I'm not an apologist for American empire, I vehemently disagree with the war in Iraq, and I am one American who supports Kunicich's demand to impeach President George W. Bush, who I believe has completely overstepped his bounds in the executive office and knowingly presented information he knew to be false to the American people in order to justify an unjust war.
I also believe in the rule or law and rationality, but I also value and respect those who believe in God -- and I don't think those things to be in conflict. I also believe that history should be taught with the intent to most closely represent reality as we can piece it together -- not as an exercise in nationalist pride.
As many who read this blog know, I am a critic of unquestioned nationalism, especially in its more kneejerk and jingoistic forms. I can accept a reasonable pride in one's country, but only to the extent that a real patriot should be able to criticize it, just as I can I agree with the metaphorical assertion that "Bin Laden Didn't Blow Up the Projects", and that the Bush administration was criminally negligent in the way it mishandled the Katrina disaster. I know that America has a huge problem with race, for example, or that civil liberties are being threatened in a way they have rarely have been before, even as we are failing to educate much of our nation's children properly.
IT'S NOT JUST "KOREA" -- IT'S ABOUT BEING A RESPONSIBLE THINKER
I say all this because too many people who come here because of a single post critical of Korea don't even bother to see that not only do I criticize this country in certain ways, I apply the EXACT same standards of judgement and theoretical critique to my own society. It's just that I live here right now, and Korea is an object of concern. I already think that I write about the United States here far more often than I should, given the fact that this IS a Korean blog.
Now, on to the link that I think all of you should be reading today. It has to do with the 2002 armored vehicle accident that killed two middle schools here and sparked a national anti-American hate-spasm when the two American soldiers were acquitted after being tried in an American military court, as stipulate under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that exists to protect American troops from prosecution in foreign courts (although SOFA agreements are not unique to the US).
I've written about the incident constantly before, and I realize that this splinter in my mind's eye (thanks, Alan Dean Foster) is the result of the fact that I, as a rational human being, am constantly bothered by not only the way the deaths of two human beings were so heavily politicized and their entire lives' meaning hijacked by radical political groups who never knew them, but also by a largely uncritical thinking public who didn't care at all about them when they actually DIED in the summer of 2002 during the World Cup that was hosted in Seoul, as opposed to when the nation's pride was (apparently) insulted by the acquittal of the two drivers who accidentally killed them -- as they should have been, because they weren't negligent and were operating the vehicle under military duty.
Yet, in the summer of 2002, Koreans were busy clapping their hands and cheering, and nothing was made of the incident until the then-radical groups who are always pushing an anti-American agenda (which is their right) successfully hijacked the incident into nationalist political theater, based almost entirely upon a bed of lies.
And I do mean that -- complete, outright distortions of the truth. And the beginning of the "mad cow" disease had echoes of this, even though it now remains to be seen where the political winds will blow this time.
I remember being shocked, as a good American liberal would be, to hear that the US military hadn't apologized and had refused to pay compensation to the girls' families. This angered me, and had it been true, my position would have been different. Except that the information given to me at the initial rallies where I heard about the incident was utterly false.
Yet it was only when I began to hear and see how extreme the nationalism was getting (leaving the anti-Americanism aside, which actually doesn't anger me, since while I myself don't share the sentiment as an insider trying to change a nation that I know to be good in its core ideals, I can understand some nations' criticism of the US because of our actual behavior) that I realized I needed to look at things with a much bigger helping of salt.
So, as the leftovers from a previous anti-American movement (and that's what that was, no other spin can really be put on it) try to re-inject Miseon and Hyosun into this mad cow debate, I think that the Korean public largely won't buy it, if only because most people have lost interest, while many people have come to recognize that embarrassing nationalist display of pure, unreasoning emotion in the face of pretty clearly-discernible facts for what it was.
THE POINT OF THIS POST
I suggest that you read this very concise and useful post from the ROKDrop, with which I concur on the major factual matters of the case, because I did a lot of research of my own on it, having read 'round the American, British, and Korean sources. In the end, the Korean sources were mostly based on hearsay and rumors, and many of them were blatantly racist (such as the then-popular "antimigun.org", which displayed the most vulgar of racist slurs and even posted pictures of Korean women (no surprise) standing with foreigners or US soldiers on the Internet as a means to intimidate them. Most of the Korean news sources were like this, and were blatantly partial.
Yes, I know about Korean pride and the feelings of inequality in the minutiae of the SOFA, even though the SOFA that Korea has with other countries such as Iraq (where a Korean soldier accidentally killed an Iraqi national and was tried according to Korean law) were and are basically identical. I know that there were military crimes in the past that stick out in the collective memory of the nation. I know all the Korean "pent-up emotion" arguments and sympathize with them somewhat.
Yet, those two men were guilty of nothing more than a traffic accident, horrible as it was. And had they been tried in a Korean domestic court, there would have been no possibility for a fair trial -- the political pressure for their heads would have been too great. THIS IS WHY THE SOFA EXISTS. The rabid demands for their heads on a platter to appease the honor of the Korean nation was itself proof positive that SOFAs are necessary to have between foreign governments. That's also one reason diplomats have immunity, as well.
In the end, the accident was horrible. No one wants to see anyone die. Yet, compensation and apologies were immediately offered by the US military and accepted by the families, the first set of which were given the very next day after the incident, even as official apologies were given by members of the chain of command all the way up to George W. Bush himself, a fact I was shocked to learn, since I had been witness to countless protests demanding compensation and "even a single, simply apology." Who would assume that this was simply an untruth? I guess Hitler was right when he said that the bigger lies are actually easier to fob off than smaller ones.
People at the time asked me, "Don't you care about the lives of two innocent schoolgirls?" Of course I do and did. I taught middle school girls the same age as the two who were killed. I teach high school girls now. I have real human connections with all kinds of Korean people, with the very same kind of students who were killed in that incident. If my very own students had been killed, and it had been believably deemed an accident, my opinion would have been no different. And no, it wouldn't have mattered if they had been Korean or American.
The crux of this issue was a difference between Korean and American law, the former of which can hold someone who kills someone without actual fault in a true accident liable for criminal prosecution, the latter of which does not. If some ajussi falls asleep drunk in the middle of the road and I run over him because I didn't see him, nor could I have been reasonably expected to, in the US I would never be sent to jail. This is exactly what happened to a Korean coworker's friend, who had done nothing wrong. Yet, in Korea, you will ALWAYS assume some legal fault, even if no actual fault is found. And that difference is institutionalized into the culture, and the way of thinking about guilt and compensation itself. It a different in the legal cultures of the two nations in question. That's point one.
Point two has to do with a greater feeling of wanting to change the basic relationship with the US as "big brother" and bucking at the still-extant signs of that relationship, which goes back to when GI's were throwing chocolates out of the back of Jeeps to giggling schoolchildren. Koreans tend to universally hate these memories, and even the visual depiction of them can raise hackles among the younger generation, which has different and newer notions of nationalist pride.
For example, the actual evidence of Americans in the historical memory is erased from schoolbooks through cartoony depictions of soldiers flying a UN flag on tanks with "UN" written on their sides, or through the glaring absence of a single American in a conflict as thoroughly American as the Korean War in the nationalist melodrama that was Taegukki. It's not that I was wanting my own nationalist pride to be assuaged by wanting to see a white face to make the film "legitimate," but come on -- it was the Korean War. Can you actually make a Korean War movie without a single American showing up at all? What about historical accuracy? Even a token for the sake of a feeling of historical authenticity? For that reason alone, a random group of white faces would have been apopos. It's not that hiring Eastern European extras on the cheap to actually PLAY American isn't actually standard practice on Korean television or anything, right?
But I digress.
A CHANCE FOR REAL REFLECTION
In short, the national anger in 2002 was about nearly everything BUT the deaths of the two girls themselves. It was partially informed by the legitimate, pent-up desire to see palpable changes in the paternalistic nature of US-ROK relations; it was shorter-term jingoism as found in the "Fucking USA" song that started with a silly sports call; it was wounded national pride well after the fact of the girls' deaths themselves. It was a lot of things, but it wasn't just about the memories of the girls, especially when the parents of the girls themselves had asked the protesters to stop using their dead daughters' images on signs and slogans, especially the pictures of their disemboweled bodies with one girl's legs splayed lewdly open, where some of her bowels had been pushed out of her anus.
These images truly disgusted me, and not just for their graphic content. It occurred to me that the cheap political theater for which their dead bodies and living memories were being used should be disgusting to ANYONE, regardless of nationality. I had that thought in November 2002, even as the clueless American.
To all the Koreans who asked me, "Don't you care about the lives of two innocent schoolgirls?" I simply wanted to ask "Do you? Did you? Really?" Apparently, all those who carried those signs, their funeral pictures, while lewdly and rudely addressing them in the intimate form, by their first names, did not.
Because the parents had begged the organizers to stop using the funeral and accident site pictures. It was even more sad that all the ranting people in the rallies were so deluded by their kneejerk nationalist pride that they failed to see just what an utterly SELFISH act this had been. In the end, it was about "me" and "we" -- but not really about the girls. When they had actually died, the vast majority of Koreans were too concerned about national pride as it was attached to a black-and-white ball being kicked around a sports field; similarly, the public really only jumped in when the acquittal of the two soldiers became an insult to the nation.
Again, if the protesters we not only unable to see how offensive they were being, but actually had ignored the request of their parents to stop using their images in public, what else was it besides comepletely and utterly selfish? Yet, when I said this to Korean friends at the time, I was treated as if I had slapped them in the face. I quickly learned that to preserve friendships (and perhaps even my physical safety), it was just best to avoid the topic altogether. That is how bad it got. I really, really want Koreans to remember that. Because things are too quickly forgotten here after the thin tin pot cools, as they say.
Advertising companies, of course, understood the power of the symbology of the time, and put together a brilliant (if also insensitive, upon deeper reflection) campaign for a horror movie based on an old Korean tale, but dressed up with the perfect semiotic signs: addressing two dead girls in the familiar first name in exactly the way they had been invoked a year before by the screaming crowds (the movie was being released nearly to the day when the girls were initially killed), their wooden visages done up to resemble a standard Korean funeral portrait, except that the twin black stripes were expressed through their bows instead of actually across their faces, right next to the pictures of their two bloodied bodies, both of which had legs bare and exposed. Sound familiar?
Some will, of course, say I'm over-reading here. I don't think so, obviously. And if only because advertising execs have taken the same semiotics courses I have, and deeply understand the value of subtle symbols in terms of both individual and social psychologies, and are paid big bucks to make sure the economy of an ad's text, pictures, colors, and every detail down to the font type are maximized, it is difficult to think that anything could going out through a campaign as big as this was accidental.
And hey -- they weren't using the girls' images in a fundamentally different way than any of the protesters had. The only difference was that the execs and the movie industry were making a buck off it.
NOTHING'S REALLY CHANGED
In the end, I think if this society valued the memories of the two girls killed in the accident, it would have fixed the cause of the accident. There is barely any sidewalk along the narrow, 2-lane highway the girls traversed on the way to school, and cars still whiz by at breakneck speed; there is no divider, and despite previous residents' complaints, little had been done to prevent something just like this happening in any other parts of that road.
And when an American armored car that had a huge blind spot on the right side came lumbering along it, with the two girls who had been listening to their MP3 player (another fact left out by the Korean press) -- this actually shouldn't be a surprise. It's just extremely bad political luck (or, if you are a Korean NGO, extremely good fortune) that it was an American armored vehicle that time.
In the end, once the clamor finished and all the protesters went home, nothing changed. For all the sake of the "memory" of the two girls, most of that highway is still a major pedestrian route, without a guardrail or sidewalk, which Korean middle schools presumably still walk up and down every day.