To an alternating soundtrack of country and western and hip-hop played at near-ear-bleeding volume, amid empty beer cans and half-finished grilled steaks, a miniature girl is hanging off the arm of a hulking man in a vest. Look around and the scene is repeated everywhere in the room: waifs, sometimes nervous, sometimes complacent, caught in a sweaty embrace that suggests ancient stills from Godzilla. The girls are South Korean and the men, nearly all of them, American. This is inner-city Seoul; or, to be specific, Itaewon, the prime hang-out spot for the American GI in South Korea.
Over the past half-century, this smallish area just north of the river Hangang has been utterly transformed, to the extent that it has long since ceased to bear any relation to the rest of Seoul. This can be explained by the proximity of the country’s two largest US army camps. Each evening, the massed ranks of soldiers are allowed, briefly, into the downtown area: to dance and flirt in bars specifically catering for a western clientele; to salute the US flag at midnight in one of the dozens of ersatz jazz bars; to drink the local soju (firewater); and to have their groins stroked by Korean women – up until an early curfew, which adds urgency to their scrambling efforts.
But this way of expatriate life, which for 20 years has formed and embedded itself in Seoul like a tapeworm, is now threatened. The uncertainty is over whether these soldiers will be shifted elsewhere, in line with America’s more pressing global concerns.
There are two factors underpinning this threat of displacement. First, America’s putative reason for its continued military presence in South Korea – to safeguard the country from the partitioned North – is beginning to lose plausibility. Though North Korea remains an unpredictable quantity, the possibility of a direct military confrontation seems remote. And if confrontation were to develop, it seems unlikely that US infantry could offer much resistance: rather, a depleted North would cash in its one remaining card – the nuclear one.
The other factor extends beyond South Korea and includes US troops all over the world: it is the all-consuming problem of Iraq. With the deteriorating security situation there, America’s sorely stretched military resources need reinforcement not only from the US mainland, but also from existing bases elsewhere. Last August, George W Bush announced plans for a major redeployment of US military interests over the coming decade: 30,000 soldiers are due to be phased out of service in Germany; a further 13,000 will leave South Korea. While the timetable for pulling out has been extended to 2008, 5,000 troops had left Korea by the end of 2004 to shore up the counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq. The scaling down of America’s presence is a striking illustration of the superpower’s shifting global priorities.
I finally meet an American sober enough to hold his own in a conversation. Dan, an officer based at Camp Casey, has served in South Korea for nearly two years. Can he understand, from scenes such as this (to my left, a table has just been smashed), how the natives might develop a view of incoming US troops that is, shall we say, less than positive? “Oh, absolutely, but what you have got to understand is the mentality of the guys posted out here. I’m probably not your representative specimen – I mean, I was college- educated. But some of these kids out here have come from tiny, backwater towns. For many, this is the first time that they’ve seen temptation on such a scale. They haven’t been allowed to drink before,” says Dan, gesturing at a pitcher on our table, “haven’t seen girls – certainly not the sort of girls you get here – before. They’ve never been in a city as huge as Seoul before.”
I ask Dan whether he feels the average soldier under his command displays any interest in the culture around him. “Some of them. The majority, no. I have a few guys around me who begin to show an interest in some of the history, get to explore the place a little. But if they feel cut off from what’s going on in their own country, how are they going to make sense of so different and alien a place as this?”
Have the recent destabilisation in Iraq and the prospect of redeployment affected troop morale in a tangible way? “For me, as much as the newer guys – all of us have someone we know who’s got the letter [requesting their repositioning in Iraq]. All of us, or anyhow the sane ones among us, fear that same letter landing in our mailbox in the morning. I would class it as a severely disruptive influence.
“Take me as a case in point. I had a practical reason for serving, just as most guys here did: I needed to find a way of paying for my further study; I want to do an MA. Spending four years of your life in a place like this isn’t too much time to give up, plus you get to experience a totally different culture.” Iraq, however, would be different: “To be frank, I’m looking into ways of getting out of the situation right now.” And with that, he rounds up the troops in his division and bids me farewell, in order to be home in time for the curfew at 11pm.
Watching the Korean bartenders sweep up the shattered glass, spilt drinks and blackened leftovers, I ponder another set of questions. What does the average South Korean truly feel about the American guests? And what would be his or her reaction if these long-settled guests departed one day?
In my time in South Korea, I have been struck repeatedly by the vehemence of anti-US feeling. This vehemence is mingled with a residual yet understandable ambivalence, due largely to the presence of the US in the South following the 1950-53 Korean war, which left the country divided and in ruins. None the less, anti-Americanism has been growing steadily, stoked by the geopolitical ambitions of the current administration in Washington. This antipathy came to a head in 2002, when two rural South Korean schoolgirls, on their way to a birthday party, were crushed to death by a tank that was part of a US military convoy. Under a long-standing bilateral agreement between Washington and Seoul, the US legal system has jurisdiction over the country’s troops stationed in South Korea; the two US soldiers involved in the incident were acquitted after appearing before a military tribunal. A wave of civil protests erupted.
Although the demonstrations fizzled out eventually, a significant undercurrent of hostility remains. What rankles in particular is the perception of South Korea as a client state, supporting US global strategic aims. After the US and Britain, it sent the largest number of troops to Iraq and was one of the few nations to respond with a significant number of reinforcements in 2004. The miraculous (albeit slowing) economic strides made by South Korea over the past four decades, under America’s stewardship, certify it as a counter-example to the proclaimed “axis of evil”: constructive dialogue with the US has enabled it to overcome economic hardships once shared with other nations in the region.
When I attend a first screening of Fahrenheit 9/11 in Seoul, the auditorium is full, and the atmosphere is somewhere between indignation and vindication. Following the screening, I ask a South Korean acquaintance, Miki Kim, for her perspective on her country’s feelings towards the US. “You have to remember,” she says, “that for us America’s presence can be much more intrusive, in an obvious way. If we see an American man over here to try to find himself a wife, and a South Korean woman with him, we can find that disrespectful. Certainly, many South Korean men get quite upset when they see a couple like this together. But these sorts of things are separate from the bigger concerns.”
Having studied in England for eight years, Miki feels that her country’s approach towards the US is occasionally exaggerated or contradictory. “There was a very low level of public support for sending more troops to Iraq. While the country was being rebuilt, we welcomed the Americans. Now it is harder to see how their presence helps us, and they expect more from us. I think the majority feels it is time that they left us.”
And herein lies the rub. The forthcoming departure of US troops may be welcomed in Seoul, and is certainly an opportunity for South Koreans to begin shaping their country’s future. But it must also be recognised that the varying degrees of America’s superintendence of South Korea have defined to a large extent both the standards of its society and the constraints on it, and have also, more recently, provided a convenient target for Korean unrest, which has often distracted attention from more pressing issues.
Take, for example, the discharge of the two soldiers involved in the tank accident. Although native Koreans are quite justified in bemoaning the lack of legal transparency, or any redress on this occasion, the South Korean judiciary is itself unreformed and lacks balance and accountability. This country, which has delighted American onlookers with the rate of its economic development, is at the same time politically embryonic and riddled with corruption at all levels. An old-fashioned social democrat might argue that this is the inevitable price of any breakneck pursuit of capitalism. Nevertheless, it is stretching credulity to say that the US is entirely responsible for this; and in the lead-up to the withdrawal of US troops, South Korea will have to prove to the world – and, just as importantly, to itself – that it can conceive and follow a course of its own.
For the US troops waiting to hear if they are leaving, there is uncertainty. For South Korea, that uncertainty could be an opportunity to define itself as an independent nation and address its own past. In so doing, it can at least refute the accusation by the North Korean premier, Kim Jong-il, that it is a puppet of the Americans.