Anti-Americanism and Korean perceptions of the US Military

According to a 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, 78% of South Koreans had a favorable view of the United States. [i]  However there are deep roots of anti-American sentiment in the ROK.  In a 2002 survey 44% of South Koreans had a negative view of the United States, a number higher than any other Western or Asian country.[ii]   Much of this anti-Americanism is shaped by the U.S. Military’s role in South Korea.  There are historical roots of this anti-Americanism, such as the U.S. Military Government’s inept rule of South Korea from 1945-1948 and misperceptions surrounding the U.S. Military’s role in the Kwangju massacre in 1980.  There have also been several more recent sensational instances where individual U.S. soldiers have killed or harmed South Korean civilians provoking anger and questions about the Status of Forces Agreement that allows the American perpetrators to be tried in Military Courts.

a. Historical Grievances: USMGIK and the Kwangju Massacre

The United States Army Military Government (USMGIK) was not made up of Korean specialists, but rather it was chosen because at the end of the Pacific War it was located in nearby Japan.  Lt. General John R. Hodge, the head of USMGIK, relied on Japanese reports about Korea to learn about the country, and arrived in Korea already biased against the population.[iii]  When Hodge started his rule he initially relied on former Japanese colonial officials, letting some of them remain in power.  The USMGIK squandered their opportunity to live up to the Korean population’s initial perception that they had come to liberate them from the hated Japanese occupiers.  Instead, the U.S. forces became seen by many as another occupying force.  America was ignorant about South Korea, and the men it chose to lead it were exhausted from the war with Japan, but instead of being sensitive to Korean needs and perceptions they let their own biases and perceptions build the foundation of the new relationship.[iv]

The USMGIK strongly supported right wing Korean factions over left wing segments of the population, and ignored flagrant human rights abuses committed by right wing groups.  When the USMGIK left Korea in 1948, and the new Republic of Korea was founded, America backed the new authoritarian president, Syngman Rhee. America supported authoritarian leaders in South Korea until the first actual democratic election took place in 1987. Many Korean college students started to perceive the United States as more interested in fighting communism than freedom or democracy. The locus of this perception is the Kwangju Massacre.  Starting on May 18, 1980, there were large pro-democracy protests in the Southern city of Kwangju.  The ROK military paratroopers were used to put down the protests, resulting in civilian casualties as high as 2,000 people.[v]  The decision to use the military was made by the Chun administration in the ROK, but it was widely assumed that the United States approved the move because the Korean military was under operational control of the U.S. Military Command.  Under this arrangement, the US Military Command was supposed to approve any movement of South Korean troops.  The United States were slow to attempt to correct these misperceptions, waiting until 1989 to release a white paper detailing the lack of American complicity in the massacre, but misperceptions over what happened still form a strong core of animosity toward the United States’ military presence in Korea.[vi]

b. Status of Force Agreement and perception of Criminality

Several more recent events have also contributed to feelings of intense hostility towards America and its Armed Forces.  On June 13, 2002, a U.S. tank on route to an American base ran over and killed two 14 year-old Korean girls.  After the two men driving the tank were acquitted by an American military trial, there were massive anti-American protests.  The Korean Justice Ministry had requested that the two men responsible for the deaths be tried in civilian court but were turned down due to the US military’s concern it would set an unwelcome precedent.  Many of these protests occurred outside of US military bases and the US embassy in Seoul, and some even featured firebombs and vandalism.[vii]

Another source of anger has been the cases of rapes and murder committed by US forces in South Korea.  One example is Private. Kenneth L. Markle III, who was arrested for killing and torturing a South Korean bar worker.  When the woman’s body was found, it was desecrated with a coke bottle and an umbrella inserted inside.  This incident caused anti-American riots, and resulted in Private Markle being the first U.S. troop tried in a Korean court instead of a US military court; however U.S. officials later commuted his sentence to 15 years instead of the original life in prison.[viii]

In 2011 there was a spate of high profile crimes that included two rapes and an assault on a 70 year old woman.  In the aftermath of these three events, many South Koreans again called for the American troops to leave the country.  The most notorious of the three cases involved Pfc. Kevin Flippin, who sexually assaulted an 18 year old Korean woman for three hours.  In this case, Flippin was turned over to South Korean courts, and received a ten year sentence for his crimes.[ix]   U.S. officials claim that the rate of crime committed by US forces in Korea is actually low for the number of soldiers present.  These crimes will remain a sensitive issue as long as the US military is based in South Korea, but the United States has shown an increasing willingness to allow South Korean to try American service members for crimes committed off-duty.  The South Korean media has a tendency to exaggerate rates of criminality within the American forces that needlessly causes resentment and damages the alliance, while ignoring U.S. Military attempts to reduce crime, such as imposing curfews on U.S. soldiers stationed in Korea.[x]  While individual barbaric acts should be condemned, and U.S. service members should not receive special judicial treatment, if the alliance is to remain strong they cannot be portrayed as representative of U.S. forces in Korea.


[i] Jacob Poushter, “South Koreans Remain Strongly Pro-American,” Pew Research Center, May 6, 2013.

[ii] Meredith Woo-Cumings, “South Korean Anti-Americanism,” Japan Policy Research Institute, July 2003.

[iii] Bryan R. Gibby, The Will to Win: American Military Advisors in Korea, 1946-1953 (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2012), 18-19.

[iv] Michael Edson Robinson, Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey: A Short History (University of Hawaii Press, 2007), 107-108.

[v] “Flashback: The Kwangju massacre,” BBCNews, May 17, 2000.

[vi] Embassy of the United States, Seoul South Korea, United States Government Statement

on the Events in Kwangju, Republic of Korea, in May 1980 (accessed April 29, 2014); available from

[vii] Howard W. French and Don Kirk, “American Policies and Presence under Fire in South Korea,” The New York Times, December 8, 2002.

[viii] Nadia Y. Kim, Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 73.

[ix] Choe Sang-hun, “South Korea Sentences U.S. Soldier to 10 Years,” The New York Times, November 1, 2011.

[x] Erik Slavin, “S. Korea to review status of forces agreement with U.S.,” Stars and Stripes, October 12, 2011.

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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