only 36 percent of South Koreans found that it was a positive influence, and 32 percent found that it was a negative influence.1  At first this statistic seems surprising. The U.S. and South Korea have long been allies, ever since the end of WWII.  The U.S. defeated the hated Japanese colonialists that had oppressed the Koreans for decades, pushed them out of Korea, and helped create the Republic of Korea.  In 1950 when Kim Il Sung’s North Korean forces invaded the South, it was the U.S. who led the United Nations allies in pushing the communist forces back across the 38th parallel.  It is the U.S. who currently keeps soldiers in South Korea and guarantees South Korean security.  It was mostly U.S. aid and investment that supported the new country before the South Korean economic miracle.  Despite these positive influences there are several deep roots of anti-American sentiment based on incidents caused by misunderstandings, myths, and legitimate grievances.

Korea’s first major interaction with the U.S., the General Sherman incident, set a poor precedent for future relations between the two countries.  In 1866, the General Sherman, an American merchant ship, came to Korea to try to set up trade relations.  The Korean officials with which the sailors met did not wish to start trading with the merchants, and requested that the ship leave Pyongyang, where it had sailed into without permission. Instead of leaving the American ship took a Korean official hostage and opened fire with its cannons.  After days of hostile back and forth messages and actions, the General Sherman was eventually burned by the Koreans and the sailors were all killed. To capitalize on the potent image of Korean’s repelling an American invasion, in North Korea it is claimed that Kim Il Sung’s great grandfather, Kim Ung’u organized the attack against the General Sherman.2

In 1871 the U.S. embarked on a mission to open Korea to trade, establish a treaty with Korea in regards to treatment of shipwrecked sailors, and to establish what had happened to the General Sherman.  After Koreans along the shore attacked the initial American ships, America sent in more battle ships for its first military mission inside Korea.  During the mission the American forces killed more than 200 Korean soldiers, and only suffered three casualties.  Despite the military force employed, the Korean government remained isolationist and refused to establish relations with the United States until 1882.  The relations were formally established in the unequal Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce and Navigation.

Some of the seeds of anti-Americanism were sown as a result of this treaty, and of misunderstandings of it.  The treaty was unequal, and favored American interests above Korean interests.  Some examples include extraterritoriality for American citizens in Korea, but not for Korean citizens in America, and it granted the United States most favored nation status.  In article 1 of the treaty it states that “If other powers deal unjustly or oppressively with either Government, the other will exert their good offices on being informed of the case to bring about an amicable arrangement, thus showing their friendly feelings” which many Korean’s understood to mean that the U.S. was committed to helping and defending Korea, but the U.S. had included that merely as a diplomatic nicety.  Part of the misunderstanding was based on the Chinese translation of the treaty, in the translation the phrase was rendered as “must help each other”, rather than the good offices in the English version. This misunderstanding contributed to a sense of betrayal when the U.S. favored Japan over Korea, and didn’t help prevent the Japanese colonization of Korea.3  Despite this feeling many Koreans still had good impressions of the Americans due to the presence of missionaries who remained behind during the Japanese colonial era and advocated for the Korean people.

The next time that Korea and America became involved was at the end of WWII when America pushed the Japanese occupying force out of Korea and occupied the southern half of the country.  The Koreans were happy to welcome the Americans and grateful that the Japanese had been defeated, but what happened in the aftermath is one of the most potent sources of anti-American feelings.  After the war, Soviet forces were quickly entering the Korean peninsula from the North, so the U.S. proposed setting up two spheres of influence, divided at the 38th parallel, with the northern half given to the Soviet Union, and the southern half to the United States.  Korea had a long history of undivided rule so being split by two outside powers after suffering from decades of Japanese colonialism is an understandable source of anger and resentment.  For the Americans the action was rational.  There was real concern about the Soviets expansion, and that if the compromise wasn’t made the Soviets might have taken the whole country.  Comparing the different outcomes of the two spheres of influence might have been beneficial in the long term for citizens of South Korea, but the split was also a primary cause for the fratricidal Korean War in 1950.

Another major source of resentment came from the poorly handled American occupation in South Korea under John Hodge.  During the Cairo Conference among the allied powers of 1943, it was declared that “in due course, Korea shall become free and independent.”4  The problem with this statement was that there was a misunderstanding of what the term “due course,” meant.  The allied powers envisioned it as potentially meaning decades as a protectorate, but the Koreans assumed a much quicker time frame.  While the Americans were greeted as liberators at first in Korea, the U.S. knew little about Korea, and relied on help from Japanese colonial administrators.  This caused an outcry, and the order was rescinded, but it started the occupation of in an unfavorable manner.  Another setback came from the Moscow conference of 1945 where the Allied countries met.  During the conference, the American delegate called for a four party trusteeship of Korea, which was unequivocally opposed by all political factions in South Korea.5  In 1948, Syngman Rhee was elected as the first President of the Republic of Korea which ended the U.S. occupation.

Another source of anti-American sentiment is American’s support for authoritarian leaders.  The case where this support led to the most deeply felt negative sentiments towards America was American support for President Chun Doo Hwan.  President Chun came to power in a military coup and had little popular support among the Korean people.  The single most prominent source of intense anti-American feelings came from the Kwangju incident of 1980.  Kwangju was a center of protests against the Chun regime, and in May 1980 there were massive street protests.  President Chun responded forcefully by sending in Korean troops to put down the protest, during which at least 200 people died.

Many Koreans believed that the U.S. was complicit in President Chun’s use of the military to put down the Kwangju protests because of the arrangement where the U.S. had operational control over the Korean military during war time.  The U.S. was not responsible for the use of the Korean army in quelling the protests, but the Korean people had several reasons to believe that America supported President Chun and his actions.  After the incident there was censorship, so it could not be discussed openly, and President Chun claimed to have American support.  This perception was increased when President Chun was welcomed to the White House after the massacre by President Reagan.  Even though there is increasing evidence that the U.S. didn’t play a role in the tragedy, such as a white paper on the incident put out in 1989, the U.S. involvement has come to be accepted as fact by many Koreans and remains a contentious problem in the relationship.6

During the 1980’s there was an increase in anti-American actions such as radical students committing arson against U.S. Information Service buildings.7  Another show of anti-American feelings came in 1988 when South Korea hosted the Olympics.  Koreans felt that American athletes acted disrespectfully and that American media showed negative images of Korea.  In response to this, Korea booed American teams, and cheered for America’s rival the Soviets.  The Korean’s had regarded the Olympics as an important way to showcase their success, so they were sensitive to perceived American slights.

Even in modern, democratic, Korea there are sources of bad feelings towards America.  One incident that showed this sentiment was the 2008 protests against American beef being imported into Korea.  During the protests tens of thousands of Koreans came out into the streets in Seoul demanding that American beef be banned out of fear of it being contaminated with mad cow disease, despite American and Seoul reassurances of the meats safety.8  Another major current cause of anti-American feelings are actions by U.S. service men in Korea.  In 2002 a U.S. Army vehicle ran over two Korean teenage girls killing them.  Due to the Status of Forces Agreement the United States has with Korea, the service men responsible for the accident were tried by an American court martial and found not guilty.  After the men were acquitted it led to massive protests against America, including isolated incidents of attacks against American property and even an attack against an American soldier.  There have been other cases of American soldier’s actions that have added to anger at America’s presence on the peninsula, including cases of American soldiers raping Korean women.  While American soldiers’ illegal or barbarous actions are unfortunate, they are punished according to the SOFA, which is similar to agreements that the U.S. has in other countries in which it has a military presence in.  Also, if Korea wanted American forces to leave, it could request them to do so.

Notwithstanding these sentiments, relations between South Korea and the U.S. remain close.  This can be seen in the recent free trade agreement signed between the two countries and in South Korea’s continued request for the presence of American service men.  Some of the reasons for anti-American sentiments are legitimate, such as the lack of care America showed during its occupation and American support for authoritarian leaders, but others are based on myths and misunderstandings.  With a hostile neighbor to its north, South Korea benefits from being under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and from having U.S. troops to deter an invasion.  The U.S. benefits by having a strong ally in the important East Asia region and by having a good trading relationship.  While more care needs to be taken on both sides to maintain a harmonious relationship, there are positive signs.  In a 2013 Pew poll, it was found that 78 percent of Koreans have a favorable view of the United States, one of the countries with the highest favorable view of America in the world.9  Anti-American voices may speak louder, and when there is an incident that puts the U.S. in a bad light anti-American attitudes may flare, but overall the view of America is positive.


            1. BBC World Service, Views of US Continue to Improve in 2011 BBC Country Rating Poll (accessed December 11, 2013); available from

2. B.R. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2010).

3) Jongsuk Chay, Diplomacy of Aysmmetry: Korea- American Relations to 1910 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990), 56.

4) The Avalon Project, Cairo Conference 1943 (accessed December 11, 2013), available from

5) Richard C. Allen, Korea’s Syngman Rhee: An Unauthorized Portrait (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1960), 75-79.

6) Donald N. Clark, “Bitter Friendship: Understanding Anti-Americanism in South Korea,” in Korea Briefing: 1991, ed. Donald N. Clark (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991), 158.

7) Kim Kyong-Dong, “Korean Perceptions of America, in Korea Briefing:1993, ed. Donald N. Clark (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993), 172.

8) NBC News, 50,000 South Koreans Protest against U.S. Beef, July, 2008 (accessed December 12, 2013); available from

9) Pew Research, Chapter 1: Attitudes toward the United States, July, 2013 (accessed December 12, 2013); available from


About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
This entry was posted in International Relations, Korea, Pacific Asia, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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