How Moon Jae-in rode a wave of violent anti-Americanism from obscurity to power

Like Roh Moo-hyun, the President he served, Moon Jae-in’s ideological origins are found within the leftist lawyers’ group Minbyun (which has since become Pyongyang’s instrument for intimidating North Korean refugees in the South). As lawyers defending left-wing radicals and pro-democracy activists alike against the right-wing dictatorship, Moon and Roh became close friends and law partners in Pusan. Moon went on to become the legal advisor to the Pusan branch of the Korea Teachers’ and Educational Workers’ Union, a radicalized union that would draw controversy for the politicized, anti-American, and often pro-North Korean bias of its members’ instruction. In one case, it was caught using textbooks that borrowed heavily from North Korean texts.

[As political photo ops go, this combines all the appeal of Dukakis-in-a-tank and a Village People USO show.]

But the story of the rise of Moon Jae-in, the man who might be South Korea’s next President, really began with the election of 2002, when Moon managed Roh’s campaign. In many ways, the rise was a remarkable one. Neither man had any national political experience, and what experience they had was hardly predictive of success. (Roh’s only previous run for elected office had ended in defeat.) Roh initially ran on a platform of improving relations with North Korea and cleaning up corruption — an ironic position for a man who would later leap to his death as a bribery scandal closed in on him.

But it was not Roh’s promises of clean government that energized his base; instead, Roh and Moon found victory in tragedy. In June of 2002, the U.S. Army held an exercise near the town of Yangju. It should never have been held in such a heavily populated area. The drivers of the armored vehicles that participated contended with narrow roads, poor visibility, and faulty communications equipment. A series of poor-in-retrospect judgments by young soldiers, none of them criminal, ended horribly, with two 14-year-old girls, Shin Hyo-sun and Shim Mi-seon, crushed under the tracks of a bridge-laying vehicle.

As anyone living in South Korea could see by then — I was nearing the end of my twice-extended, four-year tour with the Army there — anti-Americanism was already rising, and the presence of so many phalanxes of riot police in downtown Seoul made me wonder if this was what Berlin felt like in the late ‘20s. In that politically charged context, false rumors quickly outran the truth. Some newspapers reported that the soldiers had run over the girls intentionally. Former U.S. diplomat and fluent Korean speaker David Straub recalled some Korean media reported that the soldiers stood and laughed over the girls’ crushed bodies. In reality, the soldiers were devastated and traumatized. (I’ve met and spoken with several of the soldiers who were at the scene. One is a close friend and reader.)

It’s difficult to know how many Koreans really believed such spurious rumors, but there was no serious question that this tragedy was an accident. Most Americans viewed that as mitigating, but I’ve since come to realize that this exacerbated the controversy because of the very different ways in which Americans and Koreans respond to accidents — Americans’ first impulses are to regulate and sue; Koreans, whose legal system does not distinguish between torts and crimes, seek to blame and punish. That goes far to explain why everything the Americans said and did only seemed to make matters worse.

“Almost every Korean I speak to says that the verdict should reflect the feelings of the people. We go to great lengths to separate feelings from the law. It is a different concept,” the official said. He also complained that many apologies had been offered, from senior military brass to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who spoke to South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung Hong. “In this case, the Koreans just haven’t been listening,” the official said. [L.A. Times, Barbara Demick]

Amid the rising outrage, Korean prosecutors asked the Army to waive the provision of the Status of Forces agreement that gave it jurisdiction over on-duty incidents and the Army. The Army, no doubt fearing that the proceeding would be unfair, declined. That part of the decision was the correct one. As a South Korean law professor told a reporter, the two soldiers “almost certainly would have been convicted in a South Korean court.”

Instead, because it must have seemed like a good idea at the time, the Army charged the soldiers with negligent homicide at a court-martial. In effect, the Army had heard Koreans’ calls for punishment and mistranslated them as calls for justice. Had I stayed in Korea for another year, it might have fallen to me to defend one of the soldiers in court. Instead, that job fell to others. Of course, any competent Judge Advocate could have predicted that no panel would convict, and any competent diplomat should have predicted how certain elements of Korean society would react to the inevitable acquittal. To compound the error, the case went to trial a month before Korea’s presidential election.

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For Roh and Moon Jae-in, these events were a political godsend. Even the accounts of journalists sympathetic to Roh’s North Korea policy leave little doubt that Roh’s campaign “orchestrated [and] politically cashed in on an anti-establishment movement” that included “bold anti-American rhetoric.” Mike Chinoy wrote that “Roh’s final campaign rallies were marked by renewed pledges to maintain the Sunshine Policy and increasingly sharp anti-American rhetoric, including warnings that a Roh administration would not necessarily side with the United States in the event the crisis led to armed conflict.” Demonstrators chanted Roh’s name and sang that America was “a vulgar country.” 

Roh seemed to be their man. He had been criticizing Bush’s tough approach to the North Korean nuclear threat, preaching reconciliation and dialogue. He promised a policy more independent of American influence, and changes in the treaty governing the legal status of U.S. troops stationed here. While insisting he wasn’t anti-American, he said he wouldn’t “kowtow” to America. [….]

During the campaign, Roh seemed less accommodating toward Washington, speaking of the need for the Korean president to play a “leading role” in the nuclear crisis rather than “unilaterally obeying U.S. policy without criticism.”

“Exerting pressure on North Korea could be very dangerous,” he said then. “Now it’s time for South Korea to take the lead. We should no longer be a passive player manipulated by others. We and the United States have different interests on this issue. The United States’ goal is to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but for us, it can be a matter of life or death.” [Choe Sang-Hun, AP]

The Korea-based reporter Bobby McGill recounted how anti-Americanism even became a cultural fad.

The anger was palpable. While reporting on events for the the San Francisco Chronicle, I cited a Gallup poll that showed 75 percent of Koreans in their 20s said they disliked Americans. Sixty-seven percent in their 30s, along with half of those in their 40s, told Gallup they either “did not like” or “hated” the United States.

Few living on the peninsula at that time were immune to the movement. Businesses around the country banned Americans (and by association, Westerners) from entering, US flags were laid on the ground at university campuses allowing students to walk on them en route to class, and graphic banners of Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun were erected at rallies, as the American military came under increasingly heated scrutiny for what was ubiquitously viewed as an unfair and unjustified handling of their deaths. [Busan Haps]

The occasion for McGill’s recollection was Americans’ discovery that ten years before his ten minutes of fame, Psy had rapped, “Kill those f****** Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives — Kill those f****** Yankees who ordered them to torture, Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and fathers — Kill them all slowly and painfully.” A popular girl band’s video featured “cowboy-booted Americans being beaten up, fed to dogs, and tossed off buildings.” One protest anthem was called “F**king USA.”

The extent of the anti-American sentiments stirred by the case was evident over the weekend at the entrance to a restaurant in downtown Seoul, which posted signs saying, “Not Welcome. The Americans.” Other establishments near university campuses were reported to be similarly barring Americans.

“I thought about putting up a sign reading, ‘Yankee, Go Home,’ but that seemed too harsh,” said Lee Chang Yong, 41, who had put up the “Not Welcome” sign. Lee said he appreciates the presence of U.S. troops in defending South Korea but believes that they behave arrogantly without respect for Korean culture. [L.A. Times, Barbara Demick]

Even before the accident, there had been acts of anti-American violence. In July 2000, a Korean man had stabbed and killed Major David Berry, a doctor and father of five, on a street I’d walked countless times. In February 2002, protesters ransacked the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Seoul, stole $10,000, and posted video  of the incident on the website of a radical group calling itself “Voice of the People.” A poll later showed that nearly half of South Koreans approved.

Soldiers were warned against wearing our uniforms off-post or traveling alone (as a defense attorney representing clients in remote posts, this was an order I could only disregard). By the time my tour in South Korea ended in July of 2002, and just a month after the fatal accident, I had watched anti-American sentiment build for four years (though my affection for Korea, and for one Korean in particular, was still enough that I extended my tour twice anyway). But it is also true that the rhetoric became more violent in the months after the accident and before the election, held on December 19, 2002, and that actual violence was the inevitable result of this rhetoric.

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On September 16th came the kidnapping of Private John Murphy in an incident that was clearly premeditated and instigated by So Kyung-won, “a former legislator who was jailed” for ten years “after going to North Korea without permission.” After his release, So became co-chairman of “a committee focusing on the accident involving the girls.” Murphy and two other soldiers were riding on the Seoul subway when a group of protesters accosted them. So tried to hand Murphy a leaflet, which Murphy refused to accept. The soldiers got off at the next stop, but as they tried to leave, they were ”pulled, punched, kicked and spat upon by demonstrators.” So and his comrades held Murphy until he made a videotaped apology and confession. (Like Moon Jae-in, So had been a leader in the KTEU. He would earn repeated praise in Pyongyang for his role in the kidnapping and other anti-American agitprop.)

On September 27th, ten Koreans threw Molotov cocktails into Camp Red Cloud, near Uijongbu. More firebombings would follow after Sergeants Nino and Walker were acquitted on November 20 and 22. Three days later, 20 people calling themselves “Korean Students Seeking Punishment for the Murderous American Soldiers” gathered outside Camp Gray in Seoul and threw ten Molotov cocktails into the post. The next day, 50 protesters broke into Camp Casey, near Dongducheon, north of Seoul. Two days after that, more Molotov cocktails were thrown into Camp Page, near Chuncheon. That same month, a U.S. Army colonel and his wife went to Kyunghee University to talk to a group of students when a group of radicals surrounded and damaged their car, forcing them to flee. Thankfully, no one was injured in these incidents.

Protests, some of them violent, surged on through December. Four protesters cut the wire fence around a post near Incheon. Outside, 500 activists protested and fought with riot police. On the evening of December 15th, three men attacked, tried to stab, and injured Lieutenant Colonel Steven Boylan, the spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea who had been the Army’s voice throughout that difficult year. There can be little question that the attack was premeditated. On the morning of December 20th, a day after the election, a passing motorist shot an American soldier with a pellet gun outside a U.S. Army post in Seoul. Later that morning, two U.S. soldiers at Seoul Station were assaulted, grabbed by their throats, and spat on while four South Korean soldiers stood by.

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Certainly, nothing Roh or Moon said directly encouraged violence against Americans, but they didn’t discourage it, either. (The historical record from that election season is curiously devoid of any comments by Moon Jae-in, or even any coverage of him or his views.) Still, it seems unlikely that Roh could have won without this energy behind him; even with it, he only eked out a narrow win by just two percentage points.

North Korea “welcome[d] Roh’s victory as a defeat for Washington’s harder line” and said that the result “showed that ‘forces instilling anti-North confrontation … cannot escape a crushing defeat.’” It is fair to say that Roh and Moon were no more responsible for all of this than Donald Trump and Steven Bannon are responsible for the rhetoric of Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos, or for the reaction of their most extreme supporters, but in both cases, the candidates never appealed for an end to the violence or the rhetoric that made it inevitable. Instead, Roh asked, “What’s wrong with being anti-American?”

With the election safely behind him, Roh conceded that it had all gone too far.

“I made various remarks on the campaign trail, but I was just roughly touching upon issues without giving full consideration to the diplomatic and security situations,” he said. “I will consult with people in the government and will make more responsible remarks in the future.” [Choe Sang-Hun, AP]

But this still wasn’t a call for an end to the violence, and the violence was not over. More would follow in the coming years, including violent protests at Camp Humphreys in 2006 that injured 117 policemen and 93 protesters. The violence slowly tapered off as the Sunshine Policy failed to keep its unrealistic promises, as Roh turned out to be another compromised politician, and as North Korea repaid the South’s generosity by sinking one of its warships and shelling a fishing village, killing 50 of its citizens.

Opinions shifted away from the pro-North Korean and anti-American sentiment that dominated in 2002. Today, there is no groundswell to cozy up to Kim Jong-un or kick the Yankees out. Instead, there is the weariness with the industry of politics (see, e.g., America circa 2015) and a combination of anxiety, frustration, and indecision about North Korea (see, e.g., Washington, D.C., circa 2009 to 2015). The spirit of 2002 returned again in 2015, when a pro-North Korean extremist slashed the face of U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert. With delectable irony, Moon warned that “if this incident is politically used … such a move will rather hurt the Seoul-Washington ties.”

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That is how, in a few short years, Moon Jae-in rose from radical obscurity as a lawyer and ideologue to becoming the closest confidant of a president whom former Defense Secretary Robert Gates later described as “anti-American” and “probably a little crazy.” (In his memoirs, Gates wrote that Roh had called the U.S. and Japan the two greatest threats to security in Asia.) After Moon defended Roh in the latter’s 2004 impeachment, Roh made Moon a job as Senior Presidential Secretary for Political Affairs, putting him in charge of communications with the National Assembly and South Korea’s political parties. He later became Roh’s Chief of Staff, the position he held when he asked Pyongyang for its instructions as to how Seoul’s man in New York should vote on a U.N. General Assembly vote to condemn North Korea’s human rights abuses (and subsequently lied about it).

If Moon Jae-in’s history and recent statements are predictive of his world view, the U.S.-Korea alliance is headed for what we might call “a critical stage.” For example, Moon was widely quoted as promising that if elected, he would visit Pyongyang before he visits Washington, though he now claims that statement was taken out of context. Moon still says he plans to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a move that would violate U.N. sanctions and directly undermine the Trump administration’s emerging policy of economic pressure on Pyongyang. Moon has opposed, and repeatedly waffled on, the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system that protects not only South Korean cities, but U.S. forces and their families. Whereas Moon calls Kim Jong-un a ”partner for dialogue,” he sells himself as the leader of a Korea that can “say no the U.S.” You can get the full flavor of Moon’s putative North Korea policy here.

I’m already on record as predicting that these policies bear a high risk of going down very badly with the current U.S. President, who campaigned on demanding that Korea pay more for the cost of U.S. forces in Korea (a demand I would readily support) and whose recent policy review will emphasize economic pressure on Kim Jong-un. As Professor Lee, Bruce Klingner, and I recently argued in the pages of Foreign Affairs, one cannot make a coherent policy of subsidizing and sanctioning the same target at the same time. If you wire $7 billion to the man pointing the nukes at you, you forfeit the argument that sanctions haven’t worked. And potentially, you forfeit much more than that.

Moon now says that if elected, he would “pursue [the] realization of the dream that President Roh Moo-hyun was unable to see completed.” Mr. Moon may well realize the dream of another Korean leader, whether he knows it or not.

8 Comments

  1. That is really shocking. I had no idea that it was so bad. I lived in Seoul from 2008 to 2012, and also met my wife there. I know that there was always an under current of anti-Americanism(which is probably putting it mildly). I got there at the height of the beef protests, and lived just two blocks from Boshin gak. Ironically though, the American beef would be sold out when I went to the market.

    Some of the Anti-Americanism could also stem from Koreans not really having a choice in having the US as an ally. The Japanese wanted to make them and did make them a part of the Japanese Empire. China currently wants to make Korea the newest province. I could understand Koreans wanting to be left alone and not being made other people’s pawns, but we (America) are the best friends that they have got in this world. I would really hate to see them under the sway of the north and/or the PRC.

  2. There are thousands of American soldiers whose lives were sacrificed to make every positive thing that is possible in South Korea today. Moon should be ashamed of himself for forgetting who and what America was to South Korea when Kim Il Sung attacked what he can call today as his country.

    I have no respect for a politician who advocates a policy which he should know if adopted will kill millions of his own people just so that he can have a crown on his head for a couple years.

  3. Your recent stories about Moon JI (going back to the December one noting how his potential election would make for quite the problem for President Trump) have gotten me thinking lately about the US-ROK alliance, and how I’m not sure anymore the fundamental tenets that once girded our relationship even really apply anymore, especially in terms of DPRK escalation.

    Because at some point pretty quick, I think we’re going to have to argue that we can’t save Seoul (and if Moon is still in power, the ROK doesn’t see the need for us to do so) any longer and that we have to start focusing on saving Tokyo and Seattle instead.

  4. It is clear to me Trump, while admitting North Korea threat represents one of his biggest challenges, has no clue as to the history and the current political temperatures in Korea. After pissing off the entire Korea including the DPRK with his “China used to” own Korea non sense, he just basically elected Moon as the next leader of ROK on 5/9/17 by demanding payment for THADD and vowing to cancel or re-negotiate the long standing trade deal.

    When Moon is elected, he will basically take the position of returning THADD back to Washington (thus appeasing Xi Jin Ping, anti-USA groups in ROK but most importantly Kim Jong un) and start his Sunshine 2.0 policy which will have disastrous consequences for innocent victims in Korea, Tokyo and surely the US down the road…

    With regard to our president and his administration, the end justifies the means. If we can still somehow protect our long time strategic allies and eliminate our enemies like Kim in Pyongyang, I am all for good cop, bad cop, and minor insults over historically inaccurate characterizations that we seem to synthesize with Tillerson, Haley, Mattis, et al.

    Seattle first!, no doubt, but make sure Seoul & Tokyo’s interests are protected next….

  5. If Moon wins and initiates rapprochement with the North, I say let’s pack up our bag of marbles and go home.

  6. Is there any hope at all that the people of the ROK will see that he’ll just become another puppet of the North Korean regime and refrain from electing him?

  7. North Korea is no threat to the US, if sk elects Moon then american troops should leave. There is no point helping those who do not want help

  8. The biggest problem with politicians like Moon in South Korea is that they have no clue as to what will actually happen when the proposed sunshine policies are adopted and put to the test now with Kim Jong Un. The fatal belief that Kim will even consider getting rid of his nuclear ambitions is what will create catastrophic consequences for Korea, Japan, and so forth…

    While I agree we have no business helping those delusional countries that spurn us, we also have to face the reality of having a unified Korea (under Kim Jong Un and China) which jeopardizes Japan and our inherent rights to protect the democracy around the world.

    It’s definitely an intense situation that just became more complicated with Trump’s recent verbal diarrhea.

    Trump should tweet – “vote for Moon” to South Korea.. The delusional mass in Seoul will then likely vote for somebody else?

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