Shin Gi-wook is Director of The Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC); Director of the Korean Studies Program; and the Tong Yang, Korea Foundation, and Korea Stanford Alumni Chair of Korean Studies at Stanford University.
In November 2002, five months after a tragic accident in which a U.S. military vehicle ran over two South Korean schoolgirls, Ambassador Thomas Hubbard made an official apology on behalf of President Bush: “Just this morning, the president sent me a message asking me to convey his apologies to the families of the girls, to the government of the Republic of Korea, and to the people of Korea.” A half dozen years later, pressured by vehement public protests against the importation of U.S. beef amid fears of mad cow disease, the four-month old Lee Myung-bak administration—despite contravening an agreement with President Bush—demanded that the United States not export beef to South Korea from cattle more than thirty months old. Concerned by the potential impact on the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance, the Bush administration reluctantly accepted the ROK demand. These two cases clearly illustrate that the U.S.-ROK alliance has evolved from a typical patron-client relationship to a relationship in which South Korea has emerged as a former client now able to make demands on its patron and actually see such demands materialized.
It is important to note that, in both cases, the South Korean media played a key role in shaping policy decisions. At the time of the military accident, the schoolgirl deaths received only secondary coverage; the major news stories were the South Korea-Japan World Cup and the resolution of an accidental clash with the North Korean navy. Soon after, however, the incident aroused a media frenzy that sparked what would be regarded as “the strongest display of anti-Americanism in South Korean history.” South Korea’s newly established progressive online newspaper OhmyNews led the charge, primarily aimed at the United States’ military presence on the peninsula. In the case of the beef protests, the television network MBC brought the issue to the forefront of public awareness by making mad cow disease the focus of one of its prime-time news programs. While several of its claims were disputed, the program’s central theme was a broad accusation that South Korean policymakers had been overly beholden to American demands and had felt compelled to sacrifice a degree of national sovereignty over the domestic market and even potentially harm the health of Korean citizens.
The U.S.-ROK alliance displays contrasting levels of asymmetry in power and attention. As for power asymmetry, without doubt, the United States maintains dominance over South Korea in economic and military terms. However, in terms of attention, especially in media attention to the alliance, South Korea has a clear edge.
According to my recent study One Alliance, Two Lenses: U.S.-Korea Relations in a New Era, the disparity in media coverage of the bilateral relationship is stark. On average, the South Korean newspapers I surveyed published four times as many articles about U.S.-ROK relations as the U.S. newspapers did over the study years (1994-2003). Even more dramatic, my study showed that the South Korean newspapers published fifty-six times more editorials and columns on U.S.-ROK relations than the U.S. newspapers. While the relationship became a major subject of debate in South Korea, it did not receive much attention in the U.S. media beyond mere descriptive coverage.
The disparity in media coverage is apparent in the two aforementioned cases. South Korea’s progressive Hankyoreh and conservative Chosun Ilbo newspapers each published over two hundred articles on the military accident, which in contrast received scant attention in the United States (none of the three U.S. dailies published more than twenty articles). The same disparity is also apparent in the beef protests. My search for the term “Korean beef protest” in the three U.S. dailies yielded counts all under fifty. Conversely, both South Korean newspapers published nearly ten times as many articles as the highest frequency in a U.S. paper. It is not reaching too far to assume that such an attention gap between the two nations exercised some sort of significant influence on the U.S. decisions to concede on both issues.
The different levels of attention to the alliance largely stem from differing national perceptions of the alliance. While the United States plays an important role in ROK security, and seeing American troops stationed on the peninsula is a feature of daily life for many Koreans, the ROK does not guarantee U.S. security, and the alliance rarely touches the lives of average Americans. In its alliance with South Korea, the United States has less risk, but also less opportunity, in the relationship, and therefore media coverage of events affecting the alliance is much less extensive. On the other hand, South Korea has much more at stake in the relationship as a central part of its foreign policy agenda, and so it accords much more attention to the alliance.
The asymmetry in media attention, thus, significantly affects the bilateral relationship. Besides providing readers with factual information on key events and issues, news coverage casts the spotlight of public attention on previously obscure or undisputed issues. Indeed, as David Straub, a senior official at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul during the schoolgirl accident, points out, South Korea is able to frame issues and set the agenda “for the bilateral relationship to a significant degree, despite the United States’ being the more powerful player.” Recognizing the significance of this asymmetrical attention is crucial to analyzing contemporary dynamics within the U.S.-ROK alliance.
More attention, however, does not necessarily mean a more coherent understanding of the issues at stake. While the U.S. media “underplayed” much of the 2002 schoolgirl tragedy and 2008 beef protests, the South Korean media was accused of “exaggerating its risks and opportunities” in both situations. To be sure, there is a great potential of harming the alliance when excessive media attention is ideologically motivated or based on distorted information, which was likely in the South Korean cases. Regardless of media bias, however, the perceived “insensitivity” on the part of the United States resulted in public resentment in South Korea, which eventually forced a U.S. concession.
As such, understanding the U.S.-ROK alliance can no longer be based primarily on a realist analysis of power and security. An asymmetry in media attention to the alliance has altered the terms of reference such that the “power gap” is no longer the defining attribute of the alliance structure. This has added significance in South Korea where the media is a key player in alliance politics, a fact of which U.S. policy makers must be ever sensitive.